On October 6th, 2016 a video was uploaded to Facebook. Accompanied with the headline “AN ACT OF BLASPHEMY” the thirty-second clip depicted Gubernatorial Candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama delivering a campaign speech. In the video (as well as the included transcript) Purnama is seen insulting the Quran, declaring Muslims opposing his election as being “fooled by [the Quran passage] Surah Al-Maedah:51.”
It did not take long for the post to go viral, evoking outrage throughout the population of Indonesia–88 percent of which identifies as Muslim–and the world at large. Anger grew into unrest, and unrest led to mobilization. On December 2nd, 2016, over 200,000 people took to the streets in the capital city of Jakarta, petitioning for the arrest and detainment of Purnama. The Indonesian government was called to action and soon enough, Purnama (also known by his Hakka Chinese nickname “Ahok”) was put on trial for blasphemy.
Yet, a quick Google search reveals the original Facebook post to be false. The posts’ cited quotes and video proof are nothing more than garbled portions of Ahok’s original speech, taken out of context and reordered to appear inflammatory. Ahok did not discredit the Quran. He did, however, warn voters not to be tricked by efforts to use a contested interpretation of the passage in question in order to mobilize an opposition against him–a cruel case of irony given the nature in which Ahok’s speech went viral.
If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that the Internet, like all power, is neutral, possessing the ability to do both harm and good. Information evokes reaction, and in a network built on the prominence of viral sensations--where rapid-fire sharing is the norm–information anywhere can evoke reactions everywhere. This is both exhilarating and dangerous; in the Internet Age, anyone can make an impact with the right words, but needless to say, the “right” words are not always true.
As shown by the ordeal of Ahok, the Internet is strikingly vulnerable to those who use false information to incite action. Once a piece of information has gone viral, it’s virtually impossible to contain it’s spread. Furthermore, when a mass of people all say the same thing, it is only human nature to believe in the validity of the common opinion: we tend to think that everyone cannot possibly all be wrong, and that fact checking popular forms of entertainment like memes would take all of the fun out of them. Also, considering that the most viral emotion is anger, posts that are tailored to incite aggression are the most likely to be shared.
All of this culminates in an information superhighway that does not screen, where posts are designed purely to trigger harmful mass action and false information is disseminated as widely as valid truth.
In the age of the digital social movement, how do we combat those who use this power of the Internet maliciously? How do we react to the spread of false information? These are the kind of questions that governments like that of Indonesia must grapple with.
The rise of fake news within Indonesia is the combined result of both a cultural and developmental divide. While the Indonesian economy has grown steadily over the last few years, so has the disparity in wealth between its poorest and most prosperous classes (with the nation's Gini coefficient rising from 0.3 in 2000 to 0.4 in 2015). In a time dominated by a rising tide of global populism, this wealth gap has allowed for the development of an anti-elite sentiment. Also, increasing Internet usage in Southeast Asia has provided a perfect outlet for the expression of popular attitudes by creating both, an arena where the elite can be attacked both publicly and anonymously, as well as a network of fresh users who are new to sifting through digital falsehoods.
Culturally, it’s worth noting that, Chinese Indonesians have historically been conflated with “the elite” within Southeast Asia. From the 1970 statistic that cited Chinese Indonesians (while being 3% of the country’s population at that time) as being in control of 70 percent of the nation’s economy, to the modern prominence of Chinese billionaires within the Indonesian state, the Indo-Chinese have frequently been associated with wealth in the Indonesian society.
As such, the rise of fake stories within the country has mirrored a growing populist sentiment among its populace, with the majority of the false articles aiming to slander Chinese and elite subjects. Ahok, for example, is a prime target, given his status as a Chinese Christian in a position of institutional power. Other false stories have included allegations that millions of Chinese workers had emigrated to the Indonesian state in order to replace native laborers as well as claims that (after finding harmful bacteria in chilies raised by Chinese farmers) the Chinese government had begun to wage biological warfare on the Indonesian people. The latter story actually attracted the attention of the Chinese Embassy in Indonesia, which labeled the claim as “very worrying” and questioned the implications of these stories on the “bilateral relations and friendship between the people of China and Indonesia”.
With false news now attracting global attention–and possibly affecting international relationships–the Indonesian government has been faced with increased pressure to get this information crisis under control. In November, the Indonesian Communication and Information Ministry blocked 11 websites classified as spreading hostility based on ethnicity, race, religion and other societal classifications (SARA). Furthermore, in January government officials announced the establishment of a national agency which would serve to monitor local news and combat stories that were "slanderous, fake, misleading and spread hate." In describing the motivation behind the new agency, Chief Security Minister Wiranto has stated that "Freedom [of speech] is a right in a democracy but there is also an obligation to obey the law”.
Such policies aren’t unique to Indonesia. Recently, Facebook, in response to criticisms that their failure to properly monitor fake news has contributed to a growing cultural divide in the United States, has partnered with fact-checking organizations in order to verify stories that appear on users’ newsfeeds. Facebook users will now have the option to flag posts as fake news, and posts that receive a certain number of flags will be referred to one of the partner organizations. While not completely censored, sufficiently contested articles, will include a “disputed” tag, notifying users of their questionable validity.
While seemingly effective, the strategy utilized by both Facebook and Indonesia is not without shortcomings. For example, the concept of an organization dedicated to determining the validity of information, possessing the authority to either block access to targeted information or at least publicly decry it, is vaguely Orwellian, and risks sanctioning oppressive moral censorship for the sake of protection of the truth. This not only raises concern about free speech and the suppression of information but also about personal privacy. As expressed by, Indonesian Internet expert Nukman Luthfie, "It would be really unfortunate if it [the agency] was going to be used to monitor public discussions because that's people's right.”
Furthermore, it is difficult to guarantee that the verification of information will be purely objective. In a country as religiously homogenous as Indonesia, fears that accesses to information may be allowed or denied according to moral or religious standards are not unfounded (as seen in the country’s temporary block of the popular social networking site Tumblr because it featured LGBT-related content). The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the national body that presides over state-islam relations, has already questioned the government’s classification of SARA websites, claiming that Islamic websites may have been unfairly targeted. As stated by MUI Deputy Chairman Zainut Tauhid Saadi , "Why did [the ministry] turn a blind eye and not block sites belonging to other religions that similarly spread radicalism, provocative messages and anti-pluralist sentiments?". Organizations like the MUI have further criticized the Indonesian government for blocking SARA websites without formal court decisions or orders.
Yet there are alternatives to the Jakarta strategy, as many other nations have combated their respective information crises in different ways. German Officials are preparing to introduce policy which would fine Facebook up to EUR$500,000 for not removing posts designated as fake news within 24 hours. The law would also hold Facebook responsible for compensating individuals, adversely affected by viral fake stories or posts. On the other hand, in December 2016, President Ziman of the Czech Republic announced the creation of a National Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats, which would counter fake stories through a public rebuttal utilizing a state-sponsored twitter account. President Ziman has been very vocal about distancing the new policy from censorship, stating, “I would not want the Ministry of Interior to be modern book burners”
Lastly, the onus of regulating fake news doesn't have to fall squarely on the state. Most countries and the even the United Nations have instituted anti-defamation laws, and in his article, “The Line Between Free Speech and Fake News,” bioethics professor Peter Singer offers the use of civil suits as a means to prevent the spread of false information. While this practice may help reduce the concern of state interference with free speech, Singer concedes that civil defamation lawsuits are effective only against those who have the assets to pay whatever damages are awarded” and one might add that civil defamation suits are only an option for those who can spare the time and money it takes to sue.
With no apparent solution in sight, the rapidly developing Indonesia–as well as the rest of the globe—still struggles to grapple with fake news crisis. How do we, as global citizens, reconcile popular attitudes about censorship, with the necessity of truth? Even now, as we wage this debate, and parts of the developing world begin to log on to the digital network, this information crisis steadily grows.
A November 2016 protest of Ahok’s speech left an estimated 240 individuals injured in Jakarta. As of January 2017, Ahok himself is still on trial–all while managing his re-election campaign–and may face jail time if convicted. As such, the potential of fake news to cause both public and personal harm is both clear and prominent. If left unchecked these ill-effects will only continue to grow. Thus, in order to guarantee the wellbeing of its citizens in the Internet age, the global community must find some solution to the fake news crisis–a solution that both effectively ensures public safety through verification of viral information and protects personal freedom of expression against the threat of censorship.