SINGAPORE: Falsehoods are created and spread online in Indonesia for economic and political reasons with no regard for the consequences, said the founder and chairman of Mafindo, an anti-hoax community, on Friday (Mar 16).
Mr Septiaji Eko Nugroho said in a country with low literacy levels like Indonesia, this situation is “quite worrying”, adding that the spread of falsehoods has taken a toll.
Citing some examples in his oral and written representations to the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, Mr Nugroho said a mob in North Sumatra destroyed several holy places in 2016, acting on disinformation spread through chat apps.
In 2017, in West Kalimantan, a father who was sending rice to his children was beaten to death by a mob that suspected him of being a child kidnapper. At the time, false information on “massive” child kidnapping was being spread in the country through social media and chat apps.
People have died after following false procedures for their health issues found on the Internet and social media, he said.
Financial losses have also been reported from Ponzi schemes online, with the Authority of Financial Services in Indonesia reporting the loss of tens of trillion rupiahs, he added.
In reply to a question from committee member Sun Xueling during his oral representation, Mr Nugroho said the disinformation does not only affect the lowly-educated but also highly-educated people in Indonesia.
“The consequences of the falsehoods online can be similar from Indonesia to Singapore society,” he said in his written representation.
MONEY, POLITICS MOTIVATIONS BEHIND DISINFORMATION
Mr Nugroho said money is one motivation behind the spread of disinformation, citing a confession video he was shown on a live television show last year.
The man in the video was behind several “rogue” websites and claimed he collected 300 million rupiah (S$29,000) to 500 million rupiah monthly from ads on his websites, he said.
“He confessed that he doesn’t care about the nature of the information on his websites, as long as he can clickbait the people, he would produce any information including the falsehoods,” he said.
Some political powers or ideological groups in the country also try to influence people on social media through disinformation, Mr Nugroho said, citing the arrest of a group called Saracen last year, which was paid to spread political and ideological disinformation.
“Social media and chat apps are becoming the major place of public opinion debate, even more than on the mainstream media,” he said.
PEOPLE SPREADING FALSEHOODS LOCAL, HIGHLY EDUCATED
Mr Nugroho said those engaged in disinformation activities Indonesia are locals, with the language barrier as a possible reason for foreigners not doing so.
These people are also highly educated and holding a “good job”, citing a report from an expert witness for the Indonesian police in their investigations into several disinformation cases, Mr Nugroho said.
While the country's low literacy makes it easy for misinformation to spread, there are other contributing factors. He pointed to the polarisation among people with different ethnicities, religions and political affiliations.
INDONESIA WORKING TO CONTAIN FALSEHOODS
Several efforts are being undertaken to tackle deliberate online falsehoods in Indonesia. These include mandating the registration of prepaid mobile SIM cards, upgrading the hardware infrastructure of the Ministry of Communication and Information, and adding systems to filter negative content.
The Indonesian government has also initiated a national digital literacy movement called Siberkreasi, which Mafindo is part of, Mr Nugroho said.
Indonesia also has a law prohibiting the creation and sharing of fake information, he added. The Indonesian Police have, to date, caught more than 20 suspects for this.
The police also conduct “cyber patrol” with “cyber troops”, he added.
Mafindo is part of the ecosystem to combat online falsehood with several initiatives of its own, including fact-checking.
Since August 2017, Mafindo has had six full-time fact-checkers and one programmer working on debunking falsehoods and publishing the results on their website.
“This website also acts as the central database of misinformation and disinformation in Bahasa (Indonesia),” Mr Nugroho said.
The organisation even has created a custom Google search engine, Mr Nugroho said.
The "clean" search engine can be accessed through an app launched in February this year. The app has since been downloaded a few thousands of times, he said.
"We only list sites that, in Indonesia, are legitimate, for example, mainstream media that are listed in the Press Council," he added.
With more than 170 cities and provinces holding their elections this year, and Indonesia’ general and presidential elections coming up next year, Mafindo is initiating Hoax Crisis Centre in three provinces - Central Java, West Java and West Kalimantan.
People could get clarifications on issues and seek facts in disputed information at these crisis centre, Mr Nugroho said.
“We will gather the stakeholders, the government, the police, the election supervisory board, netizens and bloggers, community and religious leaders, academics to form an anti-hoax ecosystem, so that we could beat any online falsehoods in a quicker and efficient fashion,” he said.
Given that low literacy is a major contributing factor behind the spread of disinformation, Mr Nugroho said Mafindo also engages significantly in digital literacy education.
“We have our volunteers at 15 cities to enter the schools, the mosque, the church, to deliver the message how to be more wise and responsible when using social media, and how to avoid falsehoods and how to detect them,“ he said.