False reports spread on social media have targeted Indonesia's Chinese and other minorities. Official censorship has failed to halt the hoaxes or the violence.
A couple of disturbing incidents last year shocked many Indonesians out of their complacency and delivered new blows to the idea that their country is not quite as tolerant as the foreign media has led them to believe.
One happened in July, when an angry mob set fire to several Buddhist temples in North Sumatra. Five months later, two people were killed and one seriously injured following a brawl in Depok, a conservative Muslim district on the western outskirts of Jakarta.
The two violent attacks against ethnic Chinese minorities had one thing in common: they occurred right after provocative and fake news reports appeared in social media. More recent false news has accused Chinese migrants of importing chili plants tainted with bacteria that was supposedly killing local crops.
Religious and ethnic intolerance in Indonesia is clearly on the rise, in large part because former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono saw his role as a referee rather than a leader in protecting minority rights. His successor, Joko Widodo, shows signs of heading down the same path.
According to the Setara Institute, a local nongovernmental organization that conducts research on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, the 91 cases of religious violence recorded in 2007 against Christians and two Muslim minorities, Shia and Ahmadiyah, swelled to 264 in 2012 and 220 in 2013.
It dropped back to 134 and 197 over the next two years, but outbreaks of vigilantism have been enough to cause heightened concern given the low base it has come from and the failure of law enforcement agencies to do much about it.
Most of the perpetrators belong to the Sunni majority — and most of them came from such radical groups as the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), which has been playing a leading role in the campaign to head off the re-election of ethnic Chinese Jakarta Governor Basuki Purnama.
More recently, the appointment of a Christian sub-district chief for central Java’s Bantul regency was met with protests by local Muslims. But the Bantul regent stood his ground, citing the constitutionally-guaranteed right of all citizens to work in government.
When Indonesia’s founding fathers drafted the secular 1945 Constitution, pluralism was a key point of deliberation given the diverse number of cultural, religious and ethnic groups across a nation of 17,000 islands. Although 88 percent of Indonesia’s 245 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims, minorities span the gamut from Hindu Balinese to Christian Papuans to animist Dayaks to Buddhist Chinese.
Unity in diversity became the national philosophy and repeated efforts to introduce Sharia law into the constitution have all foundered. Indeed, despite a reluctance to accept the separation of mosque and state, only 12-13 percent of Indonesians have voted for Sharia-based political parties in the past four democratic elections.
Today, however, the future of pluralism in Indonesia hangs in the balance under a renewed threat from modern technology, or to be more specific, from the Internet and social media. The ease of unregulated messaging through cheap and simple-to-use cellular and smart phones has unleashed a torrent of biased, speculative commentaries that have combined to trigger hatred and mistrust across Indonesian society.
“The destructive power of false reports has become increasingly worrying,” the respected Tempo weekly newsmagazine said in a recent editorial, urging the government to address the problem seriously and swiftly.
Fake news is not new in Indonesia. President Widodo himself was a victim of an online hoax during his 2014 presidential campaign, when he was falsely described as having parents who were members of the banned Communist Party of Indonesia and descendants of ethnic Chinese families.
Only recently reports spread on social media that the economy was tanking and that bank customers should withdraw their cash from ATMs. Had the false reports gained common currency they could have caused a disastrous run on the country’s financial institutions. New rumors may well do so in the future given the government’s poor reputation for public relations.
The Widodo administration’s reaction has been predictable. His government recently created an integrated national cyber-agency to control “the spread of disinformation in cyberspace,” which it deems to be a threat to national security. “The agency will be tasked with monitoring national cyber activities … and identifying those accountable (for false reports) for legal action,” said Wiranto, Indonesia’s political coordinating minister.
The Communication and Information Technology Ministry has for years tried to do just that, weeding out websites and blogs that spread hate speech and other provocative material. In 2015 alone, the ministry reported to have blocked 800,000 websites, though only 85 were related to Islamic radicalism. The rest were blocked for violating anti-pornography and anti-gambling regulations.
As important as it may be in any other circumstances, the censorship is sad commentary for a country where a hypocritical fixation with public morality often takes disproportionate precedence over more pressing issues.
The ease of unregulated messaging through cheap and simple-to-use cellular and smart phones has unleashed a torrent of biased, speculative commentaries that have combined to trigger hatred and mistrust across Indonesian society.
The country’s mobile phone market has exploded over the past decade: eighty-five percent of Indonesians now own cellular phones. Fully half of those own smart phones. SIM subscriptions stand at 326.3 million, far exceeding the size of its population.
This means each mobile phone user owns an average of two SIM cards. Most users can now access the Internet by using their mobile devices, with mobile phones accounting for 70 percent of web page views compared to 28 percent for laptops and desktops.
Another more complicated barrier for controlling freewheeling social media is the seemingly untouchable law on freedom of expression. When the information ministry or police act to block a website, there is usually a loud outcry from free speech activists.
Educators want the Widodo administration to seriously consider including digital literacy into the curriculum of public schools as one way to begin the fight against disinformation. In the meantime, most hopes lie with the public itself.
Over the past few months, civil society groups have organized themselves into hoax-busting communities which advocate the use of ‘Turn Back Hoaxes’ — an online service to field fake news complaints.
There is general agreement, however, that it is up to the government and its security services to rein in the vigilantism that has called into serious question its commitment to religious and ethnic tolerance.
Yuli Ismartono is a veteran Indonesian journalist