Government and governance, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia

8 April 2019

With Indonesia’s general elections just around the corner, fake news and increasingly autocratic Internet governance are becoming more and more of a problem, William Chalk writes.

For the first time in Indonesia’s history, the president, vice president, and constituents of the People’s Consultative Assembly will be selected on the same day during its general elections on 17 April.

Like many countries, Indonesia has long grappled with the spread of misinformation and targeted disinformation – so-called ‘fake news’. The issue has proliferated in line with rising rates of digital adoption in the Indo-Pacific, exacerbated by increasingly embittered political rivalries, sectarianism, and rising religious conservatism.

As the election inches ever-closer, disinformation is again becoming a normality in the archipelago nation, where it has played a pivotal role in previous political events. Despite a country-wide crackdown – including increasingly stringent legislative efforts to police online behaviour – election watchdogs have once again reported a spike in fake news.

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This follows mounting regional concerns about the long-term impact of disinformation in a country of avid social media users. Indonesia boasts one of the highest user-bases in the world; recent years have seen platforms like Whatsapp, Facebook, and Twitter thrive in an environment where legacy media – especially television – is seen as partisan. With most large media outlets firmly behind the incumbent administration, social media has grown immensely as the predominant method of reading, sharing, and discussing news and politics.

Candidates and officials are taking to these platforms to share slogans, pitch policies, provoke rivals, and rouse support. They rely on the coordinated dissemination of propaganda – both self-promoting and slanderous – distributed by ‘buzzer’ teams behind the scenes. These groups are paid to command hundreds of personalised, automated, and entirely fabricated accounts targeting millions of unwitting citizens each week.

In polarised countries like Indonesia, fake news on this scale is a powerful force. Survey results suggest that voters are becoming increasingly partisan: selecting their information and ‘judging’ its authenticity based on their existing political preferences. The information economy is threatened by the rise of these online echo chambers, where voters simply disbelieve or delete the information they don’t want to hear.

In line with regional trends, laws governing Indonesian cyberspace have grown increasingly authoritarian and invasive over the past decade. Anxieties surrounding political sedition, fake news, and religious conservatism have spurred a rise in censorship which in practice has done little to curb the disinformation problem.

These legislative changes have raised questions about the potential for overcompensation in moderating online content, where the bid to tackle disinformation may jeopardise citizens’ digital freedoms.

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Tighter regulation has also raised concerns about abuses of power and the use of legislation to further monopolise and distort political discourse online.

Article 40 of the Information and Transactions Law permits the Indonesian government to block access to pornographic or extremist content, as well as any other content it deems “negative”. Articles 28, 27, and 29 on hate speech, defamation, and extortion respectively, have also stirred controversy.

The legislature does not clearly define ‘negative content’ or any specific mechanisms for reporting it, meaning the process of flagging and removing content lacks oversight, transparency, and ultimate accountability. Authorities have often interpreted ‘hate speech’ to include any broadly critical expression against public officials. This type of ambiguity leaves room for selective enforcement based on the whim of different actors within the Indonesian system.

Article 40 allows the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to prevent access to online information directly. The blocking process, which was automated and centralised in 2018, allows Internet service providers to blacklist additional sites at their own discretion. In turn, this has led to a rise in arbitrary, inconsistent censorship, and has created uncertainty for citizens seeking recourse when content is improperly blocked.

While media freedom has generally improved since the end of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, the past year has seen more social media platforms, media organisations, and political sources suffer from blocking under this system. Hundreds of independent blogs and other sites publishing criticism of military action, Islam, or of the government are blocked. The result is a media environment stripped of the information required to form genuine political opinions, yet rife with targeted propaganda.

It’s clear that regulators have responded to rising anxieties by tightening governing powers over the Internet as a whole. While this serves well to remove offensive or inappropriate content, it does little to tackle the spread of misinformation and fake news, and further reduces the possibility of open and informed discussion.

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As deceptive technology improves, verifying content online is only set to become more difficult, heightening its potential to sow social discord, skew political discourse, and undermine people’s faith in their institutions. This trend is worrisome enough for advanced economies, but underscores an immediate crisis for those still developing or emerging, where democratic institutions are more fragile.

If regulators lose patience with long-term digital literacy initiatives, they may be steered towards employing more acute and illiberal solutions. Autocratic governments across the world have leveraged the issue of disinformation to tighten online controls and quash political dissent, and democracies like Indonesia seem to be testing these waters too.

In the absence of effective and democratic policy remedies, the issue may lead developing countries to adopt a more autocratic stance on Internet governance.

Second to China, Indonesia wields the most influence over regional diplomacy. While these elections are unlikely to revitalise the country’s politics, the developing disinformation playbook has the capacity to aggravate social divisions and destabilise future elections in the region. In countries already suffering from religious and ethnic tensions, forces reliant on exploiting this friction can exasperate polarised groups and generate real violence.

Deliberate or otherwise, misinformation has become a collective challenge requiring action not just from corporations, civil activists, and regular Internet users, but also from governments. Solutions posed by policymakers will require careful deliberation to ensure they are capable of safeguarding electoral integrity whilst thwarting the steady rise in censorship occurring worldwide.

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