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‘Fake News’ Remains a Problem in Indonesia

A protester raises his fist during an anti-communism rally outside the office of Legal Aid Institute early Sept. 18, 2017. A mob opposed to public discussion of Indonesia's 1965 massacre of communists tried to force its way into the building where they believed communists were meeting, injuring five policemen.

Months after a heated Jakarta election that gave rise to false online rumors, fake news remains a major problem in Indonesia. Last month, police arrested three leaders of an organized fake news syndicate known as Saracen. Fake news also played a role in anti-Communist protests that shut down two recent events in Jakarta related to mass killings in 1965.

On both Saturday and Sunday last weekend, protesters disrupted events at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH). The institute stated that hoaxes about the nature of the programming — a seminar with 1965 survivors, and then a community event with poetry and music — spurred those who demonstrated outside LBH.

“Clearly hoaxes or false news have been broadcast, propaganda based on false accusations has been voiced, and instructions for attacking LBH have been spread systematically and extensively on the premise that this is a Communist Party event, that there would be genjer-genjer [Communist propaganda folk songs], etc. … when there was nothing like that at all,” wrote LBH, in a press release.

It is still unclear who exactly was behind the LBH hoaxes.


According to the National Police, Saracen accepted orders from political parties and candidates to make defamatory online content to the tune of 75 million to 100 million Indonesian rupiah, or about $5,650 to $7,540, per month. Police also claim the group operates 800,000 social media accounts that broadcast what they call “hate speech,” according to the Jakarta Post.

The current administration has good reason to target fake news in the lull between major elections. More than one-fifth of all fake news circulating during the Jakarta gubernatorial election was directly related to politics, according to Indonesia’s Network of Anti-Hoax Journalists. Even the widely circulated video of the previous governor’s supposed utterance of blasphemy, which led to his election loss and eventual imprisonment, was a piece of fake news doctored by a local university professor.

Current President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was also the target of fake news about his religion and ethnicity during his 2014 campaign.

Indonesia’s top security minister Wiranto told reporters last month that the National Police are looking into the “structure and motives” of Saracen. Mohammad Fadil Imran, the police director for cybercrimes, said the group was “well structured” and coordinated across different locations.

Police use a water cannon to disperse a crowd gathered outside the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation during an anti-communist protest in Jakarta, Indonesia, early Sept. 18, 2017. Antara Foto/Muhammad Adimaja/ via Reuters
Police use a water cannon to disperse a crowd gathered outside the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation during an anti-communist protest in Jakarta, Indonesia, early Sept. 18, 2017. Antara Foto/Muhammad Adimaja/ via Reuters

LBH protests

Fake news about the nature of community events at LBH incited protesters over the weekend, according to both LBH and the Jakarta police. In Indonesia, the allegation of Communist sympathies or activities remains highly sensitive, as Communism was outlawed in 1966 after the military dictator Suharto took power.

“About 10 days before the event, a draft outline of the seminar was circulating on the internet, captioned as a Communist Party event,” said Reza Muharam, a volunteer with the International People’s Tribunal to review human rights violations from the mass killings. “So there was conditioning to paint us, the human rights defenders who focus on the impunity of the 1965 killings, as Communist Party members ourselves.”

Several attendees were trapped inside LBH until late Sunday night, before being evacuated to the Human Rights Commission.

“We are prepared for some disturbance whenever we discuss 1965,” said Bedjo Untung, a 64-year-old survivor who was tortured by the military for his student activism and spent years as a fugitive. He was a scheduled attendee at Saturday’s seminar and spoke on stage Sunday. “It hasn’t stopped us from speaking out, yet.”

Jakarta Police said they tried to explain to the mob of protesters that there were no Communist activities taking place inside, but the unruly crowd could not be deterred.

Unclear impact

The fake news ecosystem is diverse and constantly repopulating, so the impact of targeting one actor, even if it’s a so-called syndicate like Saracen, is unclear.

“Saracen is only one hate speech organization with hate business as their M.O., but some other groups still exist,” said Damar Juniarto, of the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network. “I heard Martinus Sitompul of the National Police say on national television that after Saracen was captured, hate speech was down 30 percent. But after I asked him personally, it turned out there was no data to support his statement. He just said that to answer journalists’ questions. So I am quite sure that hate speech did not actually decrease.”

Additionally, fake newsmakers come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“The impact of the Saracen crackdown is only to reduce government opposition, but not hoaxes themselves, which are produced not only by government opposition but also by government and Jokowi supporters,” said Heru Sutadi, of the ICT Institute.