Indonesia: Fact-checkers vs. hoax peddlers: a fake news battle ahead of Indonesia’s election

  • Armed with laptops, three dozen journalists and fact-checkers braced for battle before a live debate between Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his challenger, Prabowo Subianto.
  • With two giant screens displaying television network feeds in front of them, the keyboard warriors split into six groups, each responsible for fact-checking a segment of the debate.
  • For nearly three hours, their eyes barely left their screens as they attempted to verify candidates’ comments in real time: allegations about corruption, statistics on the country’s Muslim population, boasts, and even personal anecdotes.
  • They and other fact-checkers are fighting a running battle against fake news and propaganda ahead of the 17 Apr 19 election in the world’s third-biggest democracy.
  • Election monitors are worried that the flow of misinformation stoking ethnic and religious divides could undermine electoral bodies and even raise social tensions.
  • The Cekfakta (“checkfacts” in Indonesian) initiative brings together the non-profit fact-checking organization Mafindo and 24 news organizations that normally compete fiercely with each other during election campaigns.
  • Backed financially by Google News Lab, which also helps fund Mafindo, Cekfakta’s volunteers took over the U.S tech giant’s swanky Jakarta office for the debate on March 30.
  • Dhyatmika wanted to avoid a repeat of the 2014 election, also between Widodo and retired general Prabowo, when reporters were unprepared for the flood of false news that swept across social media.
  • The fact checkers’ adversaries, fake news peddlers, sit at screens too, pumping out misinformation disguised as fact that often exploits ethnic or religious divides.
  • “We’re in a war for content … people are doing anything they want,” said one fake news creator, who has written stories depicting Indonesian officials as paid off by Beijing. The person declined to be identified because such work is illegal.
  • Mafindo’s head of fact-checking, Aribowo Sasmito, compares it to the drug trade. Since Dec 18, Mafindo has documented a surge in political fake news using ethnicity and religion to target both candidates.
  • The organization finds most worrisome the dozens of stories that paint electoral bodies as corrupt. This will be only Indonesia’s fourth democratic presidential election.
  • Sasmito considers it a good result if fact-checked posts can reach even a small fraction of the audience the originals did.
  • Mafindo’s work has made it some enemies. The group has received enough threats that it keeps its office address secret; Cefakta’s website was hacked after a previous debate.
  • A Reuters investigation in March found that both the Prabowo and Widodo campaigns were funding sophisticated social media operations to spread propaganda and disinformation through fake accounts on behalf of the candidates. Both campaigns said they did not use such teams.

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