Tue, Apr 16, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Battle over ‘fake news’ as election looms

By Fanny Potkin and Agustinus Beo da Costa  /  Reuters, JAKARTA

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.

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