JAKARTA – The U.S. is currently at the center of the debate about the power of fake news to swing elections. But Indonesia has been a leading producer and consumer of such reports since at least 2014, when reports surfaced that the then-presidential candidate, Joko Widodo, was of Chinese descent and not a Muslim (both blatantly false claims).
With Jakarta’s gubernatorial election fast approaching, experts say China has become an easy target for fake news “engineers” seeking to stoke ethnic tensions for political gain.
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The fact Ahok, as the incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is known, finds himself on trial for blasphemy is testament to the increasing influence of fake news with conservative Islamists in Indonesia.
It is little surprise that Ahok’s double-minority status as a Chinese-Christian has made him the target of false news reports. But experts say the increasingly forceful anti-Chinese sentiment doesn’t represent a widespread concern among Indonesians, but is in fact manufactured by political operatives.
One recent example involved a widely shared report that Beijing was using “biological weapons” to purposely destabilize the Indonesian economy.
As with much fake news, it started with a partial truth, which was then amended to fit a political agenda.
A few days earlier, it was reported that five Chinese migrants were arrested in Java for importing chili plants bearing traces of a crop-killing bacteria.
Given that Indonesians are among the most active social media users in the world, conspiracy theories about the intentions of the Chinese nationals quickly spread.
As Reuters reported, one Twitter user told his followers: “Haven’t people realized that Chinese attacks on this country are real in many ways. From drugs, illegal workers, now chili bacteria.”
The story led to a spike of anti-Chinese sentiment on social media in a country where stereotypes persist that the minority Chinese population are less patriotic than other Indonesians.
But according to Tobias Basuki, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, such “news” is largely “engineered by groups with political aims.”
“Anti-Chinese sentiments that seemingly flares up now is in a major part a work of ‘conflict entrepreneurs’ who cleverly mix religious-ethnic narratives to their gain,” he told The Diplomat.
“It has always been a construct by political and economic elites who fan up anti-Chinese sentiments to their gain and [to] cement their position. It is really an attack against clean and transparent government.”
A rally last November to ostensibly “defend Islam” was a similarly clever mix of religion and politics, says Noor Huda Ismail, from the Institute for International Peace Building in Jakarta
“Rally organisers cunningly used the Islam card, which, judging from [the] rally turnout, does have currency among some Indonesian voters,” he recently wrote on The Conversation.
“Social media messages from rally organisers exploit Muslim religious identity to lure people to join the protest against Ahok.
“During the rally, anti-Chinese sentiments were palpable. There were chants to ‘kill Ahok’ and ‘crush the Chinese.’”
Jakarta is one of the most socially connected cities in the world. But researchers say this also makes these digital consumers particularly susceptible to fake news.
The population is wary of trusting government and mainstream media, a legacy of the Suharto years, explains Ross Tapsell, an expert in South-East Asian media.
“’News’ circulated from friends is often seen as more reliable, precisely because it is not from government or mainstream media, but personalised,” he told The Diplomat.
“They may not always believe it, but they pass it on anyway, in order to be part of this adapting information society.”
Connect the dots
The convenient timing of such fake news has led some to question their provenance.
For instance, examples of anti-Chinese sentiment were driven by Twitter accounts which to date have opposed the Jokowi administration, as Tempo magazine reported earlier this month.
“Those who are pushing the issue of Chinese workers are the same ones who are actively pushing the issue of the blasphemy charges against Basuki [Ahok],” Tempo says.
To be clear, fanning anti-Chinese sentiment for political purposes has been used for more than a century — from the Dutch to Sukarno. But the concern among some analysts, particularly in the digital-age, is that these partisan games may inflame racial tensions with deadly repercussions.
Ahok’s political future may not appear too bright, but the future of fake news in the Emerald of the Equator seems more secure.
“There isn’t an end to the fake news situation, just as there was never really a beginning,” says researcher Ross Tapsell.
Andrew Barclay is a journalist based in Jakarta, Indonesia. He tweets at @andrewreporting.