Islamists are using fake news targeting ethnic Chinese Indonesians and politicians to promote their agenda against Chinese investment and the government. This threatens both social cohesion as well as the country’s economic ambitions.
Indonesia is facing heightened social tensions as sectarian unrest and violence rises, fueled by a fake news boom. Fake news is being used by hard line Muslim groups in Indonesia to agitate against the government, with a particular focus on non-Muslim and ethnic Chinese Indonesians. The rising profile of hard-line Islamic groups comes at a time of increased concerns about Chinese influence in the country, as well as growing radicalization. Indonesia watcher Markus Mietzner argues that Islamists are conflating “the issue of China’s economic and political rise with the position of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, producing a toxic mash that threatens to undermine social stability in the country.”
Chinese Indonesians constitute less than two percent of Indonesia’s population, yet as with many Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, play a disproportionate role in the economy. This influence combined with their non-Muslim status marks them as ‘doubly suspicious’ in the eyes of Islamist groups. These groups have been using fake news to drum up anti-Chinese sentiment, in a trend which the Chinese embassy in Indonesia described as “very worrying.”
Fake news undermining social cohesion
Fake news stories, such as the claim on Whatsapp that top commander Gatot Nurmantyo disparaged Chinese during a December 11th speech celebrating the Prophet’s birthday, are being used to rally the Islamist base, as old grievances about ethnic Chinese influence are reopened. Another story claimed that China is using biological weapons to undermine the Indonesian economy, after crop killing bacteria was found in chili seeds at a Chinese-run farm.
Given that 24.2 percent of Indonesians use mobile messaging apps, combined with a traditional distrust of government media sources, fake news finds fertile ground in Indonesia.
Reliance on hearsay and the comments of one’s social circle, combined with a lack of critical thinking habits puts many Indonesians at risk to misinformation. This was seen prior to the election of President Widodo in 2014, with rumours circulating that he was half-Chinese as part of a fake news smear campaign.
This problem is encapsulated in the plight of Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama. As the region’s first Chinese-Christian governor, Ahok came under fire in September after comments he made to supporters were edited out of context and went viral. Specifically, Ahok stated that he was aware that some Muslims would not vote for him because they thought doing so would be against the Quran. Ahok’s statement and mention of a Quranic verse was edited and uploaded without context, making it appear that he was insulting Muslims.
As a result, spurred by moralist vigilante groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), hundreds of thousands have protested against the governor. Ahok is now in court facing a preliminary hearing on whether he is to be charged under Indonesia’s blasphemy laws. This in turn has led to counter-protests by Ahok’s supporters, with some 3,000 police securing the courthouse and attempting to keep rival protests from coming into contact with one another.
This week Ahok flatly refuted the charges, with the prosecution urging the court to ignore the plea. The trial is currently adjourned until December 27th, and is likely to remain a heated topic in 2017. Indeed, the Ahok fiasco was Indonesia’s most popular story in 2016, with 279 million entries on Google – more entries than Indonesia’s entire population of 250 million. This story will remain important because Jakarta’s gubernatorial elections are scheduled for 2017, with Ahok seeking re-election. It remains unclear whether this issue will torpedo his chances, as despite an initial drop in polls, Ahok has recovered in recent surveys and is again in the lead. That said if he is convicted or if the trial drags on into 2017, this dynamic may change, possibly providing a window for a populist, Islamist candidate to engineer an electoral upset.
The use of fake news in Indonesia coincides with confrontations between Islamists and ordinary citizens, as the government fights to maintain social harmony. Senior cabinet minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan went so far as to reassure the Jakarta Foreign Correspondent Club that the government is not losing control to radicals. That the government has to make this explicit only highlights Jakarta’s concerns about rising radicalization.
The recent announcement by the Indonesian Ulema Council banning Muslims from wearing Christmas outfits and accessories is seen as evidence of increasingly petty and literalist Islamist efforts. Following this pronouncement, the FPI took it upon themselves to enforce the edict, raiding stores, restaurants, and malls to ensure compliance. The FPI is indicative of the rise of sectarian groups that blur the line between civil society and more organized associations. A vigilante group focused on moral policing, the FPI effectively runs protection rackets, bullying non-Muslims and moderate Muslims alike, thus driving wedges into Indonesian society.
Recently, government leaders such as the aforementioned Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo have issued public statements calling for unity and tolerance. Gen. Gatot made specific mention to respecting Christians and their celebrations during Christmas. Similarly, President Widodo tweeted his condemnation of the FPI after the incidents, calling on the authorities not to tolerate troublemakers.
Tourism sector at risk going into 2017
All this comes as Indonesia has foiled several terror plots targeting upcoming Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Over the past two weeks, government forces have killed three suspected terrorists in shootouts, as well as arrested a further 14, including two female suicide bombers in a series of raids. As a result of the deteriorating security situation, Australia has warned its citizens of serious risks, with Canberra issuing a travel advisory. This comes after two Australians were paraded by a vigilante mob on allegations of bike theft.
The government is (rightly) worried that this rise of vigilante mobs and Islamists fueled by fake news misinformation could derail the country’s economic ambitions. Jakarta is well aware that Beijing will not tolerate anti-Chinese agitation, as witnessed in the economic and political fallout following Vietnam’s 2014 anti-Chinese riots. Moreover, anti-Chinese and general xenophobia undermines Indonesia as an investment and tourism destination.
Tourism is especially at risk, given how rapidly the industry reacts to political risks. Moreover, this anti-Chinese sentiment comes at a time when Indonesia is trying to capture a larger share of the outbound Chinese tourist market. The government has stated that it hopes to attract 2.4 million Chinese tourists in 2017, up from the 2.1 million who visited in 2016. This is a part of larger plans to attract a total of 15 million tourists in 2017, a 25 percent increase over 2016. To this end Jakarta is allocating $15 million to aid Indonesian airlines set up new connections, many in China.
China is Indonesia’s top tourist source, yet public resistance to Chinese tourism is growing, in part fueled by fake news, as well as revelations of abuse by some Chinese visitors of Indonesia’s visa-free entry policy. Despite the recent increase in anti-Chinese sentiment, it appears, at least for the moment, that this is not impacting the tourist sector, which is preparing for the Chinese New Year visitor surge. The Association of Indonesian Tour & Travel Agencies (ASITA) has reported that anti-Chinese sentiment has not led to cancellations of Chinese group bookings.
Whether the industry can weather this storm remains to be seen, although with other nations such as Australia issuing warnings, the increasing threat of domestic terrorism, and the ongoing fallout from the Ahok trial, things to not bode well for the industry going into 2017.