“Fake-news and Hate Speech in the Election Year” by Deasy Simandjuntak

2018/29, 19 March 2018

On Sunday 4th March, the Indonesian police arrested a member of the hate speech group called the “Family Muslim Cyber Army”, or the Family MCA. Only last week, the police had caught several other members across the archipelago.

Among the Family MCA’s many fabrications was raising the spectre of the Indonesian Communist Party threat, a sensitive issue frequently used by religious conservative groups to discredit the government. The group earlier spread fake news about attacks on Islamic preachers. The police found that among the 45 cases of religion-related attacks that went viral in social-media, only three were proven to have actually taken place.

In February, two related attacks took place: one against a senior moderate-Islamic cleric at a boarding school in Bandung, the other against a Catholic priest at a church in Yogyakarta. These two incidents sparked off a series of fake news.
The police identified the Family MCA, as belonging to a group called “Muslim Cyber Army”, consisting of several loosely connected groups with hundreds of members. The groups worked together, the police said, and used various social-media platforms in the spreading of fake news.
The MCA was also involved in the anti-Ahok (former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama) campaign in the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2017.
Inspector General Gatot Edi from the police’s Nusantara task-force, whose main mission is to ensure stability in the preparation of this year’s local elections, said that the Family MCA was politically motivated. He said the group aimed to stir up chaos and anxiety in the society to discredit the government. The police are now looking for the political actors responsible for the activities. This is not easy due to the loose membership and ideological nature of the movement.
Damar Juniarto, the founder of digital rights group Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFENet), who has been tracking MCA’s activities since last year, said that the group’s activities have significant impact on politics and had resulted in people losing jobs, kidnapped and tortured.
KH Said Aqil Siroj, the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest moderate-Muslim organization, condemned the MCA, as Islam forbids the spreading of lies and instigation of conflict. He called on political parties to stop manipulating sectarian sentiments in elections. However, the parliamentary fraction chairman of the opposition party, the Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party, Jazuli Juwani, while agreeing that MCA’s activities broke religious norms, also called for the police to be objective in their investigation and not make accusation of political motives without evidence.

This is not the first time the police has rounded up a hate-speech group. Last year, the police arrested members of a more organized hate-speech group called the “Saracen”. This online syndicate was alleged to have charged tens of millions of rupiah to spread fake news and hate speech. Saracen is believed to have spread hate speech against former Jakarta governor Ahok and President Joko Widodo. The police pointed to MCA’s links to Saracen. However MCA with its more widespread membership presents a greater threat.

The 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections showed how sectarian sentiments can be maliciously mobilized to influence the outcome of an election. The authorities must remain vigilant to combat any politically motivated attempt to rouse hatred and conflict. Only then can stability be ensured in the lead up to the local elections in hundreds of provinces and districts in June 2018.

Deasy Simandjuntak is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.