After the ethnically and religiously divisive Jakarta election this week, fake news or hoaxes appeared as a potent force during the unseemly campaign.
The vote saw the incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (pictured), commonly known as Ahok, lose heavily. Ahok, in 2014, became the first Christian and ethnic Chinese governor of the Muslim-majority city in more than 50 years when he took the job.
He led the election’s first round in February but without enough votes to secure victory so was forced into an unsuccessful run-off this week.
His opponent, former education minister Anies Baswedan, went from also-ran status to victor on the back of the religiously charged campaign.
The vote also reflected class tensions in a country with some of the greatest income inequalities in the world.
Ahok was overwhelmingly supported by the middle and upper classes but he alienated poorer voters with his evictions in the north of the capital.
“There’s a wide, disenfranchised social base that looks elsewhere than politics for representation [to religious groups],” said Ian Wilson of Murdoch University in Perth.
“We recorded that there are more than 1,900 alleged-hoax reports in recent three months,” said Khairul Ashar, a co-founder of Turn Back Hoax, a digital initiative to combat lies on social media.
“More than 1,000 reports have been confirmed as hoaxes. Most of these are about politics, mainly about Jakarta’s gubernatorial election. And religious issues play a big role,” said Ashar, who is based in Singapore.
A photo from the recent visit of Saudi King Salman showing him shaking hands with Ahok was condemned as false on social media, despite being the work of the Indonesian president’s official photographer.
Salman is praised in Indonesia as an Islamic role model, so the photo should have boosted Ahok’s standing if not for the allegations on social media.
One comment read: “This news is hoax, because it is haram for a king to shake hands with the blasphemer of Islam.”
President Joko Widodo this month inaugurated Jakarta’s first city-owned grand mosque only for internet users to say it looked like a cross, blaming Ahok of “Christianisation”.
Anies has also been a victim of hoaxes with a picture spreading online proclaiming, “If Mr Baswedan loses the election, there will be Muslim revolution”, showing threatening men wearing white clothes and holding swords.
Fake news also pokes at simmering ethnic tensions.
The leader of Islam Defenders Front, Rizieq Shihab, tried to spark anti-Chinese sentiment by tweeting that China wanted to take over Indonesia and turn the country into a communist state.
In 1998, about 1,000 people died during two days of anti-Chinese riots fuelled by food shortages and economic meltdown.
Picture credit: Wikimedia