Meleva Thorn & Sienna Curnow, Jakarta – Indonesian journalists are waging a war on fake news through a collaborative fact-checking network involving nearly all major media organizations in the country. The online network, CekFakta, is proving a key tool in the fight against misinformation.
CekFakta's fact-checking platform, which sees media organizations collaborate to identify fake news, has seen a growth in readers through the Covid-19 pandemic, as readers look to accurate sources to verify claims made online.
With a team of around 6,000 fact-checkers of journalists, citizens and academics across the country, CekFakta is arguably the world's biggest fact-checking organization. It was founded by the Indonesian Cyber Media Association (AMSI), the Indonesian Anti-Defamation Society (Mafindo) and the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and formalized by 22 major media organizations who signed an agreement in 2018.
Suwarjono, an executive with news website Suara.com who is part of CekFakta, said a lack of digital literacy meant some internet users would assume information published online would-be fact checked and accurate.
This was the reason CekFakta had a crucial role to play in upholding the integrity of the media industry, he said. Suwarjono stated that fact checking was what set the work of journalists apart from other content creators on the internet.
"This is what distinguishes the work of journalists and YouTubers, endorsers, content creators, buzzers and the like. Journalists work with standards using a journalistic code of ethics, work based on facts, repeated checks, covering both sides, and based on accurate data. Meanwhile, content creators, YouTubers, endorsers and others don't do that," he told Jakarta Globe in a recent interview.
The AMSI, which houses hundreds of Indonesian news websites including those in the top 50, gives the network its main strength. General Secretary of AMSI, Wahyu Dhyatmika, said that "fake news polarizes people" and "makes the echo chamber effect worse".
In order to combat this, people require journalists and independent publishers to provide a "healthy and reliable information ecosystem", he said.
Technology has changed the way people get information and social media apps become the main channel through which misinformation circulates unchecked. Problem is, few people will dispute if the content is shared by people they trust.
Ross Tapsell, an Indonesian media researcher at the Australian National University, said direct messaging applications were crucial for shaping public discourse, as surveys showed people trust information shared by close family or friends.
"Fact checking plays an important role in producing content and commentary which mainstream media quotes in news stories, ultimately helping to debunk misinformation," Tapsell said.
Slanderous remarks and misinformation were circulating wildly on the internet during the heated presidential election in 2014. There were memes, videos, tweets and other social media posts alleging that then presidential candidate Joko "Jokowi" Widodo was a Chinese descent with links to the now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).
There was even a tabloid called "Obor Rakyat" (People's Torch) printed in tens of thousands of copies with a single aim of destroying Jokowi's personal image with debunked information.
Similar situation occurred before and during the divisive Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2017, which was marred by sectarian and racial issues.
Despite attempts by the mainstream media to compound the problem, Indonesian Internet users were simply inundated by misinformation. It takes huge financial investment, selected human resources, integrity and years of hard works to establish a reputable media company, but it's easy and cheap to produce blogs, memes and short videos.
"The Indonesian digital ecosystem has been smeared with too much hate speech and hoaxes. We have to work to get rid of these hoaxes from the digital ecosystem in hopes for a healthy online business," AMSI chairman Wenseslaus Manggut told Jakarta Globe.
"There are too many online media in Indonesia – around 50,000 of them – and our members are probably just around 400 in Indonesia," Wenseslaus said.
Furthermore, Indonesia is facing a turning point regarding citizen journalism.
Incorrect claims of vaccines with microchips and clips from films being passed off as genuine news footage have spread rapidly online, with the sensational – and wholly untrue – claims finding audiences across social media.
"These non-journalists do not have the standards for this profession. They are only doing it because they need to work. They need money. They do not understand the journalism code of conduct and ethics. This is why we see countless inaccurate news stories around," Wenseslaus said.
This is where initiatives such as CekFakta come in.
Fact-checking specialist Aribowo Sasmito, the co-founder of Mafindo and a key founding member of CekFakta, said fact checking was better when journalists shared resources.
"Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, we share resources between us," Aribowo said.
"The best way to do fact checking is through cooperation because no matter how many people decide to do it separately, there is just not enough manpower to do it. Collaboration is the key."
With the help of the Google News Initiative, the group expanded membership and increased the number of trained fact-checkers across 25 cities. A series of "training of trainers" courses were held in those cities involving close to 1,000 journalists by April 2019.
They were trained how to identify doctored videos, fake photos and verify the timeline of a social media post, among other things. The graduates are expected to pass on their skill to other journalists in their respective media companies.
In the run-up to mayoral and gubernatorial elections in late 2020, another three-day training event was held by the AMSI and the CekFakta team. At least 60 media representatives, reporters and editors alike joined the virtual class.
One of the biggest impacts CekFakta had was during the 2019 Indonesian presidential elections. Fact checkers from various media companies gathered during the presidential debates and shared each other's findings for immediate publications by all.
It was a monumental collaboration among rivalling media brands never seen before in history. Every CekFakta member was exempt from copyright issue when publishing fact-checking materials from a fellow member.
"The result of the fact check is not always instant, because you know it's the classic problem between speed and accuracy," Aribowo said.
It became evident that their works brought immediate impact in the second round of debate between Prabowo Subianto and Jokowi.
Aribowo said both candidates spoke more carefully from the second debate onwards because many of their previous remarks had been debunked.
He observed that candidates avoid mentioning exact statistics like unemployment figures because that could be easily verified by fact-checkers and "mentioning the wrong number" could amount to spreading fake news.
Their works were even more challenging in the last elections, where people in more than 260 cities and districts elected their local leaders amid ongoing surge in coronavirus cases.
Aribowo said a highly digital approach was needed in order to carry through with the fact-checking in a Covid-safe manner. Working across platforms including Slack, YouTube, television station and live video feeds were conducted from a distance, he added.
An increased digitisation of reporting in the Indonesian press, as witnessed during these elections, added to an already heavily saturated online media landscape.
Wenseslaus, the AMSI chairman, said his organization joined CekFakta because it was a system that wanted the media to help the public by presenting correct information. He said the association supported CekFakta's goal of cleaning up the digital ecosystem.
"The spread of hate speech and hoaxes are always high amid major events. It rose during the general election and even in the Covid-19 pandemic. The 2020 regional election coincided with the pandemic and we saw many hoaxes circulating around," Wenseslaus said.
While publicly shared posts on Facebook and Twitter were relatively easy to stop, encrypted closed groups on apps like WhatsApp have become the main area of concern.
"What you share defines you," Wenseslaus said. "If you share hoax content every day you are a hoax spreader. If you share from CekFakta every day, you are someone who spreads accurate information."
However, the hacking of CekFakta in 2019 shines a different light on the politics of truth.
AMSI Secretary-General Wahyu asserted that CekFakta are thinking to expand and get more media organizations involved, as well as creating a new workshop about media literacy.
With these tools, "society will be more bulletproof in tackling misinformation" and that "at the end of the day, it comes back to the society itself", he said.
CekFakta is sending a message that collaborative works are the key in helping people find high-quality information amid abundant newsfeeds on social media and filter out misinformation.
As Wahyu put it: "It's something that damages everyone, and therefore has to be tackled by everyone."