28 May 2019 By Publikasi IIS

[COMMENTARIES] Limiting Social Media Feature: Indonesian Government’s Intervention to Prevent Fake News in the Political Unrest of 21 May 2019

[COMMENTARIES] Limiting Social Media Feature: Indonesian Government’s Intervention to Prevent Fake News in the Political Unrest of 21 May 2019

The release of Indonesia 2019 election result has sparked chaotic political unrest in Jakarta since 21 May 2019 at night. People come from across the regions and concentrate on Indonesia Election Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) to express their complaints against the result as they deemed the recent election process were carried out unfairly. However, violence took place and escalated, resulting in six people died and many injured in the protest.

Looking at how serious the situation gets, the Government decided to take a measurement by limiting some features in social media and messaging system. It is believed that hoax circulating through social media is what fuels the unrest. (Potkin, 2019) Thus, this action was performed to should help prevent the circulation of fake news and hamper further violence from occurring. Since 22 May 2019 in the afternoon, it was difficult to access Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, and Instagram particularly their feature of delivering pictures and videos.

According to Netblocks (2019), several providers in Indonesia posed restrictions to Whatsapp, Facebook, and Telegram albeit the claim of the government this restriction was imposed regionally. Indosat, Telkomand XL (Excelcomindo) restriction on Whatsapp, Telegram, and Facebook has been to the point of 0% reachability. Nonetheless, Telkom showed variation of loose data where there are some reachability that shows only to the point of 29% for Facebook and 22% for Whatsapp. This means that citizens could still access both platforms despite the difficulties and limitation. Since it was claimed to be regionally implemented, it could be regarded that the variation of data might be because of the various regions this restriction takes place.

Is Limiting Social Media Feature the Best Way to Handle the Situation?

The hashtags of #instagramdown and #whatsappdown were trending in Twitter as the result of the temporary and partial shutdown by the Government. The hashtags showed the impact of the disconnection to citizens in general.  Yet, is it the best way to handle the situation?
Indonesia has been known for taking several interventions in the online content circulation. Back in 2018, Indonesia had successfully blocked around 70,000 sites containing negative contents such as pornography. Additionally, in 2017, Indonesia took action by blocking Telegram, as this messaging system indicated terrorist propaganda in some of the groups within. (Davies and Silviana, 2018) Therefore, it is not unusual that the Government may make a step in the internet once again.

Indeed, Indonesia is not the only government in the world that limits social media access in taking care of such circumstances. Recently, Sri Lanka took similar action when dealing with their suicide attack on April.  The government of Sri Lanka decided to block the mainly used social media which are Facebook and Whatsapp as fake news and incitement to violence were spread through the said platforms. (Wong and Paul, 2019)

Hence, limiting social media feature may not be the best way, but the most suitable one to handle the situation of turmoil in which spread of hoax and violent contents inflame the chaos further and need immediate response. It has been proven by the case above that limiting access or even blocking social media in critical situation is deemed beneficial to end the circulation of fake news and propaganda, as well as to prevent citizens from receiving false information. Misinformation could lead to a greater havoc particularly due to the religion and ethnicity identities that were incorporated in the fake news which was able to emotionally provoke them. (Choudary, et. al., 2012)

Nevertheless, the government action could not stop there. There should be follow-ups such as: 1) increasing digital literacy of the citizens thus in the future they are able to differentiate between hoax and factual news, and 2) deploying strong digital forensics to trace and prosecute the mastermind behind the fake news, for deterrence.

Limiting Social Media Feature and the Value of Democracy

In fact, the aim of social media limitation executed starting from 22 May 2019 is not contradictory with the values of democracy, specifically the freedom of speech. This is due to the fact that the Government of Indonesia does not prevent a particular group from expressing themselves, but the goal is to hamper the circulation of fake news that threaten national security. In comparison, autocratic regime–that is commonly associated with social media limitation, usually intervenes with social media with the aim to repress the opposition or people trying to jeopardize ruling government. (Tucker, 2017) But for the case of Indonesia’s recent political unrest, the government decision to intervene with content circulation is not aimed to do what an autocratic regime usually does. Instead, it is their responsibility to govern contents that incites components which could threaten the national security. To some extent, the limitation over social media features even helps the country undergo critical situation.

However, the wide impact it gets is what may still be debatable. The government attempt to  limit social media features affects not only the parties who are responsible in spreading hoax, but also citizens in general that may need the access to social media for their own needs (i.e. online shops owners, vloggers trying to update about their lives online, K-Pop lovers who want to retrieve information about their idols). This segmentation is the one who is stripped from their rights of social media accessibility, freedom of speech.

It will be a different and ideal scenario if Indonesia’s government has a tool which can detect whether a picture or video contains violence element within. This tool–most likely using Artificial Intelligence technology, takes down or blocks this kind of content from surfacing online. Hence, the target is clear and does not affect the freedom of speech of citizens in general. The government possession over this particular technology is unknown, so far. But if the government, in fact, has it but does not use it, we may re-question the aim of step taken by them in limiting social media feature in general rather than in targeted operation. So far, no indication from Indonesia’s government abused their power over freedom of speech in the internet in this context.

Arindha Nityasari, S.I.P.

Research Staff, Institute of International Studies UGM