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The Impact of Fake News and Disinformation on Indonesian Politics

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04 Jul The Impact of Fake News and Disinformation on Indonesian Politics

Political utilisation of fake news is on the rise in Indonesia, and featured prominently during the recent election. These stories not only worsened divides, but also fuelled post-election riots in Jakarta. What role did fake news and disinformation play in the election, and what are its implications for Indonesia? We had a talk on Tuesday, 2 July with Mr Achmad Sukarsono, Senior Analyst for Global Risks Analysis (Asia-Pacific) at Control Risks, and Dr Budi Irawanto, Associate Professor for Communications, Universitas Gadjah Mada. The session was moderated by Ms Lee Chen Chen, Director of Policy Programmes, Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Here’s a look at what came up during the discussion.

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A Necessary Health Check for Polarisation

Like a diagnosis following a health screening, the 2019 elections revealed the extent of polarisation in Indonesia. Polarisation was limited among politicians, who took pragmatic steps to appeal to a wider audience and secure influence. President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), an avowed pluralist, chose the conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate. Prabowo Subianto’s coalition also moderated their fiery language after the election, moving to reconcile with the incumbent.

However, a larger confrontation was taking place on the ground. Unlike the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections, this was not between Muslims and non-Muslims, nor in terms of ideology. Rather, the divide was between conservative and moderate Muslims, with each candidate associated with a different pole. Prabowo’s association with conservatives who felt scorned by Jokowi, for example, gave him an overwhelming victory in Aceh despite historical baggage. These divides were exacerbated by the use of fake news, which acted as a “steroid” for polarisation.

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Fake News – A Dangerous Tool

Indonesia, which has roughly 150 million social media users who increasingly rely on such platforms for news, is particularly susceptible to disinformation campaigns. While the stories may be ridiculous to some (i.e. Jokowi is both of Chinese descent and a communist), they reinforce the existing beliefs of others. Examples of their application are plentiful and varied – from questioning candidates’ religious credentials prior to the election, to delegitimising the results in its aftermath. Pushed to the brink, such stories can also lead to violence, as was made evident during the Jakarta riots.

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Fighting Back

To address the proliferation of fake news, the Indonesian government has undertaken some harsh measures, including limiting access to social media during the Jakarta riots. However, emphasising censorship over education is not sustainable. Polarisation will continue to increase unless fake news stories are convincingly refuted.

The government has a role to play in combating fake news by promoting education, but must first repair its image as a trustworthy “messenger”. A good first step in this regard would be addressing fake news from both sides of the political divide, rather than only those that target Jokowi. Furthermore, organic civil society-led initiatives such as CekFakta.com, which is run by Mafindo and 25 media organisations, can help to spread awareness of fake news and should be encouraged.