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Fake news charges emotionally driven Jakarta election

Anti-Islam conspiracies, Chinese invasion fears spread online in Indonesia

People use handprints as signatures for the Jakarta Anti-Hoax Movement, a community group launched in the Indonesian capital on Jan. 8 to tackle the spread of fake news. (Photo by Wataru Suzuki)

JAKARTA -- "Could these be Chinese troops brought to Jakarta to defend Ahok?" an Indonesian kindergarten teacher posted on her Facebook wall in October last year along with a photo of several Chinese-looking men clad in military uniform.

Ahok is the nickname of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the first Christian governor that Jakarta -- the capital of the world's most populous Muslim nation -- has seen since the 1960s. He is the first of Chinese ethnicity. He had been the deputy governor, but rose to the top job after his predecessor, Joko Widodo, became president.

The allegation sounds preposterous -- it is not even clear where the photo was taken. But the teacher's belief that China and its communist influence are infiltrating Indonesia is vehemently shared by many. Over the past several months, as Purnama is seeking a second term in the Jakarta governor race slated for Wednesday, the internet has been flooded with fake news. Indonesians' love for social media -- the country ranks very high for active Facebook and Twitter users -- fuels the spread.

Most of the fearmongering is aimed at alarming people over the supposed threat of Chinese invasion and a revival of communism in Indonesia. These have been alleged as part of an anti-Islam conspiracy linked to Purnama's election bid. Apart from the alleged infiltration of the Chinese military, one widely shared headline is the invasion of 10 million Chinese workers bent on taking over locals' jobs. The mind-numbing figure far exceeds the official count: 21,000.

Then there are issues with the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, which backs Purnama and which has been portrayed as cozying up to China's Communist Party. New rupiah notes launched in December have been likened to the Chinese renminbi, and the central bank has been accused of embedding the new bills with the communist symbol of a hammer and sickle.

While many people easily dismiss the outrageous posts as hoaxes, many others are taking them very seriously. The intensity of the accusations have forced the Manpower Ministry to ramp up raids against factories suspected of employing undocumented Chinese workers, and Bank Indonesia to consider filing a defamation charge.

A doctored video of Purnama quoting the Quran, when he criticized those using it to denounce a non-Muslim leadership, went viral and successfully drew hundreds of thousands of Muslims to participate in two rallies in Jakarta in November and December. They demand his arrest for allegedly insulting the holy book. Purnama still walks free, but is now standing trial on the charge of blasphemy.

Who benefits?

The governor's race is an emotionally charged event, and fake news is aggravating it, all of which raises concerns over social friction. It is not just between Muslim and non-Muslim citizens, but among Muslims themselves: namely, the conservatives versus the moderates. 

While the exchange of heated and hateful words is still mostly conducted on social media, there are worries that the animosity will spill into real-life interactions, and that it will not just stop when the election ends. 

"If the legal case against Ahok is not concluded, or if he is acquitted, [the situation] may evolve into a social conflict. The problem could become very serious," said Siti Zuhro, political researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

A special report by Tempo, a local magazine, revealed how some individuals directly profit from producing fabricated news.

A university student in West Sumatra Province said he earned 30 million rupiah ($2,250) a month from Google AdSense from a fake news site he ran, which used sensational headlines and attracted 300,000 page views per day in October and November before it was blocked by the communications ministry. Another person, who claimed to be an advertising consultant, said he helped another fake news creator generate up to 150 million rupiah a month for the last three months of 2016.

On the political front, Purnama's rivals are seen benefiting from the growing religious sentiment. Former education minister Anies Baswedan, another candidate for Jakarta governor and formerly known as a progressive Muslim, has surged in popularity, according to latest surveys. Baswedan is backed by opposition leader Prabowo Subianto.

Burhanuddin Muhtadi, executive director of the polling institute Indikator Politik Indonesia, said this happened after Baswedan's pandered to the Islamists -- including his visit in early January to the headquarters of the Islamic Defenders Front, a hard-line group known as the FPI, a main organizer of the two massive rallies last year.

"We found that in December and the beginning of January [Baswedan] changed his campaign direction to one that was more religious, more Islamist," Muhtadi said. "He intentionally chooses to use Islamist mobilization to increase his chances of winning the election. And this is why he gained a lot of support, a significant increase in his electability."

Hard to handle

The government is increasingly taking fake news as a serious problem. Much of the content, after all, is ultimately aimed at undermining Widodo's presidency. The president, who is close to Purnama, has long been accused of being a tool installed to pave the way for a Chinese invasion and the revival of the Indonesian Communist Party.

Widodo led a cabinet meeting in December to specifically address the problem, after which police established a special directorate to tackle cybercrime. The Ministry of Communication and Informatics, meanwhile, said it has blocked thousands of websites -- including those with fake news and pornographic content. Inspired by Germany, the ministry added that it is asking Facebook to help block such content. The establishment of the National Cyber Agency to oversee internet use is also reportedly underway.

"I'm asking all parties: stop the spread of fake and slanderous news that can divide the nation," Widodo said during Thursday's commemoration of National Press Day, asking established media organizations to counter false information.

That may not work, though, as some fake news sites have been successful in portraying the mainstream media as part of the supposed anti-Islam conspiracy. Some news organizations known to support Purnama especially have fallen victims to the labeling. Reporters from "Metro TV"and the Kompas Group have been harassed while covering anti-Purnama rallies, including the latest one concentrated at the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta on Saturday.

Police have made several arrests since December, including of people accused of conspiring against the state, in relation to those rallies. But while law enforcement measures are barely making progress to slow the spread of fake news, observers and activists alike already voice concerns that Widodo may abuse his power to silence critics.

"We cannot let this be a setback to our democracy," Zuhro said. "The government needs to educate the public on Indonesia's values of diversity, but it should not silence its critics."

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