Indonesia wages war on fake news ahead of election next year

Indonesian cyber crime police displaying a suspect accused of spreading fake news and online hate speech in Jakarta on March 8, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA • Indonesia is battling a wave of fake news and online hate speech ahead of next year's presidential election, as a string of arrests underscores fears that it could crack open social and religious fault lines in the world's largest Muslim-majority country.

The pluralist nation's reputation as a bastion of tolerance has been tested in recent months, as conservative groups exploit social media to spread lies and target minorities.

Police have launched a crackdown, rounding up members of the Muslim Cyber Army (MCA), a cluster of loosely connected groups accused of using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to attack the government and stoke religious extremism, reported Agence France-Presse.

Two of the group's most high-profile falsehoods were claims that dozens of Islamic clerics had been assaulted by leftists and that Indonesia's outlawed communist party was on the rise, according to police.

Mr Gatot Eddy Pramono, the National Police's head of social affairs, has said the group wants to destabilise the government and "create social conflict".

Indonesia will hold simultaneous regional elections in June, ahead of a presidential ballot next year.

Last month, the Communications Ministry announced that it was deploying new software to identify fake news websites, while President Joko Widodo - who has battled false Internet claims that he is a communist - inaugurated a new cyber-security agency in January.

The problem reached fever pitch in the lead-up to elections in Jakarta in late 2016 and early last year, with then Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama bearing the brunt of it.

Mr Basuki - the city's first Christian and ethnic Chinese leader - was lambasted by Islamic hardliners after an edited video appeared to show him insulting the Quran.

The allegations sparked major protests in Jakarta and led to the once-popular governor - an ally of Mr Joko - being jailed for blasphemy after losing the election to a Muslim challenger.

The MCA played a pivotal role in disseminating content attacking Basuki and non-Muslims. "What they want to do now, in 2018, is copy what happened in Jakarta in other parts of the country," said Mr Damar Juniarto, Indonesia's coordinator for digital rights group Safenet.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, senators debated a Bill filed last month that seeks to prohibit government officials and employees from sharing and spreading false information. Senator Grace Poe said the measure to amend the Code of Conduct for public officials is aimed at holding them to "a higher standard".

The Philippine President's spokesman Harry Roque, however, said yesterday during the final Senate hearing on fake news that the proposed measure would violate the officials' right to free speech.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2018, with the headline Indonesia wages war on fake news ahead of election next year. Subscribe