No easy way in the battle against misinformation

In light of the recent 22 May riots in Jakarta, the Ministry for Communication and Information (KOMINFO) enacted a “soft ban” on social media and messaging applications. Instagram and Facebook were blocked (surprisingly, Twitter was left alone), while WhatsApp users could not share images or documents (but could still receive and send text messages). The three-day ban was a preventive response to potential misinformation surrounding the Jakarta riots. However, despite the ban, as much as 30 pieces of fake news still fell through the cracks. The ban was also easily circumvented using VPN services. The ban has been criticized left and right on grounds of infringement of civil liberties.

The incident, however, shows that the current government has no idea what they’re doing in the fight against misinformation. The social media ban, perhaps taking a page out of Sri Lanka’s playbook, was, in my view, more of an experiment to see if pulling the plug could stop the spread of misinformation. However, as the result show, even pulling the plug does not have the intended effects as people will always find ways to get what they want. It also shows that the government continues to believe that misinformation is a largely technical problem and can be addressed through technical solutions (that’s wrong, by the way).

Internet-enabled misinformation is, at its roots, a social problem. It stems from normal people equipped with technology that allows them cluster themselves into echo chambers that validate their worldview, and the ability to widely propagate said worldview regardless of veracity. They then become entrenched in narratives and involve themselves in a struggle to validate said narrative. It is not something that can simply be solved by pulling the plug or enacting blanket bans.

In fighting misinformation, the government would have to partner up with social media companies and civil society elements. In some cases, this is what KOMINFO has done. It has demanded more cooperation from social media companies like Facebook and Google, and has even embarked on improving digital literacy through partnerships with civil society organizations (the efficacy may still be questioned). Social media companies have also began implementing more stringent content review and are tweaking their algorithms to be better at identifying fake news. Nonprofits are trying to increase digital literacy through training events and outreach programs, and have also resorted to acting as “hoax watchdogs” in an attempt to curb the spread of misinformation.

In Myanmar, due to the popularity of Facebook, Facebook has attempted to recruit local Burmese to help with flagging hate speech. It is losing this battle (but when you think about it, it was largely Facebook’s fault in the first place), especially because the junta is also using Facebook to legitimize their ethnocentric policies. Luckily, Indonesia is not like Myanmar. There is still hope for Indonesia to win against the battle against misinformation. Steps have been taken. What matters now is whether there is serious will to continuously monitor and evaluate these steps.

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