Indonesia faces two waves of misinformation and an internet shutdown at the same time

August 30, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Fact-checkers in Indonesia are experiencing a very tough month.

On Monday, President Joko Widodo announced he wanted to strip Jakarta of its status as the country’s capital and build a new one – from the ground up – on the island of Borneo.

Among Indonesians, it is well known that, with climate change, the Java Sea is rising and Jakarta is sinking. The city is also constantly under threat of huge earthquakes with a magnitude of 8 or more. But some local voices raised concerns not only about the amount of money the government would spend on this change, but also how it could affect the environment.

Borneo is internationally known for palm oil plantations, coal mining, dense jungles and orangutans. Building a big city to become the country’s capital there could mean the end of all that, or at least part of it. So discussions around this topic took over the country in the last days, fueled by memes and unreliable data shared on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.

At the same time, in the province of Papua, another huge wave of misinformation started to take place, so fact-checkers had to divide their attention.

Protests strung, after a case of racial abuse of Papuan students was revealed, leading to the growth of a well-known separatist movement and a call for a self-determination referendum.

According to The Jakarta Post, many riots began in the region after security personnel reportedly launched physical and verbal attacks against Papuan students who were falsely accused of having damaged a national flag pole in Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia, during the country’s 74th Independence Day.

“The Indonesian government completed the scene by sending many police officers there,” said Ika Ningtyas, a fact-checker from Tempo, one of the International Fact-Checking Network’s signatories in Indonesia. “43 Papuan students were arrested but later released because they were proven innocent.”

On top of those two tsunamis of false news and controversy, Widodo’s government decided to shut down internet access in many parts of Papua and West Papua Province. Until Tuesday morning, there were no signs the block would be lifted.

Between May 21-22, the Indonesian government limited access to social media in Jakarta. Facebook and Instagram were down. WhatsApp users were unable to share photos and/or videos. On Aug. 21, when protests in Papua became bigger, the government decided to slow down the speed of the internet in some regions of that province. And, at the beginning of this week, restrictions reached the highest level possible: The internet was shut down in many cities.

According to Tempo, “several civil society organizations rallied on Aug. 23 demanding that the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology immediately open internet access in Papua.” But so far, no reactions were heard from Jakarta’s administration.

Meanwhile, Tempo has published at least four debunks and now struggles to keep its team working with a lack of internet access.

“We have many pieces of content about Papua that are allegedly false and provocative. But because of internet restriction, our work has been hampered,” Ningtyas said. “We cannot contact or dig up information from several sources in Papua and the telephone network is also difficult in some areas.”

Interestingly,  the Indonesian government recently launched a media literacy program to help citizens understand what is false and what is true in the digital world. One of the missions established was to reduce negative content spread on the internet through education – not a shutdown.

The paradox becomes clear. “In 2018, the Ministry of Communication informed the government and had taken this program to 350 locations and involved 125,000 participants,” Ningtyas said.

Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.