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Indonesian authorities battle 'fake news'

Fears of political and religious strife are prompting steps to quell net rumors

Members of the Jakarta Anti-Hoax Movement, an online group, promote their work in the Indonesian capital to fight the spread of fake news on Jan. 8. (Photo by Wataru Suzuki)

JAKARTA Indonesians can breathe a bit easier, for now at least, as news readers get a respite from the politically charged coverage of the Jakarta gubernatorial campaign. The first round of voting ended peacefully on Feb. 15.

"Over the past few days, we've just seen several viral hoax stories aimed at undermining the General Election Commission, such as one on [the commission's] server being hacked by the Chinese," said Septiaji Eko Nugroho, coordinator of the Indonesian Anti-Hoax Community, the day after the vote. The civil society group was set up in January by people concerned about fake news reports appearing online.

"I think we'll be in a cooling-down period for the next week at least. And then the spread of fake news will likely pick up pace again in mid-March, ahead of the April runoff," Septiaji said.

Over the past several months, with campaigning in the Indonesian capital in full swing, the internet has been flooded with fake news. Indonesians' love of social media -- the country ranks very highly in active Facebook and Twitter users -- fuels its spread.

These stories have stirred up fears of a Chinese invasion and the revival of communism in Indonesia. They also allege the election bid of Chinese Christian incumbent Basuki Tjahaja "Ahok" Purnama is part of an anti-Islam conspiracy. In addition to rumors of infiltration by Chinese soldiers, one widely shared headline claimed 10 million Chinese workers had invaded the country, bent on taking locals' jobs. There is also the issue of the new rupiah notes, which have been likened to the Chinese yuan. Some Islamists claim they have the communist hammer and sickle hidden on them.

While many people dismiss these stories as fanciful, many others take them seriously. The vociferous claims have forced the Manpower Ministry to step up raids against factories suspected of employing undocumented Chinese workers. Indonesia's central bank considered filing a defamation charge over the allegations of communist imagery on its bank notes.

Purnama had been predicted to win comfortably before footage of him quoting the Quran went viral and hundreds of thousands of Muslims took to the streets in November and December. The video, while not fake, was cut and edited so as to take his comments out of context.

Both political and financial motives have been blamed for driving the dissemination of fake news. Some people running hoax news sites have admitted to profiting from advertising on their sites, while Purnama's Muslim rivals are seen as benefiting from the religious fervor the stories stir up.

The false reports have added fuel to an already overheated governor's race. They also raise concerns over wider social tensions. The government is responding. Police have recently established a directorate for cybercrime, while the Communications Ministry is taking to Facebook and Twitter to combat false reporting. The ministry also has approached the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country's highest Islamic body, which is considering issuing guidance to Muslims on social media etiquette.

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