Inside Indonesia’s ‘fake news’ war room, fighting political hoaxes in election season
JAKARTA: For a facility named the War Room, it is awfully quiet and calm. It’s where a team of young Indonesians troll the web for the fake and flagrant.
Most of them work in silence as they cycle through pages of pornography, illegal gambling websites and social media posts, hour after hour in a seemingly endless effort to purge Indonesia’s internet of its misleading vices.
“It’s more like a situation room,” laughs Riko Rahmada, the head of content control infrastructure at the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MICT).
“What we’re doing every day is verifications on negative content and everything against the law,” he said.
That is a broad remit in a country that has tight controls on explicit content. There are 100 staff working in shifts 24 hours a day to hold a rising tide of content deemed inappropriate by the government.
Indonesia currently has blacklisted close to a million websites, according to Riko. It is a war after all.
As the nation approaches the presidential election on Apr 17, the ministry’s team has seen an exponential increase in online trickery. Riko says they have seen a 30 per cent spike in politically-related hoaxes this year.
Much of this content is aimed to shock, divide and deceive. It is sophisticated and convincing and both sides of politics carry responsibility for it.
In the race to the top, both sides have been willing to go low, while maintaining plausible deniability of falsehoods being spread to a country with a renowned love for social media.
“Many misleading hoaxes that come in the political year are quite sensitive and we need to make sure that people get the right information so they can make the right choice in the election,” Riko said.
An investigation by Reuters this year showed both major political camps were paying shadow operatives to produce slanted content, often attacking opponents with misleading or fabricated information. It was a report rejected on all sides.
There have been many examples of false information going viral during this campaign and being fanned by supporters of both President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and rival candidate Prabowo Subianto. Claims and rumours have damaged them both, including erroneous suggestions that Jokowi is a Christian or a communist, or that Prabowo would abolish the military or promote polygamy.
Facebook has enormous influence in Indonesia with more than 130 million users; it is one of the social media giant’s largest markets in the world. And its platforms, including WhatsApp and Instagram, have been fertile ground for the spread of misinformation. As a result, Indonesia has become a key focus for the company.
On Apr 12, it announced it had removed 234 accounts “for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior”.
“This is an addition to a similar announcement in January, when we disrupted a network of accounts that were linked to the Saracen Group, and removed them from the platform,” a Facebook spokesperson told CNA.
“We are focused on protecting elections while also making sure people have a voice in the political process.”
Facebook has teamed up with several local media partners and government agencies to cooperate amid rising concerns about fake news. It has also temporarily disallowed electoral ads purchased from outside Indonesia ahead of the election.
But, like criticism it has received around the world, others at the coalface of Internet monitoring believe more needs to be done.
Harry Sufhemi is the co-founder of Mafindo, a community-led NGO that relies on the public to take down fake news. He has only five fact checking staff but leads 60,000 online members to tackle hundreds of different potential hoax campaigns.
He says he is overwhelmed by the amount of misleading content that needs to be debunked.
“I’m actually losing sleep over this. This is very serious stuff. In other countries like USA, Mexico, Brazil and Nigeria there are lots of horror stories about hoax campaigns by malicious actors. We are trying to prevent that in Indonesia,” he said.
“Democracy is an informed decision. If you destroy the information then you cannot choose properly. This hoax information is destroying our democracy.”
Mafindo runs with a doctrine to “defend, detect and counter”, and at its core, it wants to ensure civilians are armed with the awareness and tools to stave off the deceptions of hoax producers.
Sufhemi does not want the government to have to pursue “heavy handed” tactics like blocking and censorship, nor does the organisation want to have to track down the underground perpetrators themselves.
“It’s similar to the drugs problem. You can keep catching the producer but as long as there’s a consumer, more producers will keep popping up,” he said. “When we eliminate the consumer, the producer will go away automatically.
“We are arming the people.”
Hoax “buzzers”, as they become known, are the natural enemy of these fact checkers. They have created an entire industry out of generating weaponised content, and Sufhemi says money is a greater lure than ideology.
It is up to authorities to try and stem these mercenaries, but in the meantime the propaganda battle continues, under a tense atmosphere days before the country votes.
Faith in the electoral process and unity of the nation are at stake.
At the MICT war room, round-the-clock shift workers, mostly young people constantly exposed to difficult and confronting material, are doing their duty. “We are still catching up with the negative content being produced all over the Internet. It’s a race you know,” Riko said.
“I think we are doing everything we can to prevent things from going chaotic. I know we are having an impact. Small news can become big when it gets political.”