Indonesia’s democracy at risk from disinformation

In the long lead-up to the world’s largest ever single-day elections, disinformation ran rampant in Indonesia. It became so widespread that the government started holding weekly briefings to reveal ‘hoaxes’ and give the ‘real facts’. Of particular concern was the rise in disinformation targeting Indonesia’s electoral commission, the KPU. With the official results to be released by 22 May, how people react to this wave of disinformation could affect the short- and long-term stability of Indonesia’s young democracy.

On average, Indonesians use social media for 3 hours and 26 minutes a day, the fourth-highest rate of social media usage globally. Indonesia is Facebook’s third largest market, with over 100 million accounts. Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram are also popular. Many Indonesians use social media as a convenient and trusted source of news and information, but digital literacy remains poor. As well as during this year’s campaign, disinformation was also widespread during the 2017 election for the governor of Jakarta.

Leading up to the 2019 election, both presidential campaigns funded teams of people to produce and disseminate disinformation using fake identities created for social media accounts. Aribowo Sasmito, the head of fact-checking at an Indonesian civil society organisation called Mafindo, compared the spread of hoaxes in Indonesia to the drug trade, with its laboratories, dealers and victims. For some Indonesians, creating and sharing fake news became ‘just a job’, unrelated to ideological position or political motivation.

The Indonesian communication ministry reported 700 election-related hoaxes in the month before polls opened. Hoaxes ranged from the predictable to the bizarre. Following the first presidential debate, stories spread that claimed incumbent Joko Widodo (‘Jokowi’) was fed answers through an earpiece, while people accused challenger Subianto Prabowo of using smart glasses to ‘cheat’. Both stories were false. One video purported to show the leader of the Indonesian Solidarity Party, who supported Jokowi, inviting people to join her to eat pork after the election. The clip shocked some Muslim conservatives, and more than 150,000 people watched it in the 24 hours after it was published. The video turned out to be doctored; she was actually inviting people to eat noodles.

Disinformation in Indonesia has typically focused on the religious and ethnic credentials of candidates. Stories were spread depicting Jokowi as Chinese, Christian or communist, or maybe all three. Disinformation targeting Prabowo portrayed him as both irreligious and on a quest to create a caliphate. Given the deep social, ethnic and religious divides in Indonesian society and the country’s history of persecution and bloodshed, this type of content can be highly inflammatory.

Trying to discredit a political opponent is a standard electoral tactic, but this year there’s been a disturbing rise in a different style of disinformation: hoaxes targeting the KPU and the electoral process itself. This type of disinformation has the potential to erode public trust in elections and democratic institutions.

In January, a video went viral which claimed to show seven boxes sent from China containing millions of ballots pre-marked for Jokowi at a port in northern Jakarta. The story was established by police to be a hoax, but it was estimated that there were at least 17,000 tweets sharing the false information. Prabowo’s campaign also claimed there were 17.5 million ‘problematic’ names on the voter roll, something the election commission later refuted.

Hoaxes targeting the KPU haven’t slowed down since election day. A recent YouTube video purported to show a KPU official admitting that he was bribed. It later came out that the video was doctored and that the original, filmed in 2014, showed the official stating that he had refused a bribe.

As he did in 2014, Prabowo has claimed victory. This is despite exit polls that showed Jokowi with a nine-point lead. Days after the election, Prabowo condemned ‘lying pollsters’, and asked his cheering supporters, ‘Do you believe survey institutes?’ He answered for his audience: ‘No. They are liars, the people do not believe them.’ On 1 May, Prabowo told crowds that the media are ‘destroying democracy in Indonesia right now’ by continuing to publish ‘false results’. Prabowo has also used the news of the tragic deaths of more than 300 electoral officials from exhaustion-related illnesses to discredit the KPU.

Sometimes the KPU didn’t help itself. Discrepancies were found between the results entered by the commission and those recorded on the vote tally forms by the independent election monitoring committee. But those anomalies were shown to be the consequence of human error and have been corrected. An election watchdog and observers from 33 countries have found no indication of systematic cheating or fraud.

Mafindo says disinformation targeting the electoral process is the most worrying kind. If people start to doubt that the elections were free and fair, and that the results reflect the true will of the voters, then they will be much more likely to dispute the results and any incoming president will struggle to lead effectively.

Although most Indonesians will accept the results, the scepticism created by KPU-targeted disinformation gives impetus to Prabowo’s calls for a people-power movement to contest the results. Hardline Prabowo supporters may be provoked by claims that the election was rigged and that the KPU is a tool of Jokowi.

Analysts and authorities in Indonesia are concerned that the release of the official results may be followed by mass demonstrations and violence. There are even fears that terrorists may target protest sites. Former environment minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja said, ‘The short-term risk for Widodo is an attempt to foment chaos in Jakarta through arson, sabotage and violence.’ Indonesian authorities have reportedly relocated thousands of police from provincial areas to guard the KPU and shore up security in Jakarta, where regular rallies have been held since polling day. Widespread violence is unlikely, but the combination of the ‘fanaticism and militancy’ of many of Prabowo’s supporters and the hoax-drenched environment, stoked by scepticism and distrust, may be combustible.

Disinformation has become a factor in elections around the world. The effect it has on politicians is a problem for democracy, particularly from a partisan position. But more troubling is the way that disinformation targeting the electoral process works to undermine faith in the system itself. Politicians come and go, but the system needs to be protected.

With our own election fast approaching, Australia should take note and be prepared for a potential attack on the integrity of the electoral process. The long-term erosion of public trust that results from this type of disinformation has implications for the sustainability of all democracies, including Australia’s. Democracy is based on trust, not so much in politicians (we often don’t trust them anyway) but in the institutions that uphold it.