From Elections to COVID-Pandemic: How Indonesian Media are Combating False Information

Health and political misinformation/disinformation in Indonesia is difficult to verify because of the complex and overlapping problems: massive and organized hoaxes, anti-science public attitudes, involvement of buzzers, public divisions and fanaticism.

A hoax about corona-medication has caused death in Indonesia. In April, five people living in Jakarta died after consuming mixed liquors which was believed to be a coronavirus drug or antibody. It’s not the only case. As health misinformation increases, many political and religious-related hoaxes have been circulating on social media, especially since the new corona pandemic broke out in Wuhan, China. More than 500 pieces of false information have been found on 1 200 online platforms, according to the Ministryof Information and Communication.

Coronavirus misinformation spreads because of anti-science attitudes of some citizens, officials and politicians. The coordinator of Crisis and Disaster Journalists (JKB)  Ahmad Arif says, the anti-science denial narrative has been built since the first Indonesian corona case was found in March. For example, some officials have spread the rumors that the coronavirus would be automatically killed by sunlight and it won’t be dangerous for tropical countries like Indonesia. Corona sufferers will also be able to recover by themselves without treatment.

Some right-wing leaders refer to the Coronavirus as God’s army to punish China for their alleged unfair attack on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. When the local government banned worshipping in holy places because of the potential transmission of the virus, some influencers spread images of worship that still occurs in Turkey - not affected by corona problem. This means they can continue any mass recitations. However\, ignorance turned into fear when many people who attended the mass-recitation in Malaysia had been infected by COVID-19\, including some Indonesian and Singaporean visitors.

In Indonesia - one of the most populous democratic countries in the world, information disorder is a real problem and dealing with misinformation/disinformation is difficult. Cases during the pandemic are only a small part of the complex problems of false news in a country that has suffered since the past six years, right after the 2014 presidential election which widely divided the population politically. However, the segregation between pro-govt’ and anti-govt’ groups continued until the pandemic came – from confronting the pros-cons of lockdown policies to other essential issues.

A source in Tempo Magazine - one of the leading media in Indonesia - shared hisexperiences on how the fact-checking team has doubled its efforts to combat this misinformation. “Dissemination of misinformation/disinformation is massive and systematic through many platforms,” said Ika Ningtyas, Tempo fact checker. Tempo has been an active part with their over 100 fact-checks in Corona Virus Facts Alliance, which is managed by International Fact-Checking Network IFCN.

Back in the election time, Ika adds, hoaxes were usually circulated to various WhatsApp groups before being uploaded to untrustworthy sites, converted to videos, and then spread to social media by bots and “buzzers” (local term for paid influence or, users with a large number of followers who regularly post contents to persuade or influence people’s opinions). These posts were later amplified by fanatical supporters. “It’s like deliberately scheduled and circulated on many channels and platforms as if everything was set up,” she told.

However, the role of the buzzers (or influencers) is an interesting topic to discuss. The research of the Center for Innovation Policy and Governance (CPIG) reveals how this ‘propaganda business’ works in Indonesia – mostly handled by communication agents, like in other countries. These agents play an important role as intermediaries bridging buzzers (both individuals with a large number of social media followers, or, teams) to clients, deciding on costs, and even, ‘breeding’ bots or buzzers to build public opinion that is sure to benefit clients - generally companies, political parties or figures. 

Aside from the corporations’ need for buzzers to promote their products, most politicians usually take advantage of political buzzers to increase their popularity and get more votes to win elections - which sometimes divide people or, at a worse level, damage democracy.

Though the political situation is messed by far rights politicians as is the case in Europe, hoaxes in Indonesia are far more complicated due to the political cleavage and the involvement of buzzers (or cyber army according CPIG) who often provoke conflict on social media, two serious problems not appearing too much in Europe. This complicated situation often causes fact-checkers being vulnerable to be “attacked” by both hostile groups on social media, especially if the fact-check results are not favorable to the candidate or supported figures. 

For many Indonesians, social media feeds – especially Twitter, Facebook and Youtube – have now turned into powerful tools for getting information – and unfortunately, also hoax and propaganda. Referring to The Wearesocial Hootsuite research, the number of social media users in Indonesia has jumped to 150 million in 2019 – or 56 percent of the total population. Although the level of internet usage is very high, it’s not yet the same as reading habits which are still low in rank 74 according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey. This situation is exacerbated by online media culture to practice more clickbaits and sensational news than educational ones.

As in other countries, the media industry in Indonesia is currently facing twilight. Many printed media drop off from the market, and more online media are taking over the niche but most of them are not running with adequate quality. According to Freedom House, Indonesia’s press is only partly free with several attempts to threaten from various sides, including a number of new regulations which endanger journalists.

During the political rush of the presidential election in 2014, a study from the University of Diponegoro proved that the mainstream media had contributed by producing misleading news by clickbaits using sensational titles – Nurul Hasfi, the researcher said. For both parties competing in the election, this clickbait news is a kind of deadly tool to attack each other’s opposing candidates, mostly reinforced by pseudo-accounts.

Despite tackling misinformation/disinformation in Indonesia is a serious problem, unluckily only a few of the 40,000 media have a special fact-checking newsroom handled by a couple of reporters. However, Tempo – according to Ika – has currently collaborated with 23 other media outlets, two associations, and a civil fact-checking initiative, Mafindo. With the support from Google, in 2018, they launched the collaborative platform Cek Faktawhich was mainly active during last year’s election.

This movement, said Ika, has effectively eased the workload of journalists who must redouble their efforts to verify massive malinformation in cyberspace, especially in unusual conditions - such as elections or pandemics.

“Checking for fake news in a closed group, like on Whatsapp, is quite difficult. We cannot easily track who was the original sender and when it was posted. Even if it has been checked, we have difficulty monitoring its effects. Unlike Facebook.”

Therefore, Mafindo and the media incorporated in the collaboration of Cek Fakta then created a Whatsapp channel specifically for the public to report any hoax and check the results made by the Cek Fakta. 

In addition, Tempo, together with Mafindo and five other media collaborated in the Cek Fakta (Liputan6, Suara, Kompas, Tempo and Tirto) are currently the signatories ofthe International Fact-Checking Network(IFCN) code of principles.  

Renjani Sari is an Indonesian journalist living in Belgium, currently studying Master of Journalism in Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). At the moment, Sari is working as an intern at the Finnish fact-checker Faktabaari. Sari has worked for many years with Forbes Indonesia and she is an editor of a web magazine called Nuusdo.

The report is part of Faktabaari Infodemic series explaining how fact-checkers all around the world tackle mis- and disinformation. Other Stories (In Finnish) can be foundhere.


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