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Indonesia’s Winding Road to Democracy: Facing Fake News and Hoaxes

I began to write this article as Indonesia faces the national election in April 17, 2019, in which the president, the vice president, and members of the parliament will be elected on the same day. Over 190 million Indonesian are eligible to vote. After 73 years of independence, the citizens of Indonesia still have to learn how to build a democratic society. A democratic society requires not only a good government, but also mutual trust between the government and its people. Unfortunately, the trust is threatened by fake news and hoaxes which are spread rapidly through social media. In times of high political tensions, especially during presidential elections, fake news and hoaxes have been used and will continue to be used to create mistrust against the current government in order to destabilize the country.

One recent example of fake news was a report about six containers from China at Jakarta port that supposedly contained ballots with votes in support of President Joko Widodo a.k.a. Jokowi (57), who is running for re-election, along with his running mate, Ma’aruf Amin (75), a former leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one of the biggest Islamic organization in Indonesia.[1] After the police inspected the port, no such containers were found. The General Election Commission stated that the ballots have not yet been printed.

Surely that is bad news for democracy in Indonesia. The fake news about the six containers is seen as an attempt to delegitimize Indonesia’s 2019 presidential election. The fake ballots are used to form opinions that the elections will be unfair to the opposition candidate against Joko Widodo, Prabowo Subianto (67), and that he might lose the election. When watching the first presidential debate between Jokowi and Prabowo on January 17, 2019, I found the same pattern of presenting false data by the opposition. For instance, he stated that the salary of the current governor of Middle Java Province is low, although he leads a province which is larger than Malaysia. In reality, the province is one tenth of Malaysia. Such statement was used to dramatize the situation, as if public officers were lowly paid. In many occasions, aggressive rhetoric and social media manipulation were shown by the campaign team of the challenger.

Hoaxes are considered as the biggest threat for democracy in Indonesia. It is a real threat if I consider that Indonesia has an enormous number of social media users, yet most of them have only low media literacy. The lack of critical thought causes the rapid spreading of false news for political purposes. This method is proven to be effective especially in countries with a relatively short experience of democracy and great inequalities like Indonesia.

Since 1997, before every election, the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference publishes a pastoral letter regarding elections and reminds Catholics to use their right to participate in elections. The letter of the bishops also gives advice that voters have to choose a candidate who has moral integrity and wants to serve for the common good. Thus the Catholic voters need to learn about the track record of the candidate. The invitation to be a “smart voter” is a realization of Christian virtues in a democracy. In a society threatened by potential conflicts due to fake news like Indonesia nowadays, the faithful need to practice the virtues of prudence and temperance.