The Christian former governor of Jakarta who was jailed for blasphemy may have been a victim of a sophisticated anti-government campaign of “fake news” and malicious bots.
Indonesian police believe they have uncovered a clandestine “fake news” operation designed to destabilise the government and corrupt the political process, the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported today.
Authorities have made a series of arrests across Indonesia in recent weeks linked to an online jihadist network known as the Muslim Cyber Army (MCA).
Damar Juniarto, of the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network, said the MCA comprised groups or networks with links to opposition parties, the military, and an organisation of increasingly influential Islamists. Police have not revealed who is financing it.
The Guardian said one network it had identified “was created for the sole purpose of tweeting inflammatory content and messages designed to amplify social and religious division, and push a hardline Islamist and anti-government line”.
Digital strategist Shafiq Pontoh, from the data consultancy firm Provetic, told the Guardian: “The first victim in the polluted [digital] ecosystem was the governor election, Ahok,” adding of the controversial blasphemy conviction: “It was all because of fake news, bots, black campaigns, prejudice and racism.”
A bot is software that performs simple and repetitive tasks and is often used for malicious purposes such as posting defamatory content on social media platforms.
The Guardian reported that a cluster of bots in the Indonesia Twittersphere, used to pump out anti-Ahok material last year, stopped tweeting two days after the gubernatorial election.
Savic Ali, online director at Indonesia’s largest Islamic group, Nahdlatul Ulama, suggested the Muslim Cyber Army was not about the true values of Islam but “about power”.
Ahok, a Christian politician of Chinese descent, was sentenced to two years in prison last May following a string of protests organised by conservative Muslim groups while he campaigned for re-election.
He was convicted on the basis of a video in which he argued against use of the Quran for political purposes – comments for which he was later adjudged to have committed blasphemy. Six months later a communications professor from Jakarta, Buni Yani, was found guilty of tampering with the video on which Ahok appeared and which turned public opinion against him.
Meanwhile a spokesman for Indonesia’s Supreme Court has said the review of Ahok’s case may be fast-tracked because of the case’s high profile.
The spokesman, Agung Abdullah, suggested the court may consider speeding up the process of the case review, “because the case receives widespread public attention”, the Jakarta Post reported last week.
North Jakarta District Court’s head of public relations, Jootje Sampaleng, confirmed that the documents from Ahok’s ten-minute appeal hearing on 26 February had been signed and sent to the Supreme Court.