How a collaborative project in Indonesia tackled the problem of misinformation and disinformation during the country's 2019 elections.
What can local media do to control the spread of false information online in a vibrant and diverse country with more than 260 million residents? Wahyu Dhyatmika, editor of Tempo.co and board member of IFEX member the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), shares some of the lessons they learned and the challenges they confronted in the course of building an Indonesia-based network of fact-checkers.
“In our view, stopping the spread of mis/disinformation is everyone’s responsibility.”
Misinformation – false information spread unintentionally – and disinformation – false information invented and spread to advance a malicious actor’s agenda – have been undermining Indonesia’s political discourse for a while. The situation reached a crisis point during the 2017 election for governor in Jakarta. The resulting manipulation of voters prompted many big Indonesian media companies to develop fact-checking units.
But the problem persisted, and we knew that it posed a real threat ahead of the 2019 presidential elections slated for 17 April 2019.
As journalists, we wanted to contribute to honest, substantial, and significant conversations on social issues, especially during election debates. But how?
In our view, stopping the spread of mis/disinformation is everyone’s responsibility. We believe hoaxes and information manipulation are the outcome of a breakdown in our information network due to digital disruption. To fix it, we need to engage with all parties related to this network.
After sustained conversations with other stakeholders, we came up with the idea of a collaborative fact-checking platform – CekFakta (fact-check) – as part of our response to the problem. The project was initiated by Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), the Association of Indonesian Cyber Media (AMSI), and Indonesia’s anti hoax society, Mafindo.
We intentionally set the project up as a broad collaboration, including platforms like Google, WhatsApp, and Facebook and media publishers as well as journalists/fact-checkers, civil society, academics and internet users, because we wanted to include every actor in the information ecosystem.
Around 22 news and media companies initially joined the network. We produced three to five articles each day of the campaign addressing information manipulation, so that the public could have access to verified information when deciding who to vote for.
The project’s crowning achievement took place in April 2019, when we conducted several live fact-checking events during the presidential debate, as well as on election day.
During the live pre-election debates, CekFakta members took notes on the candidates’ presentations, which were then rapidly given an initial verification search by journalists, the findings of which were then shared with subject matter experts – who sat in the same room as the fact-checkers during the debates.
A shared online worksheet was used throughout the process. Each claim/statement was published, as well as whether it was true, false, or lacked sufficient evidence either way. The results of these fact-checks were often published by CekFakta’s media partners.
You can watch a video of the live fact-checking on Indonesia’s election day here.
- Divisiveness and escalation. The issues discussed steadily became more sensitive and divisive during the presidential election campaign period, particularly due to the deployment of political parties’ “buzzers” (individuals paid to create online disinformation operations) – to get votes. The buzzers increasingly pushed back and questioned our articles, and became even more aggressive in spreading mis/disinformation in order to promote their patrons.
- Limited reach. Do we really reach those people who are most impacted by dis/misinformation? Probably less often than we’d like. How can we avoid preaching to the choir of the media literate, and really make a difference to people who are most influenced by mis/disinformation?
- Getting consensus. We had to find the right balance between promoting the shared CekFakta platform and recognizing each media’s contribution. We had also decided that all Cekfakta’s decisions had to be agreed to by all media partners. We agreed not to publish articles if any partner’s own investigations led to different conclusions from the fact-checking in question. Coming to agreements on decisions around content sharing, linking back to articles, and promoting and upgrading the design of the common sites took a significant amount of time.
- Threat from political parties. The CekFakta website was hacked in February, and while we couldn’t definitively attribute the attack, we suspect supporters of a political party were involved. Before the hack, one of our members was reported to the press council by a political party over a CekFakta fact check that took place during a presidential debate.
- Be ready to work in a new role. Mis/disinformation has been around for some time, but its nefarious impact has been magnified by digital tools. Our collaboration – aimed at fixing the broken information ecosystem – required us to broaden our existing role and how we work as journalists. In our case, this meant opening up our newsrooms to non-media sectors and promoting fact-checking through our collaboration with them.
- Rely on what partners bring to the collaboration. The presence of a neutral party like Mafindo was important. As a non-media partner, they could act as a mediator when there were disputes or disagreements among media groups, which often compete for the ‘scoop’. Tapping an established institutional voice like AMSI was also important, because as the only recognized online media association, they provided a credible voice for the collaboration and made it easier to invite more media to participate in the project. We also established an agreement with Legal Aid for Press, a pro bono law firm, to help us mitigate any legal challenges arising from our work.
- Expanding the network paid off. We realized that working together with civil society groups, publishers, tech companies/platforms, academics, and industry experts ultimately led to better results for the public. We understood the value of continuously expanding the network, and spread the insight that only by engaging all relevant parties and stakeholders can we effectively tackle the mis/disinformation problem.
- Celebrate every positive result of collaboration. Measuring impact is important, but it often takes a long time before you can see the results of your work. Identifying and celebrating what collaborations achieve, such as the publication of particular verified articles, helped keep everyone motivated and committed.
AJI’s network consists of 6,000 fact-checkers across the country. AMSI provided a list of credible media across the country that were invited to participate. Mafindo provided technical support through its programmers and citizen fact-checkers, who also served as non-media participants providing additional validation during fact-checking activities. Platforms like Google extended support to the project to maintain the web server, for tech assistance, and for facilities for meetings and a live newsroom. Facebook shared access to its dashboard of mis/disinformation content, so we could easily find the most viral mis/disinformation content to debunk. Lastly, academics and civil society groups formed an expert committee on the more technical topics being verified during live fact-checking operations.
We are gearing up for Indonesia’s 2020 local elections, which will involve almost 300 cities and provinces across the country. We want to replicate our success during the last general election by organizing CekFakta activities in areas outside of the capital, and increase the number of media members. Currently, we are preparing a regional hub site, and are already in talks with potential partners to initiate the local network.