Indonesian police uncover ‘fake news’ syndicate

Jakarta: Vicious. That was how Indonesian President Joko Widodo described social media users in his country who, in recent years, have taken to the Internet to propagate hate speech, slander and fake news.

He should know. After all, the president, popularly known as Jokowi, is often the subject of Internet memes accusing him of being a communist or implying that he is not a pure Muslim.

“I was asked, ‘President Jokowi, how is the state of social media in Indonesia?’ I replied, ‘In Indonesia, it can get very vicious’,” Jokowi said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

The online smear campaign against Jokowi emerged in 2014 when he was running for the presidency against former army general Prabowo Subianto.

But the issue of fake news really came to bear late last year when former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who goes by his Chinese nickname Ahok, was accused of and later charged with blasphemy against Islam.

As a minority Christian politician, it was no surprise that Ahok, who was running for re-election as governor, was often depicted in Internet memes or fake news, which were focused on his race and religion, to stir public dissent against him.

Last month, a police investigation confirmed what many had suspected all along – that such vitriol was part of an organised campaign by a “fake news factory” against political targets.

The online syndicate, known as Saracen, allegedly charges tens of millions of rupiah to publish and spread fake news, as well as hate speech against a person or persons, said the police.

The going rate for a quick “buzz” of customised fake news online is 75 million rupiah (RM23,370).

Investigators said last week that they had established a money trail between members of Saracen and a handful of people with links to street protests against Ahok.

So far, five suspects have been arrested as part of the investigation into the syndicate. — The Straits Times/Asia News Network