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Indonesian president Joko Widodo is greeted by a sea of smartphones in Jakarta on Tuesday. Fake news is proliferating online ahead of April elections. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Fake news spikes in Indonesia ahead of elections

Dozens of posts containing disinformation spread, with fears people may not trust results of a legitimate election

WT24 Desk

The spread of fake news and disinformation has spiked in Indonesia in recent months, weeks before millions are scheduled to vote in the country’s elections, The Guardian reports.

Data released in a new report from Mafindo, an organisation focused on combating fake news and improving digital literacy, shows that political fake news and disinformation shot up by 61% between December 2018 and January this year.

Of 109 problematic items identified this January, 58 were political in nature, with the latest Mafindo data from February further indicating an increasing escalation. In December there were 88 items of fake news, of which 36 were political in nature.

Among the most perturbing signs, says Mafindo’s Septiaji Eko Nugroho, is the targeting not only of political candidates but also electoral institutions“Some of the misinformation and disinformation is actually targeting the election process, trying to delegitimise it, which could be very dangerous,” Nugroho told the Guardian. “If the election process is disputed then whoever is the winner, people may tend not to trust the results and it could be chaos.”

Ahead of simultaneous presidential and legislative elections scheduled for 17 April, rumours that millions of marked ballot papers being stored at a Jakarta port went viral.

In the world’s third-largest democracy and a country that is among the top five users of Facebook and Twitter, fake news has been used to deepen existing social, ethnic and religious divisions – a polarisation of identity politics for political gain.Advertisement

During the last presidential election, in 2014, the electability of now-president Joko Widodo was significantly affected by a smear campaign that alleged he was both a communist and Chinese.

In recent months the Indonesian government has embarked on a campaign to fight hoax and fake news, some of which it says targeted the president.

Yet Mafindo’s data showed the fake news phenomenon has affected both ends of the political spectrum.

According to the Mafindo report released on Saturday, throughout 2018 the incumbent was the biggest target of fake news, accounting for 28.98%, while 20.85% was directed at his opponent, Prabowo Subianto.

Of social media platforms analysed, disinformation was predominately spread on Facebook, which accounted for about 45% of all fake news shared. The data also indicated a trend of increasing sophistication, with more video content being circulated.

Nugroho warned that the number of fake news items did not necessarily tell the full story, with some stories gaining more traction than others.

Fake news related to identity politics, including religion and ethnicity, has proven difficult to entirely debunk. A new poll by Saiful Mujani Research Center (SMRC) showed that 6% of the population still believe Jokowi is a member of the Indonesian Communist party.

Yet disinformation campaigns appear to be having a less potent effect on the electorate this year if the polls are anything to go by, with Widodo for months maintaining a steady 20-point lead on his opponent in most credible election surveys.

Ross Tapsell, a lecturer from the Australian National University, told a discussion at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta last week that political divisions artificially amplified online might not be an accurate representation of the reality on the ground, yet still posed a risk.

“Social media discourse makes us all perceive polarisation as greater than it really is,” he argued, “and politicians are encouraging this, and I think this is bad for democracy,” he said.

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