Digital Skills Key to Stopping Online Hoaxes

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  • Various Indonesia social media hoaxes debunked by TurnBackHoax and Cekfakta over the last month. Hoaxes from top left, moving clockwise; Footballers cover eyes to honor Palestinian journalist, Ma'ruf warns children away from the Koran, a Tempo cover criticizing Ahok, a historical drug store advertising cannabis, Ahok poses with Hollywood celebrities, Jokowi stands on the Indonesian flag. By: Max Eagles.

    Various Indonesia social media hoaxes debunked by TurnBackHoax and Cekfakta over the last month. Hoaxes from top left, moving clockwise; Footballers cover eyes to honor Palestinian journalist, Ma'ruf warns children away from the Koran, a Tempo cover criticizing Ahok, a historical drug store advertising cannabis, Ahok poses with Hollywood celebrities, Jokowi stands on the Indonesian flag. By: Max Eagles.

    By: Max Eagles | Research, translation and logistic support by Nafisa Deana. Max Eagles traveled to Indonesia with support from the New Colombo Plan Mobility Scheme.

    “Youngsters use their social media for everything, good and bad, without realizing. I want them to focus on creating good content – to remind them they are responsible for their content, and how it influences others,” says Munawwaroh, an academic and entrepreneur who runs digital media literacy workshops for youth influencers in South Sumatra.

    Munawwaroh runs youth workshops that focus on how young people can use technology to critically evaluate and create information. The government, educators and journalists are encouraging the development of digital literacy as social media hoaxes continue to be spread widely through WhatsApp, Facebook and other online platforms.  

    “Children growing up using social media need to receive digital and media literacy at a young age,” says Harum Sekartaji who has been collaborating with Solo Bersimfoni, an organization in Central Java that is also running digital literacy workshops for local youth. “This means they need to learn from their families first, and I’m not very sure families here in Surakarta are aware enough of the importance of digital literacy.”

    The need for digital literacy exists beyond Surakarta and South Sumatra, to all of Indonesia. Exponential increases in Internet and social media use, with more than 150 million Indonesians now online, has seen a related boom in the spread of social media hoaxes, especially relating to divisive political issues. The effect of social media hoaxes has been evident since the 2014 presidential election, with then-candidate Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo was the subject of conspiracy theories.

    Advances in Indonesian internet capability has encouraged the development of multimedia centric hoaxes which couldn’t have been sent by mobile prior to 3G technology, says Ratna Ariyanti, a coordinator at the International Federation of Journalists. “In 2014, misinformation was spread using texts and pictures, however in 2019, false videos are also being used.”

    A digital literacy session in Solo, Central Java. Photo by Solo Bersimfoni

    Hoaxes vary by platform and subject matter. A widely circulated post on Facebook pictured the President appearing to trample the Indonesian flag. Last week an imitation ‘news’ article was written with fabricated quotes of Jokowi saying he supported increasing Indonesian presidential term lengths. Other public figures such politicians, business leaders, community leaders and activists are also targets. Even Tempo is targeted; an imposter version of one of November’s magazine covers was altered to include a line critical of former Jakarta governor Ahok, another frequent target of hoaxers. 

    Misinformation online presents new challenges to the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology’s internet filtering department. Filtering was previously generally automated, targeting illegal vices such as pornography and gambling, which are easily identifiable by the algorithm.

    “No AI can handle hoaxes,” says Riko Rahmada, who manages the government’s Internet Filtering Infrastructure. “Most of what we do with hoaxes has to be done manually.”

    His agency has 100 staff who work around the clock to trace hoaxes and disinformation that they have been alerted to. When they find false and misleading materials going viral, they alert fact-checkers who circulate corrections.

    Fact-checking has developed across Indonesian media, with initiatives such as Cekfakta and Mafindo countering the rise in misinformation. The groups collaborate with journalists and volunteer contributors to debunk the popular hoaxes of the day

    “Mafindo has also got a lot of backlashes. Whenever page owners get fact-checked, they will have reduced distribution of their posts,” says Mafindo’s co-founder, Aribowo Sasmito.

    Besides fact-checking, Mafindo has developed Hoax Buster Tools, an application for smartphones that allows users to easily verify social media hoaxes themselves. “It’s a customized Google search. It’ll only show results coming from credible sources, like news articles,” Ari says.

    Fact-checking is inherently limited. It’s reactive; a hoaxer creates a hoax, then fact-checkers debunk it.

    “What we do on the eighth floor, is basically like a fire brigade. We put out the fire, but we do not prevent the fire. The people that do that are focused on digital literacy,” Rahmada says. “We only come when the fire has already happened.”

    Take-down notices from social media companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, are similarly reactive. They only take place after hoaxes have already been circulated, although Indonesian media analyst, Ross Tapsell of Australian National University, supports the practice.

    “The public take-downs and the naming and shaming of actors involved...should be encouraged and expanded given that the problem of ‘inauthentic behavior’ will continue to grow. More work needs to be done by the platforms themselves to reduce the problem before it becomes a huge problem.”

    Short-term methods such as fact-checking and takedown notices must be accompanied by a commitment to digital literacy education. Formal digital literacy programs are mostly confined to university-level education, which is undertaken by only 5 percent of the population, but recently hundreds of smaller literacy training programs have sprung up in Indonesia.

    “In Sumatra, they don’t know about hoax debunking,” Munawwaroh says. Most people receive their news from friends or public accounts, she says, bypassing the mainstream media and the fact-checking it publishes entirely.

    Both Munawwaroh and Solo Bersimfoni are planning future workshops for local youth, particularly high school students. Emphasis is placed on developing the skills which will allow the next generation to fact-check themselves, reducing the strain on third-party and government services.

    However, workshops such as these are voluntary, and still not included in the Indonesian school curriculum. There must be a “comprehensive ‘curriculum’ in digital literacy,” Harum says of the future, “from the family to schools and communities”.

    A digital literacy class would probably be popular with students, Munawarroh says. “There aren’t many workshops in Sumatra for students. I did these workshops, and I’m getting requests from youngsters, asking for more training and workshops on digital literacy.”

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