Election watchdogs warn against ‘anti-democratic’ forces hijacking technology to subvert people’s will in April 17 polls

Jakarta, Indonesia - Two weeks before 193 million Indonesians cast their ballots on April 17, the head of Perludem, the country’s leading election and democracy watchdog, received a call. An informant had gathered reports that eligible voters received electronic money transfers from a local candidate.

The transfers were unusual, but Perludem executive director, Titi Anggraini, told TRT World that she has strong suspicions about what the money was meant to be used for.

As the world’s largest Muslim country gears up for its general elections, voting watchdogs, like Perludem, warn that internet technology and other forms of social media are being exploited to undermine democracy and pervert the outcome of the polls, through vote-buying and the spread of fake news.

“The biggest difference I think between the 2014 elections and the current elections, although we have similar candidates, is the use and the impact of social media and technology,” Titi said.

Money transfers

One voter reportedly received an online transfer on her account on OVO, an Indonesia-based mobile app payment system. The amount was 20,000 rupiah, or $1.42 in current exchange rate - equivalent to a meal from a street food vendor.

The candidate has been identified, but Perludem has withheld the name until investigators make their findings public. Perludem also did not discount the possibility that the money originated from a rival campaign determined to smear an opponent.  

Other potential voters received similar amounts sent directly to their electronic money cards issued by the Jakarta-based Bank Mandiri, according to Titi. The number of beneficiaries is still undetermined. But as of November 2018, there were 16 million holders of the Mandiri e-money cards.

TRT World contacted both OVO and Bank Mandiri for comment, but has not received a response as of the time of publication.

According to the head of Perludem, the amounts are traceable to their sources, and with the help of the financial institutions used in the transactions, the country’s election commission, Bawaslu, can later investigate and prosecute those who are involved.

Voting watchdogs, like Perludem, warn that internet technology and other forms of social media are being exploited to undermine democracy [Ted Regencia/TRT World]
Voting watchdogs, like Perludem, warn that internet technology and other forms of social media are being exploited to undermine democracy [Ted Regencia/TRT World] (Ted Regencia / TRTWorld)

Meanwhile, a House member running for re-election, Bowo Sidik, was charged in the last few days by the country's anti-corruption body, KPK, after he was arrested with 400,000 envelopes containing cash. Prosecutors alleged that the money was going to be used in a so-called "dawn attack", an election day practice in Indonesia meant to influence voters' choice. Bowo remains on the ballot as he has not been convicted.

Like the spread of tainted money during the election season, the escalation of fake news on social media is also equally alarming, according to Abdul Malik, founder of the new non-partisan website, Jaga Pemilu, which aims to educate voters about their candidates, and promote “honest and fair” elections.

“We want to help the voters stay informed and give them the tools they need to set apart the truth from false information circulating out there on social media and beyond,” he told TRT World.

In Indonesia, journalists, media watchers and other civic groups prefer to use the terms, “false information” and “hoax” over “fake news”.

Incumbent President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, himself has zeroed in on the issue, frequently telling supporters during campaign sorties, “Do not believe in hoaxes.”

Russian propoganda

In the heat of the campaign, Widodo claimed that his opponents were preparing “Russian propaganda” that promotes “slander, sins and hoaxes”. He later backed off after strong protests from Russia.

Jokowi is running for re-election against Prabowo Subianto.

According to a report in the Jakarta Post, the country’s information ministry had monitored 130 hoaxes and fake news incidents related to the election between August 2018 and March 2019.

In February, Facebook said it removed hundreds of pages and accounts accused of promoting hate speech and fake news in Indonesia. The accounts on Facebook and Instagram had a combined following of over 200,000. Facebook has over 112 million users in Indonesia. About 62 million are using Instagram, according to Statista.com.

In most cases, Jokowi has been the target of false information online, Indonesian-watchers and journalists say.

“I think one party is more guilty than the other,” Titi, the head of Perludem, said.

In one incident captured on video, a group of women were telling prospective voters in West Java that if re-elected, Jokowi would ban the call to prayer from mosques and would legalise gay marriage, allegations that his campaign denied. The women were later charged for spreading hate speech.

Another claim targets Jokowi for allegedly being a member of the banned Indonesian Communist Party, which was disbanded in the 1960s, when the president was still a child. Being branded as a communist is frowned upon by many Indonesian voters.

Jokowi is also accused of opening Indonesia's door to 10 million Chinese workers. According to Indonesian government figures, there are 24,000 Chinese citizens working in Indonesia.

Meanwhile, opposition candidate, Prabowo, complained in March that he too was a victim of disinformation, which claims that he will turn Indonesia into a caliphate if he becomes president.

Mahfut Khanafi, a volunteer of the election monitor, Jaga Pemilu, said that he is concerned about the effects false information could have on the final outcome of the voting. Jaga Pemilu volunteers will monitor incidents of fraud and intimidation on election day.

Titi Anggraini of Perludem also said that she worries about the “very strong polarisation” of the voters “because of the impact of the post-truth era.” And that it will carry on even after the elections.

“The voters just don’t want to search for valid information. They consider only to receive information that matches with their own beliefs. That is one of the biggest challenges of our current election cycle.”

Source: TRT World