Where Memes Could Kill: Indonesia's Worsening Problem of Fak
In late November, Indonesian social-media activist Ulin Yusron found himself depicted in a meme. The image, which went viral, falsely portrayed the long-haired male journalist as Amalia Ayuningtyas mdash a female election volunteer for the governor of Jakarta. The photo, the text claimed, was of Amalia immodestly casting off her usual hijab. It asked: ldquoWherersquos the Veil??rdquo
Jakarta#8217s Christian and ethnically Chinese governor mdash Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok mdash is a target for hard-line Muslims, who have successfully pressured the authorities to put him on trial for blasphemy. It is not surprising that memes are being produced that seek to depict the Muslim volunteers in his camp as irreligious and profane.
ldquoWhen I first saw it, I was able to laugh,rdquo Ulin tells TIME about the photo collage. ldquoBut later on, it became so troublesome because there were people who believed it hellip [The meme] was around for quite a while, and I became tired of explaining it.rdquo
Hoaxes like this, and fake news items in general, have become a massive problem in Indonesia in recent months, coinciding with the hotly contested Jakarta gubernatorial election campaign. To be sure, the sharing of fake news on social media has contributed to political tension in many countries mdash by one estimate, it generated more social-media engagement than real news during the U.S. presidential election in November mdash but in Indonesia, with its recent incidences of domestic terrorism, and its long and bloody history of anticommunist, anti-Christian and anti-Chinese pogroms, inflaming ethnic and political tensions is potentially deadly.
President Joko ldquoJokowirdquo Widodo, seen as a Muslim moderate, has vowed to crack down, telling a Cabinet meeting that fake news was nothing short of an attempt to destabilize his government. ldquoSlander, hatred and rude words on social media are increasingly troubling people,rdquo Jokowi tweeted on Dec. 29. ldquoWe need determined and tough law enforcement.rdquo
The problem first drew significant attention during Indonesia#8217s 2014 presidential election, in which Jokowi mdash Ahok#8217s predecessor as Jakarta#8217s top official mdash was a candidate. During electioneering, Jokowi was the constant target of a smear campaign that falsely claimed he was, among other things, the child of Indonesian Communist Party members, of Chinese descent, and a Christian. (He was forced to make his marriage certificate public to quell the rumors.)
Now, the creators of fake news are targeting Ahok, who was deputy governor of Indonesia#8217s sprawling capital under Jokowi. Ahok succeeded his boss in the governorship and, backed by Jokowirsquos party, is now seeking his own mandate in the gubernatorial election next year, competing with two other rivals, including former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono#8217s son. Ahok#8217s candidacy is opposed by hard-liners who, insisting that Indonesia#8217s top jobs be filled Muslims only, want to quash any chances Ahok may have of following Jokowi into the national arena.