JAKARTA — When Myanmar’s government denounced alleged “fake news” in the wake of the exodus of hundreds of thousands of distressed Rohingya, it was a case of less sinned against than sinning.
An online howler by Turkey’s deputy prime where he recycled an image from the Rwanda genocide to make a point about the Rohingya crisis — which has been deemed ethnic cleansing by the U.S. — prompted a deluge of vitriol from Myanmar accounts.
But the government’s own social media was criticized internationally for posting news of dubious value and provenance, and, backed by a newly-motivated army of online supporters. Myanmar-based journalists saw their follower counts surge in the early weeks of the crisis — the numbers matched by a deluge of tweets from Myanmar accounts denouncing international coverage of the Myanmar military’s brutal response to attacks by Rohingya militants on security forces.
The region’s increasingly brutal social media jousting means that platforms such as Twitter are not really social anymore, but have become “weaponized” according to Indonesian political analyst Wimar Witoelar, who has 439,000 Twitter followers.
“So interaction is more often divisive than not. You cannot form a consensus. Instead you sharpen your differences,” he said via WhatsApp.
Even Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, is not immune to savaging on social media, taking to Facebook in September to make his point.
“I was asked, ‘President Jokowi, how is the state of social media in Indonesia?’, I replied, ‘In Indonesia, it can get very vicious,” he posted.
Indonesia’s social media jousting reached new depths during the Jakarta gubernatorial election held in early 2017, leading to the arrest of some of the minds behind the Saracen “fake news” factory, which police said worked with 800,000 social media accounts to peddle religiously-incendiary cock-and-bull stories.
Hardliners such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which led to campaign to oust Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the now jailed former Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta, have used Facebook to track and humiliate critics.
One case ended in a 15-year-old boy of Chinese descent in Jakarta having his house stormed at midnight before he was was dragged outside and beaten for making comments insulting the group, while a similar trauma, minus the physical assault, was enacted on a Muslim woman in West Sumatra.
“The FPI members and sympathizers have grown savvy in using digital media to systematically identify and harass those they disagree with,” noted Kathleen Azali in a recent paper published by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore think-tank.
Social media also offers myriad communications channels for militant and terrorist groups, boosting the flow of money and Southeast Asian recruits to groups such as Islamic State.
“There is an increasing fundraising trends for terrorist activities, terrorists and terrorist organizations; to raise … funding on social media,” Kiagus Ahmad Badaruddin, head of Indonesia’s anti money laundering agency, said during a terror financing meeting in Malaysia on Nov. 23.
“Among Malaysian IS recruits, over 90% got inducted into and pledged loyalty (bai’ah) to IS over cyberspace.” said Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, professor of Political Science at Universiti Sains Malaysia, who sees the internet as a means for violent jihadists to regroup despite the defeat of IS in the Middle East.
Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Microsoft in June formed The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism. The companies said last year that they had begun sharing the “hashes,” or unique digital “fingerprints,” of the “most extreme and egregious terrorist images and videos we have removed from our services — content most likely to violate all of our respective companies’ content policies.”
But that move will only slow the dissemination of jihadist content — especially as activity shifts to encrypted smartphone chat applications such as Telegram, which was blocked temporarily in Indonesia this year.Show