Is Indonesia better equipped to deal with hoaxes on WhatsApp in this election?

The government, media, and civil society groups have stepped efforts up to prevent the worst. WhatsApp itself is trying to combat viral effects with a new feature.

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Is Indonesia better equipped to deal with hoaxes on WhatsApp in this election?

Indonesia, like other countries, faces the grave challenge of how to control misinformation spreading through social networks and chat apps like WhatsApp.

As the world’s fourth most populous country approaches general elections in April, false news or “hoaxes” that gain mass popularity can potentially have dire consequences. Influencing public opinion with false facts is one thing, but more worryingly, persistent online rumours can spill over into real life and incite  violence.

Indonesia’s IT Ministry has raised its efforts to spot misinformation and circulate official information to debunk false claims. It says it has already recorded 63 instances of hoax content related to the 2019 election. And, under mounting global pressure, the world’s largest social networks have come to accept that they must take on more responsibility for the way their tools are used.

WhatsApp, which is part of Facebook, recently rolled out a feature that limits the number of times a message can be forwarded; an attempt to slow down the speed at which potentially dangerous messages can reach large swaths of the population. The coming months will put the effectiveness of these measures to the test. Meanwhile, some observers are not convinced that enough has been done to counter any seriously planned misinformation campaign.

Five years to prepare

Devising measures to combat hoax news is not a new thing in Indonesia, as the country’s officials, media, a civil society group had some time to adapt to the phenomenon.

Five years ago, during the 2014 Presidential Election, Indonesia was overwhelmed by a false news epidemic, when the supporters of the two strongholds, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, attacked each other on social media platforms with clever misinformation tactics, and little media literacy in the population to deal with the deluge. This year, with the same presidential candidates in the race, history is set to repeats itself – or not, if the past five years have held any lessons.

Today, Facebook and WhatsApp both remain highly popular services in Indonesia and provide the easiest platform to spread false news, Heru Sutadi, executive director of Indonesia’s ICT Institute told KrASIA.

Facebook has developed its own measures of working with fact-checking partners and limiting the popularity of the dangerous post on its timelines. WhatsApp is fully encrypted and lets people send each other links privately, which means neither the app itself nor the government is able to flag content or limit its visibility.

“On Whatsapp, I see that Indonesians have the tendency to create [many] WhatsApp groups, even with people that they are not really close to,” Sutadi said. Although this could be a way to maintain networking or friendship, group chats are often misused as a medium to spread provocative news or hoaxes. “The news is spread from one group to another and eventually becomes viral.”

As of Q3 2017, around 40% of the Indonesian population uses WhatsApp and the number is expected to grow every year, Statista data shows.

One of the most recent and most prominent attempts to spread misinformation regarding the election was a news item that claimed about 70 million ballots had been sent from China, already marked in favour of Indonesian President Joko Widodo to rig the elections. Published first on a blog, the article was forwarded to Facebook and Twitter, then shared to WhatsApp groups and eventually became viral. WhatsApp messages with “witness testimonies” and photos shared alongside the original false information added to the difficulty of separating fact from fiction. For some days, that rumour managed to trigger public complaints towards the president and the General Election Commission. But not long after, fact-checking initiatives like the one led by independent magazine Tempo were able to confirm that the news was fake. The incident even quickly led to an arrest.

Getting WhatsApp’s ear

But many more hoaxes, not all as daring and well-planned, but potentially also harmful, are constantly being shared on WhatsApp especially as the election approaches. Last year alone, the IT ministry said it received 733 complaints about hoax content distributed via WhatsApp.

According to the study  “WhatsApp: The Widespread Use of WhatsApp in Political Campaigning in the Global South”, the platform has various advantages that are beneficial during political campaigns. WhatsApp is free, it allows users to create group chats, and it can be used to penetrate rural communities that don’t have access to fast internet, therefore it is ideal to mobilise supporters.

In order to address this issue, IT Minister Rudiantara had a meeting with WhatsApp’s vice president of public policy and communications, Victoria Grand, at his office last week.

It’s rare to see WhatsApp representatives make their way to Indonesia. But with parent company Facebook under growing pressure to improve its ways after multiple scandals, WhatsApp, too, seems more willing to lend its ear to individual country’s gripes when it comes to using the platform. The messenger app did introduce one key new feature which limits the number of times you can forward a message after consulting with countries most affected by WhatsApp misinformation campaigns.

WhatsApp and the representatives of four countries — Brazil, India, Mexico, and Indonesia — have been discussing this feature since Q3 2018 while a beta test has been carried out in the last two months, according to an IT Ministry statement,

Temporarily, the feature only applies to the Android version of the app. It became effective in Indonesia on  January 22, where the number of forwards for a single message will be limited to five. In addition, WhatsApp said it improve its capabilities to identify and block accounts which are linked to spreading fake news and users won’t be able to reactivate their WhatsApp’s accounts for good.

“The [five-recipient limit] helps to minimise negative content and hoaxes,” said IT Minister Rudiantara. “This is a joint effort between WhatsApp and the government from four countries where the spread of hoaxes is alarming, and Indonesia is one them.”

According to Grand, WhatsApp will also provide hotline service in Indonesia to control the circulation of false news and hate speech ahead of the elections.

The five-recipient limit was first introduced in India in July 2018, along with another feature that lets you label forwarded messages. The app also removed a quick-forward button next to images, video and audio clips.

Meanwhile, a larger limit of 20 recipients was introduced globally. WhatsApp claimed that the forwarded message rate was reduced by 25% globally during the trial period.

Too little, too late

As a social media observer, Sutedi sees that Facebook and Whatsapp’s efforts in fighting hoaxes still cannot guarantee a decline in news manipulation on social media.

“I think the limitation on the number of forwards is not enough to reduce hoaxes on WhatsApp because users can still copy and paste the fake news and spread them through the group chats. As we are getting closer to the election, [government instances] should work together with social media platforms by forming a dedicated team to monitor fake news and give real-time reports to the public. This should have been done months ago, so I think it’s already too late if this precautionary action is only taken now,” said Sutedi.

According to Sutedi, the government, Facebook, and WhatsApp haven’t learned enough and done too little to adapt, coming out of the 2014 elections and witnessing the Brazilian elections last year, which saw an onslaught of fake news, hoaxes, and political conspiracy theories that spreading through WhatsApp.

According to a Bloomberg report, a few days before the second round of elections in Brazil, Facebook and WhatsApp were working hard to prevent the spread of hoaxes by adding more people to its security teams, cooperating with fact-checking agencies, and deleting content that provides false information. A special division was formed to carry out this task, which included engineers, legal teams, data experts, and experts in other fields. WhatsApp deactivated approximately 100,000 user accounts at that time. They poured funds into a marketing campaign titled “Share Facts, Not Rumours”. A number of elite officials also supported this campaign.

Despite from these efforts, the spread of hoaxes couldn’t be controlled completely. In fact, according to a report from Vox, Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in Brazil’s election can’t be separated from the use of hoaxes to deflate support for his opponent, Fernando Haddad.

“Although it is not as bad as what happened in Brazil, political hoaxes in Indonesia are still alarming,” Sutedi said. “Hoax prevention must be carried out systematically, from socialisation and education of social media in schools and communities, to collaboration between the government with social media platforms. In addition, law enforcers must be able to take firm action against hoax producers so that it can give a deterrent effect to others. These actions should be carried out continuously, even after the election is over,” Sutedi concluded.

Editor: Nadine Freischlad