Misinformation, disinformation, hoaxes, fake news, and more generally doctored information are among the major global challenges of our age, especially during uncertain times and over divisive matters. As the United Nations put it, ‘we are in a moment of global reckoning with the pandemic sweeping across the globe, worldwide protests for racial justice and the climate emergency. Misinformation, hate speech and fake news is fueling and distorting all of these challenges.’
Indonesia has over 260 million inhabitants and is the fourth most populated nation in the world. As the fifth-largest nationality on Twitter, with the second-highest WhatsApp user population in Asia-Pacific and over 126 million Facebook users, it is not immune from ‘hoaxes’: the umbrella term used in the country to refer to disinformation and misinformation (see here for more on definitions and terms). Yenni Kwok has pointed out that false claims and fraudulent information have become an even bigger problem in the post-Suharto era of democracy.
Hoaxes can have severe consequences at all levels. With their potential to influence how individuals think and vote, or what they believe, hoaxes can undermine democratic values as well as the peaceful living of communities. Hoaxes not only erode democracy but also undermine citizens’ trust in the openness of cyberspace and the positive impact of technology in general. Furthermore, measures adopted by states to fight doctored information may lead to potential abuses: for example, limitations of freedom of expression for citizens or restrictions in Internet access.
In 2015, a Facebook group named FAFHH (Anti Slander, Provocation, and Hoax Forum) was created by Harry Sufehmi as a crowdsourced hoax-busting effort, i.e. a platform where members would work together to debunk disinformation. Since then, FAFHH has turned into MAFINDO (Indonesian Anti Hoax Community), a community with over 80,000 members, 17 chapters across the country and more than 300 volunteers.
MAFINDO has built offensive and defensive anti-hoax capabilities through fact-checking activities, a machine-assisted hoax-busting mechanism, multi-channel counter-propaganda and the production of anti-hoax education materials. Among other initiatives, MAFINDO’s hoax-buster team maintains the Global Hoax Database (GHD), developed a machine-to-machine interface for it (Yudistira) and released ASE, an Anti-Hoax Search Engine that allows users to surf on hoax-free websites.
During the 2014 presidential elections in Indonesia, hoaxes represented a severe threat to the rights of Indonesians to be correctly informed, and hence to vote freely and fairly. At that time, several hoaxes targeted controversial ethnic and religious issues, thereby fuelling social tensions and havoc. Two years later, during the Jakarta gubernatorial elections, massive disinformation campaigns led to the downfall of the leading candidate, who suffered greatly from doctored information about his ethnic and religious identity.
Contrary to the expectations of many, the 2019 Indonesian presidential elections did not follow the same path. Quite the opposite: they were declared hoax-free, thanks also to the watchdog activities carried out by the fact-checking alliance CekFakta. MAFINDO provided its fact-checking support during Presidential debates and worked to chase hoaxes on WhatsApp and Telegram. For example, it set up a line that citizens could use to report hoaxes via WhatsApp, receiving over 2,000 reports.
In 2018, the Independent Journalist Association gave MAFINDO the Tasrif Award. In the same year, the Hoax Crisis Center set up by MAFINDO was credited as the leader of peacekeeping efforts during the West Kalimantan local election, where potential riots were successfully averted.
Which aspects of this project have contributed to its success? And which, according to the implementing organisations, might play an important role in launching similar initiatives in other parts of the world? The project DNA profiling on the basis of the Good Cyber Stories framework highlighted the importance of three success genes in particular:
T – Transparency & accountability
Transparency and accountability are preconditions for an effective fight against misinformation and disinformation. MAFINDO began as a self-sustaining movement funded by individual contributions via various crowdsourcing initiatives and supported by community networks. Progressively, further funding was used to increase MAFINDO’s capacity and capability to combat hoaxes, while at the same time preserving the independent character of the organisation.
Transparency and accountability are also reflected in MAFINDO’s work. For example, MAFINDO’s hoax-bursting network ensures that when a hoax is identified, an explanation of why and how the piece of information represents a hoax is provided. By doing so, transparency and accountability are ensured, and the larger audience is given the tools to verify news first-hand.
A – Societal awareness of the problem
MAFINDO’s success was built on the assumption that individuals and larger communities in Indonesia strive to receive impartial and true information about political and societal developments in their country. This has made it easier for MAFINDO to attract people’s interest to its activities focused on the fight against hoaxes, while at the same time ensuring freedom of speech and avoiding government intervention or censorship. MAFINDO starts from the assumption that hoaxes are a societal problem that should be handled by society itself, rather than through restrictions put in place by governments. In other words, MAFINDO believes that through raising societal awareness, the demand for hoaxes will shrink, and hoax producers will eventually disappear. As hoaxes exploit people’s fear, biases or ignorance, MAFINDO aims to empower citizens with critical thinking, literacy, and digital literacy to allow them to find the facts in the flood of false information.
M – Multi-stakeholder participation
Social phenomena like disinformation and misinformation can be countered only through a collective effort of the whole society. This requires involvement of different groups of stakeholders at governmental and non-governmental levels. Thanks to MAFINDO, individuals as diverse as housewives, tour guides, farmers, journalists, IT experts, government employees and non-governmental organisations are brought together to combat hoaxes and ensure freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Not only does MAFINDO work to combat hoaxes, but it also bridges gaps between communities. For example, its female trainers in hijabi give trainings on digital literacy to Christian communities, and during cross-community events called Sarasehan, representatives of civil and religious communities discuss hoax issues together. To raise awareness among Indonesian housewives, MAFINDO also created an online soap opera about the dangers of hoaxes. And nowadays most volunteers in the NGO are women, who have become effective agents of change.
MAFINDO also contributed to creating CekFakta, a collaborative fact-checking and verification project that comprises 22 media outlets and is carried out under a consensus model by stakeholders such as the Google News Initiative, the Indonesian Cyber Media Association, the Alliance of Independent Journalists and Internews. Furthermore, MAFINDO benefited from Google’s resources and engineering support to build the platform hosting CekFakta.
Given the highly localised and context-specific nature of disinformation and misinformation campaigns, any attempt to directly replicate MAFINDO’s activities elsewhere would need to be carefully assessed in order to reflect local needs. Nonetheless, several experiences from MAFINDO’s operations might be useful in putting in place initiatives with a similar focus in other parts of the world.