Armed with laptops, three dozen journalists and fact-checkers braced for battle before a live debate between Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his challenger, Prabowo Subianto.
With two giant screens displaying television network feeds in front of them, the keyboard warriors split into six groups, each responsible for fact-checking a segment of the debate.
For nearly three hours, their eyes barely left their screens as they attempted to verify candidates’ comments in real time: allegations about corruption, statistics on the country’s Muslim population, boasts and even personal anecdotes.
They and other fact-checkers are fighting a running battle against “fake news” and propaganda ahead of an election tomorrow in the world’s third-biggest democracy.
Election monitors are worried that the flow of misinformation stoking ethnic and religious divides could undermine electoral bodies and even raise social tensions.
The Cekfakta (“checkfacts” in Indonesian) initiative brings together non-profit, fact-checking organization Mafindo and 24 news organizations that normally compete fiercely with each other during election campaigns.
“There’s a watchdog now in operation,” Cekfakta cofounder Wahyu Dhyatmika, editor-in-chief of news Web site Tempo.co, told reporters. “As a candidate, you cannot throw claims into the air... We will fact-check them.”
Backed financially by Google News Lab, which also helps fund Mafindo, Cekfakta’s volunteers took over the US tech giant’s swanky Jakarta office for the debate on March 30.
Dhyatmika wanted to avoid a repeat of the 2014 election, also between Widodo and retired general Prabowo, when reporters were unprepared for the flood of false news reports that swept across social media.
The fact checkers’ adversaries, fake news peddlers, sit at screens too, pumping out misinformation disguised as fact that often exploits ethnic or religious divides.
“We’re in a war for content ... people are doing anything they want,” said one fake news creator, who has written stories depicting Indonesian officials as paid off by Beijing.
The person declined to be identified because such work is illegal.
Indonesia’s population of 269 million has a youthful median age of just over 30 years, according to the World Population Review.
With more than 100 million accounts, the country is Facebook’s third-largest market and a top-five market globally for its WhatsApp and Instagram platforms, as well as rival Twitter.
Fake news in Indonesia can rack up thousands of views in hours, despite laws against creating and spreading such content.
Mafindo’s head of fact-checking, Aribowo Sasmito, compares it to the drug trade.
“There are the factories, the dealers and the victims. Most of the people who end up arrested are victims... They read hoaxes and believed them to be true,” Sasmito said.
Since December last year, Mafindo has documented a surge in political fake news using ethnicity and religion to target both candidates.
The organization finds most worrisome the dozens of stories that paint electoral bodies as corrupt. This will be only Indonesia’s fourth democratic presidential election.
Sasmito considers it a good result if fact-checked posts can reach even a small fraction of the audience the originals did.
Mafindo’s work has made it some enemies. The group has received enough threats that it keeps its office address secret; Cefakta’s Web site was hacked after a previous debate.
A Reuters investigation last month found that the Prabowo and Widodo campaigns were funding sophisticated social media operations to spread propaganda and disinformation through fake accounts on behalf of the candidates.
Both campaigns said they did not use such teams.
One journalist said he was hired by Prabowo campaign advisers to write positive stories about Prabawo and negative ones on Widodo, to be posted on Facebook and WhatsApp.
He said he was not motivated by money, but believes the mainstream media is biased in favor of Widodo.
Fearing government retaliation, the man declined to be named, but he showed reporters communications that suggested he was he in contact with Prabowo advisers.
He said he wrote only “true” negative stories, and cited as an example a post that 2,000 Chinese workers on Sulawesi island were secretly part of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
“We have evidence from government contacts and we can see they are soldiers from the way they look,” he said, declining to share such evidence.
Prabowo campaign spokesman Andre Rosiadi denied that any advisers had hired journalists to write “positive or negative content” and “especially not fake news.”
Asked about the Sulawesi allegation, a spokeswoman for the Chinese embassy in Indonesia replied to reporters in a text: “Fake news.”
However, such claims also make it onto the campaign trail.
A Prabowo campaign volunteer in West Java last week told reporters that millions of Chinese workers had been secretly relocated to Sulawesi.
“It’s not hoax, it’s fact,” volunteer Cecep Abdul Halim said.
Reuters found that the creator of the Sulawesi claim had also written stories in 2016 falsely depicting then-Jakarta governor Basuki Tjaha Purnama as a communist stooge of China.
Purnama, a Christian ethnic-Chinese Indonesian ally of Widodo, recently completed a two-year prison sentence for blasphemy against Islam based on a video doctored to make him seem he was insulting the Koran.
The man convicted of making the video, a former journalist, worked for Prabowo’s media team until he was sent to prison last month.
A campaign spokesman confirmed he had worked for the media team, but did not comment further.
Social media data gathered by Mafindo as well as Indonesian big-data consultancy Drone Emprit shows that allegations using China as a bogeyman are widespread in Indonesia, where suspicions about the wealth of the ethnic-Chinese community and the influence of Beijing run deep.
A disproven video that went viral in January claimed to show seven shipping containers from China at Jakarta’s port filled with millions of ballots punctured in favor of Widodo.
Common misinformation themes against Widodo portray him alternatively as a member of the banned Communist Party of Indonesia, a Chinese plant or anti-Islam.
Prabowo has been depicted as both impious and planning to create a caliphate, while his running mate has been portrayed inaccurately as gay.
All are inflammatory accusations in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, which rights groups say recently has seen increased prejudice against religious and LGBT minorities.
The stories work. Although Widodo enjoys a double-digit lead over Prabowo, three surveys found that a minority of the population believes that he is either a communist or a Christian.
According to a poll in December last year, as many as 42 percent of Prabowo supporters believed this about Widodo, while 65 percent of Widodo supporters believed Prabowo kidnapped democracy activists while in the military, a claim he strenuously denies.
Experts say such polarization is dangerous for Indonesia and could stoke anger against minorities.
“This kind of fake news gains traction because they’re the seeds of intolerance in our society and it’s not being addressed,” Dhyatmika said.
Additional reporting by Yerica Lai
An outrageous dismissal of the exemplary Taiwanese fight against COVID-19 has been perpetrated by the EU. There is no excuse. I presume that everyone who reads the Taipei Times knows that the EU has excluded Taiwan from its so-called “safe list,” which permits citizens unhindered travel to and from the countries of the EU. As the EU does not feel that it needs to explain the character of this exclusive list, perhaps we should examine it ourselves in some detail. There are 14 nations on the list that have been chosen as safe countries of origin and safe countries of destination for
Filmmakers in Taiwan used to struggle when it came to telling a story that could resonate internationally. Things started to change when the 2017 drama series The Teenage Psychic (通靈少女), a collaboration between HBO Asia and Taiwanese Public Television Service (PTS), became a huge hit not just locally, but also internationally. The coming-of-age story was adapted from the 2013 PTS-produced short film The Busy Young Psychic (神算). Entirely filmed in Taiwan, the Mandarin-language series even made it on HBO’s streaming platforms in the US. It is proof that a well-told Taiwanese story can absolutely win the hearts and minds of hard-to-please
Drugged with sedatives, handcuffed and wearing a bright orange prison tunic, British fraud investigator and former journalist Peter Humphrey was escorted by warders into an interrogation room filled with reporters, locked inside a steel cage and fastened to a metal “tiger chair.” Humphrey recalls: “I was completely surrounded by officers, dazed, manacled and with cameras pointing at me through the bars. I was fighting for my life like a caged animal. It was horrifying.” Footage from the interrogation was later artfully edited to give the appearance of a confession and broadcast on Chinese state media. While this might sound like an
The US House of Representatives on July 1 passed by unanimous consent a bipartisan bill that would penalize Chinese officials who implement Beijing’s new national security legislation in Hong Kong, as well as banks that do business with them. The following day, the US Senate unanimously passed the bill, which was later sent to the White House, where it awaits US President Donald Trump’s signature. The bill does not spell out what the sanctions would look like and Trump has yet to sign it into law, but Reuters on Thursday last week reported that five major Chinese state lenders are considering