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From left: Sandiaga Uno, Prabowo Subianto, Joko Widodo, and Ma'aruf Amin. Source: Mothership.sg

Collective effort by citizens and media practitioners outweigh legislation in fighting “fake news” during campaigns preceding Indonesian presidential election

Indonesians across the archipelago took to the polls on Wed (17 Apr) amid heightened Islamic religious conservatism and the proliferation of “fake news” surrounding the Joko Widodo-Ma’ruf Amin and Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno presidential candidate pairings prior to this election.

This year’s election – which currently sees incumbent President Joko Widodo being re-elected, as he and his running mate lead the popular vote with around 55.8 per cent against the Prabowo-Sandi duo after a quick count – did not take place without fanfare, as seen in the arrest of three women by police in West Java who were accused of carrying out a smear campaign against Jokowi in Feb.

The 2019 Indonesian Presidential Election Quick Count, as of Thu (18 Apr), 1842hrs (Singapore time). Source: The Jakarta Post

The three women – identified by the initials ES, IP dan CW – had allegedly, in the Sundanese language, discussed how Jokowi, who is known for his role in upholding Indonesia’s image as a moderate Muslim-majority country, would ban the azan (call to prayer) and the hijab (headscarf for Muslim women) should he be re-elected as President.

West Java Police have since identified and arrested the women for inciting hate speech under the Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE) Law.

Andre Rosiade, a spokesperson for the Prabowo-Sandi National Victory Body (BPN), denied allegations concerning the “black campaign” launched against Jokowi by the three women, which purported that the women were actually a part of the Prabowo-Sandi campaign team.

He told BBC Indonesia on 25 Feb that the BPN has never instructed either its campaign team or its volunteers to launch religiously-motivated defamatory campaigns, but had instead focused on its economic vision and mission for Indonesia.

“There is no such way of campaigning here at the BPN,” he added.

Sasmito, a media practitioner told TODAY in Jakarta last Sat (13 Apr) that while implementing anti-“fake news” legislation provides the “benefit” of an “instant solution”, it is “not the best solution” in the war against online disinformation, as citizens may be undeterred by legal sanctions and punishment.

“Every time a person gets arrested, there are 10 or even 100 ready to take over the position,” he said, adding: “Laws don’t tackle the problem at its roots. The key is to empower people to be able to spot disinformation and act properly on fighting it.”

Sasmito was one of around 40 journalists who had participated in a fact-checking initiative called Cekfakta (“check facts”), the brainchild of 24 news organisations in Indonesia almost a year ago.

Backed by Google via the Google News Lab programme, journalists conducted live-checking during presidential debates at the Internet giant’s Jakarta office, TODAY observed.

Journalists were “divided into six groups to cover six segments of the debate”, in addition to “a social media team that pushed the stories on Facebook and Twitter”, added TODAY.

In addition to the journalists’ own research, experts from multiple industries such as the economy and education – many from non-governmental organisations – were roped in to offer analysis and factual information regarding a relevant topic, for example when a candidate cites certain figures or makes certain claims.

General secretary of the Alliance of Independent Journalists in Indonesia Revolusi Riza Zulverdi told TODAY that the spike in campaigns launched by candidates and those who back them have contributed to the increased spread of falsehoods prior to the election.

He added that consequently, it is “a challenge to educate people on the issue and raise awareness on the importance of digital literacy”.

Executive director of non-governmental organisation Election and Democracy Titi Anggraini Mashudi told TODAY that the dangers of “fake news” can lead to catastrophic outcomes for the election, as it “has the ability to shape how people vote”.

“So, if they’re misinformed, their votes are misinformed,” she stressed.