Jakarta threatens to ban Facebook over fake news

Warning comes as country gears up for presidential polls next year

JAKARTA • An Indonesian minister has threatened to shut down Facebook if there is any evidence the personal data of citizens is being harvested or the social media giant fails to crack down on "fake news" during upcoming elections.

Amid the continuing fallout over revelations that the data of 50 million Facebook users was obtained by a firm that helped Mr Donald Trump's presidential campaign, there is growing fear in Indonesia that its own presidential race could be corrupted.

With the contest set to kick off within months, Communications Minister Rudiantara has voiced concerns that individuals or groups could use social media platforms to try and influence the outcome.

"If I have to shut them down, then I will do it," Mr Rudiantara said last Friday, noting Indonesia had earlier blocked the messaging app, Telegram. "I did it. I have no hesitation to do it again."

The warning extends beyond Facebook to other platforms including Twitter, Alphabet's Google, which owns YouTube, and a host of other social media companies.

Both Twitter and Google have previously agreed to work with the government to monitor content.

Facebook has said it is committed to protecting people's information, preventing abuse and giving users more control over their data. It is rolling out initiatives around election integrity, it said in an e-mail.

Twitter would not comment on the Indonesian government's initiatives. Google did not immediately responded to requests for comment.

A country of 260 million people and South-east Asia's largest economy, Indonesia is a prolific user of social media and boasts more than 115 million Facebook users.

Mr Rudiantara's warning comes amid a crackdown in Indonesia on the use of social media to publish fake news and hate speech. Both Malaysia and Singapore unveiled plans to tackle fake news last month.

The minister said he had contacted Facebook representatives in Indonesia to seek assurances that no Indonesian user's data was among the cache harvested by Cambridge Analytica. Facebook indicated it would respond this week.

Along with other social media platforms that fail to comply with a 2016 decree on the protection of personal information, Facebook could face severe penalties, said Mr Rudiantara, who like many Indonesians uses one name.

Facebook employees could face up to 12 years in jail and a fine of up to 12 billion rupiah (S$1.1 million), he said.

The comments came as President Joko Widodo is set to seek re-election in a campaign that begins in September ahead of the first round of voting in April next year.

Mr Joko is himself an avid user of social media with almost 10 million Twitter followers. He has also been the target of hoaxes, including having to fend off claims that he is a communist.

Mr Rudiantara said he is worried about the potential for domestic and external forces using personal information obtained via social media to target individual voters in Indonesia's elections. He is also concerned about the use of social media to spread fake news as a way of exerting influence over the electorate, as it is alleged Russia did in the 2016 US polls.

"I have to watch out, whether it's internal from within the country or outside of the country. But the most important thing is we have to look at controls for platforms."

Social media was already being used to spread fake news and influence the elections, he said, citing a post on Twitter that claimed he and Mr Joko had conspired with Chinese President Xi Jinping to win the next election. Mr Rudiantara denies the claim.

The minister said he has a simple message for Facebook and other social media companies: "If you are not able to manage your platform to support the stability of Indonesia that means your intention to be in Indonesia is not for business, it's for something else."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2018, with the headline 'Jakarta threatens to ban Facebook over fake news'. Print Edition | Subscribe