Over the past few years, an English word has become a prominent part of the Indonesian vernacular: hoax.
Opinion pieces in daily papers, panellists on talk shows, and civil society activists have all discussed the rise of fake news and hoaxes on social media. One of the most notorious examples was the claim that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo had plans to bring 10 million Chinese workers into the country, placing Indonesian jobs at risk. This spurious information became so widespread that the president was eventually forced to issue a clarification, stating that the 10 million figure was derived from tourism targets.
Earlier this week, an image of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, being kissed on the cheeks by two women went viral on Facebook. The Facebook post described the two women as being from sleazy Jakarta nightclub Alexis, and was claimed to demonstrate why Ahok had failed to close the nightspot. The two women were, in fact, US celebrities Miley Cyrus and Megan Fox, and the picture was created by Indonesian Photoshop artist Agan Harahap, who is well known for his playful merging of Indonesian and celebrity images.
While many examples of fake news might seem similarly ridiculous, hoaxes and fake news are causing serious damage to Indonesian democracy, like a cancer growing out of control.
The quality of democracy is largely determined by the extent of meaningful and autonomous public participation in the political process. When political engagement and collective action is based on lies or manipulated data, participation may end up harming, rather than strengthening, democracy.
Hoaxes – fake news designed to influence or provoke an audience into acting in accordance with the interests of the creator – are now a ubiquitous part of the public conversation online in Indonesia. Although some is produced with the specific intention of attracting clicks and advertising revenue, many of the hoaxes shared on social media are created by people with a specific political agenda. When the facts don’t support this agenda, hoaxes emerge.
Although fake news has been around for many years, it began to explode after the bitterly contested 2014 Presidential Election. Anyone who followed that election would recall the fake news spread by supporters of eventual winner Jokowi and his opponent, Prabowo Subianto. Both sides were guilty of spreading fake news and slander, but most attacks targeted Jokowi – and many were based on race and religion. For example, an obituary that circulated on social media gave the impression that Jokowi was Chinese, and claimed that the H in front of his name actually stood for “Hubertus”, rather than “Haji”, indicating that he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Rather than being simple political attacks, these fake stories and hoaxes caused significant damage to the foundations of tolerance and multiculturalism in Indonesia, leading to divisions that persisted beyond the life of the election.
This plague of hoaxes and fake news doesn’t only affect countries that are still consolidating their democracies like Indonesia. It is also a problem in some countries with a long tradition of liberal democracy, such as the United States.
Why, in an increasingly open and connected world, are the public apparently willing to accept insults as the basis for action, or hate as a legitimate political position? The answer is closely linked to the issue of social dislocation, resulting from social and economic crises that have been poorly anticipated or addressed by political elites.
Take the Indonesian case. In its extensive 2015 report on inequality in Indonesia, the World Bank stated that the richest 1 per cent of Indonesians controlled almost 50 per cent of the economic resources in the country. Meanwhile, the top 10 per cent controlled as much as 77 per cent of the economic resources in Indonesia, leaving just 23 per cent for the remaining 90 per cent of the population.
This growing inequality and injustice has caused social distress and it is compounded by the perennial problem of the poor accountability of Indonesia’s elected leaders. Despite the advances of the democratic era, connections remain weak between the state and civil society, and lawmakers and their constituents.
In many countries, including in Indonesia, this situation has been exploited by figures who claim to speak on behalf of the majority, directing the anxieties and fear caused by social dislocation toward the “threat” of immigrants, domination of minority groups, or foreign intervention in politics. In this way, facts become secondary to the broader political goal.
This is particularly dangerous in Indonesia, where many citizens have yet to develop the habit of engaging critically with the media.
Hoaxes as political instruments are not a sign of a challenge from civil society to state power – despite what some Indonesians have claimed. Hoaxes are in fact part of political competition and are often used by elites who exploit and manipulate public fear. And even if political elites or powerful actors are not actively reproducing misleading or incorrect information, they have been happy to rely on the support it may bring them.
Fighting the disease of fake news is a struggle to reclaim logic and reasoning from their enemies. The principles of independence, democratisation of knowledge and equal political competition are the only remedy to prevent further spread of the cancer.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Kompas, on 11 January, as “‘Hoax’: Kanker Demokrasi”.