A Brief Look Into Indonesia’s Hidden Pandemic on Whatsapp: Fake News & Misinformation

If you’re in a family Whatsapp group chat, there’s a big chance that you’ve come across some of the weirdest and wackiest pieces of content to have ever been made. In other words, fake news (or to keep it simple, hoax). The word “hoax” itself is so ingrained within Indonesian social media that it’s pretty much become a buzzword that’s commented on any given post that presents some sort of statistic or claim. At the height of the pandemic and in the midst of self-quarantine, I asked my friends to send me some of the most absurd fake news messages they got in regards to COVID-19. I wanted to know more about what the World Health Organisation describes as an ongoing fight against an “infodemic” of fake news and misinformation. So here’s my brief look into the weird and dangerous world of misinformation during the pandemic.

In the event of an infodemic such as the one we’re going through right now, it’s getting harder and harder to tell what’s real and what’s not. Over on Twitter, it’s pretty much been down to what’s real and what’s just an attempt to go viral and become Twitter famous for a few hours. Remember this viral tweet about how the canals in Venice were booming with wildlife once more as people were in quarantine? It didn’t take long for people to call BS on it. But it didn’t take long for it to be confirmed either. Over on Whatsapp, it’s an entirely different story.

I for one decided to leave my extended family’s Whatsapp group chat after continuously getting really poorly photoshopped images and questionable excerpts to “news”. At one point, one of which contained about 7 different images and poorly written crazy conspiracy theories ranging from how the Chinese government was pretty much involved in the bushfires in Australia back at the end of 2019 and to crazy conspiracies about the Jakarta riots a few months ago. And since confronting someone in a group chat isn’t exactly my forte – I decided to do what a responsible adult would do. Leave the chat and turn the wackiest things I received from that particular chat as some ironic meme material.

But if you’re one of the lucky few who isn’t getting these types of messages, here’s a bat-shit-crazy example of a dangerous “home remedy / treatment” sent to one of my friends that I just had to include.

Besides religiously spending hours on my Playstation during quarantine, I also spent time reading a few books. One of which being, This is Not Propaganda by Peter Pomerantsev. The book covers some of the most unnerving and highly important stories of the current information warfare happening right in front of our very eyes. Particularly highlighting the power of misinformation on social media and how it  disrupts society as we know it. Like how misinformation about mass graves and exaggerated infection ratings continue to obstruct the Indonesian government’s efforts to tackle the rise of COVID-19 cases in the country.

In an ideal world it’ll only be a matter of time until we’re all obligated to fully understand the anatomy of a fake news headline for example, to freely scroll the internet. The common misconception is that the “tech savvy” generation easily pinpoints what’s fake and what’s not – which obviously makes the threat of being misinformed far less intimidating. In most cases, the most vulnerable groups on the internet are considered to be the elderly, who are the most at risk. Despite the fact that misinformation isn’t anything new to them either, the existence of rapid information spreading in particular just simply makes it easier for this type of content to spread from one another. With algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) such as deepfakes slowly making their way around the internet, upcoming tragedies or events we face might get even more confusing than it already is.

Looking into Kominfo’s initiatives to combat the spread of fake news back home, I also eventually stumbled upon Indonesian educational platform, hoaxplay. Not only does the platform extensively inform users about the characteristics of common fake news articles, but it also provides in-depth step-by-step sessions to further improve user’s critical thinking when it comes to analysing bits of information found online. It goes without question that initiatives such as hoaxplay shouldn’t ever be overlooked.

No matter how hard the government plans on curbing the rampant rise of fake news, I personally think that educating and developing an information-critical generation might only be the perfect sustainable solution. To add to that, the idea that only the older generations are more likely to share or believe fake news might just be a common misconception. In fact, a study done in 2018 amongst 480 respondents from cities and districts within the Jawa Barat region alone showed that around 30% had a high tendency to share hoaxes. It was further revealed that prior to contrary belief, factors such as: people’s age, education levels, and gender didn’t determine the likelihood of spreading fake news.

The pandemic has fueled a demand for a wide variety of products and expectations. One of which being, a demand for a possible treatment or cure. When there’s a demand, there’s an opportunity. Online opportunists were quick to take advantage of the panic by selling all sorts of particular products and goods. These range from face masks, non-approved at-home testing kits, and especially the personal favorite: wacky ‘traditional’ remedies. In some cases, it might not only be for financial gain of a certain group. This was pretty much proven quite apparent when back in March Indonesian officials had to warn citizens to not stock up on eggs, after a poorly doctored video of a newborn baby suggested that eating telur rebus can help the body resist the Coronavirus.

As many of us still resort to working from home, many will also be less likely to spend time with other people in the real world. That being said, social media and messaging platforms (especially Whatsapp) tend to play a more significant role in people’s day to day life. As we continue to try and make sense of what’s happening on earth, telling what counts as facts and what counts as fakes will continue to be a difficult task. Especially the fact that while public platforms such as Twitter actively debunks fake news stories, encrypted messaging apps are not. Which makes it more challenging to stop the spread of such messages.

I find it difficult to speak up to older members of my family – especially pointing out that a certain “the wrongs” when it’s quite apparent that the older generations are far more susceptible in believing the messages they receive from some they personally know. Pointing out certain characteristics of what misinformation can look like, or the type of content they give can be a solid start in helping members of your families critically lookout for what is worth sharing and what isn’t. To add to that, taking a break from all the information about the pandemic might also be an important reminder. Because of the abundance of information about the virus, one can easily feel overwhelmed.

However, as we continue to progress into a future where all the information we need is but a few clicks away, seeking the truths in that particular sea of information will just continue to be more difficult. As more people share what they feel is factual content just because their friends say so or just because their gut-feeling tells them it’s fine, this infodemic the WHO mentioned might just be the issue Indonesia will have to continue fighting with.

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