Fri, Mar 16, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Indonesia combats surge in fake news, hate speech

POLICE CRACKDOWN:Groups that aim to destabilize the government and create conflict are a real concern, because the nation has such poor digital literacy rates

AFP, JAKARTA

Indonesian cybercrime police display a suspect accused of spreading fake news and online hate speech in Jakarta, Indonesia, on March 8.

Photo: AFP

Indonesia is battling a wave of fake news and online hate speech ahead of next year’s presidential elections, as a string of arrests underscore fears it could crack open social and religious fault lines in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

The pluralist nation’s reputation as a bastion of tolerance has been tested in recent months, as conservative groups exploit social media to spread lies and target minorities.

Police have cracked down, rounding up members of the Muslim Cyber Army (MCA), a cluster of loosely connected groups accused of using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to attack the government and stoke religious extremism.

Two of the group’s most high-profile falsehoods were claims that dozens of Islamic clerics had been assaulted by leftists and that Indonesia’s outlawed communist party was on the rise, police said.

Communism — and its hallmark atheist beliefs — remains a taboo subject in Indonesia, where bloody purges under the Suharto dictatorship in the mid-1960s killed half a million suspected leftists.

Indonesian National Police head of social affairs Gatot Eddy Pramono has said the group wants to destabilize the government and “create social conflict.”

Although the Southeast Asian nation has seen Internet hoaxes before — including smear campaigns against Indonesian President Joko Widodo during the 2014 presidential elections — the latest clampdown reflects authorities’ mounting unease about their possible effect on election campaigning.

Indonesia is to hold simultaneous regional elections in June, ahead of a presidential ballot next year.

Last month, the communications ministry announced it was deploying new software to identify fake news Web sites, while Widodo — who has battled false Internet claims that he is a communist — inaugurated a new cybersecurity agency in January.

Indonesia’s trouble with Internet hoaxes and misinformation campaigns reached fever pitch in the lead-up to elections in Jakarta in late 2016 and early last year, with then-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama bearing the brunt of it.

Purnama — the city’s first Christian and ethnically Chinese leader — was lambasted by Islamic hardliners after an edited video appeared to show him insulting the Koran.

The allegations drew hundreds of thousands of conservative Muslims onto the streets of Jakarta in major protests and led to the once-popular Purnama — an ally of Widodo — being jailed for blasphemy after losing the election to a Muslim challenger.

The Muslim Cyber Army played a pivotal role in disseminating content attacking Purnama and non-Muslims.

“MCA was organizing and agitating with this case,” said Savic Ali, director of the media department at Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest moderate Muslim organization. “There was a clear sentiment about religion in many of its accounts.”

The group has at least four ideologically driven clusters that spread inflammatory material with the help of bots — software programs that run repetitive tasks — or by hacking into opponents’ online accounts, said Damar Juniarto, Indonesia coordinator for digital rights group SafeNet.

One cluster pushes radical Islam and the establishment of a caliphate, while others support conservative political and military figures opposed to Widodo.

“They pose a threat to the national election in 2019,” Juniarto said. “What they want to do now, in 2018, is copy what happened in Jakarta in other parts of the country.”

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