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Indonesia strikes at alleged internet fake news syndicate

Suspects profited from malicious third parties, online ads, authorities say

Indonesian police announce the arrest of three members of the Saracen syndicate on suspicion of spreading hate and lies online. (Photo by Bobby Nugroho)

JAKARTA -- Indonesian police announced Wednesday the arrests of three members of the Saracen syndicate, they accuse of fomenting intolerance and spreading fake news over the internet.

Police said there is evidence to suggest the group profited by taking payments to raise particular issues online that were provocative or targeted certain religious or ethnic groups.

Mohammad Fadil Imran, the police director for cybercrimes, declined to reveal the identities of possible paymasters as investigations are still underway. He said a new police cyber task force detected "systematic" dissemination of hate speech and fake news over the internet that targeted religious groups, mainly Muslim and Christian. Indonesians of Chinese ancestry and the government were also attacked.

Imran described Saracen as "well structured" and capable of coordinating its activities from different locales. He said the group interacted with up to 800,000 social media accounts -- some fake and some hacked -- boosting traffic to fake news sites and generating income from online advertising.

The two men and one woman arrested are to be charged with violating Indonesia's electronic information and transaction law, and could face four to seven years in prison.

Indonesian authorities have been cracking down on hate speech and fake news in cyberspace after intolerant social media ballooned during the Jakarta gubernatorial campaign earlier in the year, raising religious and racial tensions in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Prior to the Saracen arrests, police actions had been limited to individuals engaged in malicious and false social media activities. This is the first time such a high degree of organization has been exposed. Imran said police are looking for more Saracen members and for "many" similar syndicates.

The Ministry of Communications and Information has in recent weeks engaged with major internet companies like Facebook, Google and Telegram to tackle terrorist incitement and hateful content.

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