What moves faster than light?

A hoax on social media.

A recent piece in the Jakarta Globe titled “Online Black Campaigns — the New ‘Divide et Impera‘” highlights a greater need to curb fake news sites aimed at spreading hoaxes and lies that could potentially divide the nation. In a country where (as of 2015) around 70 million people have social media accounts and are constantly plugged into the network, the dissemination of fake news and misinformation is a phenomenon that’s already snowballed into one tremendous problem. Add in charged and polarizing political tensions, and you’ve got yourself a problematic cocktail.

It wasn’t always like this. Back in the New Order, there was only one television channel (TVRI) and no internet. Everything came from one source, the military-backed government. However, as the internet came along, we’ve seen a spike in fake news and hoaxes. It started to become apparent in 2014, during the presidential election. In what was perhaps the most polarized elections Indonesia had ever seen, social media was rife with misinformation, hoaxes, and fake news. Some of them outright silly, such as accusations of Jokowi’s religiosity (he’s a Muslim, which seems to matter a lot in Indonesia); while others were downright false, such as (again) Jokowi’s Chinese lineage. Out of the 2014 elections, a number of “figures” emerged from the brouhaha of social media disinformation. One of them,

However, as the internet came along, we’ve seen a spike in fake news and hoaxes. It started to become apparent in 2014, during the presidential election. In what was perhaps the most polarized elections Indonesia had ever seen, social media was rife with misinformation, hoaxes, and fake news. Some of them outright silly, such as accusations of Jokowi’s religiosity (he’s a Muslim, which seems to matter a lot in Indonesia); while others were downright false, such as (again) Jokowi’s Chinese lineage.

Out of the 2014 elections, a number of “figures” emerged from the brouhaha of social media disinformation. One of the more prominent ones, Jonru Ginting, narcissistically brands himself as a “social media activist” and a preacher of truth. Websites that, at a glance seem journalistic but are not, have also mushroomed, such as the notorious Postmetro (not to be confused with Malaysia-based Post Metro), Portal Piyungan, seword, and IslamNKRI. These websites seem to be journalistic websites, yet they lack journalistic standards. In their practice, they publish opinion pieces from external parties and reward these external parties based on the amount of clicks or hits. This practice then encourages writers to manipulate aspects of the story (headlines, content, etc.) so it may garner the maximum amount of clicks. One common practice is to write headlines that trigger anger, hatred, or even sadness.

Other websites have come and went due to the simplicity in getting a website up and running. According to the Information Minister, Rudiantara, it is estimated that there are around 800,000 websites that are spreading fake news. Similarly, social media accounts and fan pages are also numerous and hard to track. It’s even easier to start up a new social media account and gain followers.

The government has called for an increased effort to curb the spread of hoaxes and fake news. One of the measures that have been carried out was a ban on several websites thought to be purveyors of misinformation. However, such bans are not effective. Several of the sites on the list have bypassed the ban simply by switching domains. Also, the act of banning websites is often associated with New Order practices of clamping down on freedom of speech, which further galvanizes the writers of fake news and hoaxes.

Another measure was to revise Indonesia’s IT law. In October 2016, the Parliament decided to revise Law no. 11/2008 regarding Information and Electronic Transactions (also known as the “IT law”). Seven points were revised, but some of the salient points were:

  • Adding a clause allowing the right to be forgotten.
  • Reducing fines and jail time for defamation cases: from 6 to 4 years, and from 1 billion IDR to 750 million.
  • Increasing the government’s authority to prevent the dissemination of negative content on the internet (Clause 40).

Whether or not the revised IT law will be effective is a matter of time, but it has already been criticised as being potentially silencing. Increasing the government’s authority on the Internet may lead to an Orwellian nightmare, especially when there are no clear standards as to what defamation may be, especially when it is related to religion. The ongoing trial of Basuki Purnama is evidence of the elastic rule of law, where the gubernatorial candidate is currently facing trial for allegedly insulting Islam.

Institutional measures may seem flimsy, but that is only a piece of the puzzle. Another important piece is the design of social media itself. While it has been exhibited that social media can drive change, even revolutionary political change, such as in the Arab Spring, the very design of social media also enables users to entrap themselves in their own echo chambers. As eloquently spoken by Wael Ghonim, the “block” feature on social media makes us trapped in our own echo chambers, accommodating only our confirmation biases, and shuts own dissenting voices.

This effect becomes even more powerful when things get political. As exhibited in the 2014 elections (and even the Hillary-Trump elections), on social media, logical scrutiny and reason seem to fall apart when it comes to supporting their candidate. This situation is capitalised by purveyors of fake news, who reportedly can earn up to IDR 30 million per month. To put that in perspective, the average middle-class Jakartan makes around IDR 4-5 million per month doing an honest day of work.

While institutional efforts and the very design of social media play a role, ultimately, it comes back to the individual and their capability to sift the worms from the mud. However, seeing the majority of social media users in Indonesia and the vulnerabilities of human biases, the future looks hopeless. It comes down to us, as individuals, to get down and dirty, to start countering fake news anytime, anywhere we find it.


 

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