Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, speaks at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank Group Annual Meetings in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

Inside the Government-Run War Room Fighting Indonesian Fake News

(Bloomberg) -- Indonesia has established an army of engineers aimed at containing the spread of hoaxes and fake news ahead of the presidential election next year.

More than 187 million people are expected to cast their votes when the country goes to the polls on April 17. With six months of campaigning left, a deluge of political and social narratives -- true and false -- are being distributed to shape voters’ views.

In an attempt to stem that flow, Indonesia’s Ministry of Communications has established a ‘war room,’ where a surveillance team of 70 engineers monitor social media traffic and other online platforms 24 hours a day. When Bloomberg visited on Wednesday, more than a dozen engineers were keeping a close eye on posts about an incident in West Java on Oct. 22, in which a flag bearing an Islamic creed was burned, prompting outrage across the country.

“As long as what they do is against the law of ITE, we take action,” Communications Minister Rudiantara said in an interview, referring to the Information and Electronic Transactions Law. “Everyday we find new things, everyday we find new threats.”

‘Under Attack’

Rudiantara said there is evidence President Joko Widodo continues to be targeted by false claims aimed at discrediting him. “There is an indication of patterns happening again and again,” he said, without citing specific examples due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“Every minute, every second, this country is under attack,” he said, adding he uses his phone to monitor such events in real time. “Some are direct attacks by other countries and sometimes it’s one country using another country as a proxy.”

The ministry has also launched a dedicated website where people can report news they suspect is false and find out if particular claims are true.

It’s the latest Asian country seeking to counteract the flood of fake news in an era when messages delivered to smartphones over platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have become as trusted as articles from traditional media sources. In the run up to May elections in Malaysia, the government of former leader Najib Razak introduced a fake news law that was used to probe his chief opponent Mahathir Mohamad, who’s now the prime minister. On Sept. 20 in Singapore, a parliamentary select committee recommended the introduction of strong new laws to disrupt the spread of fake news.

Hoax Concerns

A survey conducted by Lingkaran Survei Indonesia in mid-October revealed 75 percent of people are worried about the rising trend of hoaxes, while 74.5 percent want fake news to be purged from social media.

Authorities have been cracking down and have arrested people in cities across the country. Several months ago, they clamped down on members of the Muslim Cyber Army, a loosely-organized group that spread false claims about the rise of a communist party and assaults on Islamic clerics.

Among the most high profile arrests was Ratna Sarumpaet, previously part of the opposition Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno campaign team. They are challenging incumbent Widodo and his running mate Ma’ruf Amin in the election. Sarumpaet is accused of spreading fake news about being assaulted, which led Subianto to demand the government investigate her attack.

Police have also investigated Amien Rais, the patron of the National Mandate Party, which supports Subianto, over the same case.

Still, combating fake news "may require a decade to improve literacy levels,” the minister Rudiantara said, adding that foreign governments have tried to influence elections in other countries. “It’s a risk that I have to deal with,” he said.

Social Media

The government sees Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp -- the four most-used apps by Indonesians -- as key to stamping out fake news.

And while there will be penalties for companies that do not comply, he said the government is also committed to community education.

“If we only focus on the downstream or the companies, without educating the people or raising their awareness, this will make the country a repressive country.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.