How Indonesia Beat the Misinformation Scourge (For Now)

Pressland Editors
Jun 13, 2019 · 6 min read

Everyone expected misinformation to warp the country’s recent presidential election. It didn’t. Has the archipelago nation cracked a code?

Unsafe information warning: 22 Indonesian news outlets staffed a media crisis center to head off viral hoaxes.

By Nithin Coca

Last month, Indonesia’s incumbent president, Joko Widodo, known as “Jokowi,” won re-election by a margin of nearly 10 percent over his challenger, Prabowo Subianto. The result itself was not a surprise, as Jokowi had maintained a healthy lead from the start. What surprised observers was how the final result reflected polling numbers that had remained stable. Indeed, the polls barely shifted throughout the year-long campaign. For Jokowi’s government, this constituted a double victory — one over his opponent, and another against a rising tide of disinformation in Indonesian politics.

To understand the significance of this, you have to go back to the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial election, when the politician known as Ahok, a double minority Chinese-Christian Indonesian, was up for re-election. He was popular, and held an approval rating of 66 percent a year before election day. But a massive disinformation campaign, focused on his ethnic and religious identity and spread through viral videos, social media, and disreputable online media outlets, led to his downfall in a shocking defeat. While his opponent, Anies Baswedan, distanced himself from the worst of the rumors, he attended mass rallies organized by right-wing Islamists and benefited heavily from the disinformation effort.

Ahok’s surprise defeat in 2016 suggested a similar campaign would be waged against Jokowi in 2019. The incumbent president’s challenger, Prabowo, was a close ally of the politician who took down Ahok. Jokowi had even gotten a preview of what to expect in 2014, when he was the subject of memes alleging that he was Christian (he’s not) and a member of the long-banned Indonesia Communist Party (he was four years old when it was disbanded). Five years ago, social media penetration was still relatively low in Indonesia. But the current availability of cheap smartphones has changed the way Indonesians access information and news. There was every reason to expect misinformation to play a large role in deciding the 2019 election.

But it didn’t.

It’s not because no one tried. There were a lot of mis-informative memes going around, including some that gained traction. They were effectively countered, however, by a multi-pronged counter-misinformation effort conducted by the Indonesian government, the media, and civil society. A month before the election, polls found that while many voters had seen viral hoaxes and examples of misinformation, few believed them. “Fake news and misinformation campaigns target[ed] both [candidates] and also democratic institutions,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But I’m not sure there’s evidence these campaigns had a demonstrable effect on the election.”

The counter-misinformation effort spanned a wide gamut, from controversial measures that expanded the state’s ability to monitor and arrest purveyors of misinformation online, to the creation of national “fake news” bulletins and a well-staffed anti-hoax rapid response center.

The media and civil society also created something new and innovative: CekFakta, a collaborative fact-checking initiative that allowed newsrooms to share resources and respond to hoaxes before they went viral. Launched in late 2018, CekFakta currently includes 22 of Indonesia’s most respected media outlets, including the largest national newspaper, Kompas, well-regarded investigative journalism outlets, television stations, and several regional publications. It is a diverse coalition with goals beyond the recent election cycle.

“Some of the newsrooms have business owners, or are politically affiliated, so having this coalition shows that we are, together, more neutral, so people can start to trust the mainstream media again,” said Astudestra Ajengrastri, a Jakarta-based fellow with the International Center for Journalists, who worked with CekFakta and an investigative outlet, Tempo.

There were challenges, of course. Bringing so many different newsrooms together, along with their varying levels of skills, formats, and editorial standards, was not easy. A particular challenge was building the capacity and agility to keep up with the glut of disinformation, identify false stories quickly, and debunk them before they gain traction online.

“Not everybody has the same capabilities,” said Ajengrastri. “Most of the newsrooms still find it hard to spot misinformation that is circulating online. They have to do it manually, or they would spot misinformation when it was already viral.”

CekFakta operated under a consensus model; no particular outlet or partner had power over others. While they operated a common website, each publication also had their own distribution systems, so that reporting about disinformation and debunkinghoaxes could reach as wide an audience as possible. This created some challenges, though, as each publication often chose to debunk the same piece of misinformation in their own way.

“Since we are different newsrooms, we have a lot of differences in formats from an editorial standpoint,” said Ajengrastri. “For example, Kompas doesn’t [editorialize], they just put out the data, which is different than Tempo. Those kind of differences, on one joint website, become confusing.”

Despite this, it worked. CekFakta got its articles, posts, and fact-checks mentioned across the media. Helping with this effort was the Mafindo Indonesian Anti-Hoax Society, a civil society organization. It started as a Facebook group and evolved into an NGO, founded and mostly staffed by professionals with technology backgrounds. Mafindo provided support for CekFakta, particularly around high-profile events such as Presidential debates, and created tools to track the spread of misinformation on what they called “dark social” platforms, namely Whatsapp and Telegram.

“A few months ago, we [set up] a contact center called Kalimasada, where the general public could report hoaxes through Whatsapp,” said Aribowo Sasmito, one of the co-founders of Mafindo. They have received over 2,000 inquiries through the digital tip linethus far.

For Mafindo and CekFakta, the biggest challenge was not their debunking work, but ensuring that their articles and social media posts reached as far and wide as the viral misinformation they were countering.

“It’s a classic problem,” said Sasmito. “A hoax can get ten thousand shares, and the clarification is lucky to get 1,000 shares.”

That is improving. CekFakta achieved rapid growth in web traffic, social media followers, and shares. During the election, the group worked with Facebook and Google, and it hopes to work with more technology platforms to improve distribution over time. “This collaboration will [continue] to exist with more structure,” said Ajengrastri.

While the lessened impact of disinformation during the pre-election campaign period was welcome, the aftermath shows that Indonesia is far from out of the woods. After polls closed, viral rumors began to circulate that the Election Commission’s servers had been hacked, along with unverified allegations of rampant vote stuffing and fake ballots. Fake stories about the election being stolen sparked riots in Jakarta on May 20, shortly after the final results were announced, killing eight people. In response, the government slowed down the speed of social media sites.

The post-election violence highlighted the limits of efforts like CekFakta. Sasmito believes that the key to ending the threat of misinformation is through more media literacy training and offline engagement, so that a better-educated public is involved in fact checking and debunking at the point of consumption.

“In the post-truth era, we all have to be literate and not spread hoaxes,” said Sasmito. “No matter how clear the clarification we provide, or how good the fact check, it is up to the people to decide to accept it or not.”

Nithin Coca is a journalist based part-time in Northern California, Japan, and Indonesia, focusing on social and economic issues across Asia. Find him on Twitter at @excinit

Production DetailsV. 1.0.2
Last edited: June 12, 2019
Author: Nithin Coca
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Photo by yoga yobek on Unsplash

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