Aug 29, 2017
Fake news has become a real commodity, now that almost half the world’s population has access to the internet. In a political contestation, a single click of fake news targeting a certain candidate can sway the vote toward his or her rival.
Fabricated news played a significant role in the United States presidential election last year. In Indonesia, it could have denied now President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo a chance to win in the two-horse race against Prabowo Subianto in 2014. Hoaxes and hate speech also paved the way for the defeat early this year of incumbent Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in the most divisive election since the 2014 presidential race.
Unsurprisingly, Jokowi could not hide his anger when commenting on the police’s arrest of three people who had been caught running an online syndicate responsible for creating and spreading hoaxes and inciting hatred for money. Calling themselves Saracen, the group took orders from certain parties, including electoral candidates, to discredit political opponents for price tags ranging from Rp75 million (US$5,770) to Rp100 million per month, police said.
The President said he had instructed National Police Chief Gen.Tito Karnavian to identify not only other members of the network, but also those who backed them and their beneficiaries.
The police discovered that the group owned and managed about 800,000 social media accounts used to broadcast hate speech. The group’s female administrator was arrested for posting anti-Chinese slurs and defamation of the President, the police, political parties and mass organizations. Her colleague admitted to editing pictures and uploading them on social media.
While the police bear the responsibility for disclosing all parties involved in the hatemongering business, the investigation should not only focus on the alleged spread of hoaxes targeting the President and themselves. To avoid any conflicts of interest, the police should enforce the law against the suspects, simply because they could hijack democracy and eventually endanger the unity of this diverse nation.
Taking advantage of most Indonesian internet users’ lack of digital literacy and the wide sensitivity toward sectarian issues, individuals or groups like Saracen easily drive voters to choose their leaders based on ethnicity or religion over achievements, therefore preventing the most capable candidates from taking office.
Democratic elections should let the best win. With the simultaneous regional elections occurring in June 2018 and the simultaneous legislative and presidential elections making its debut in 2019, Saracen’s business model could be booming if the country’s justice system failed to generate a deterrence.
While charging the suspects under the Electronic Information and Transactions Law will complicate matters as the law itself is problematic, law enforcers can simply rely on the Criminal Code and demand the maximum sentence, considering the overarching social damage the group may have caused. Beyond Saracen, more people will develop sophisticated ways to spread hoaxes, but we should be able to stop them from monetizing their lies.