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Social Media Gets a Bad Rap in Elections, But Activists In Indonesia Are Using It to Boost Transparency

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Indonesian expatriate Ainun Najib was at home in Singapore with the flu when his countrymen went to the polls to cast their votes in Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election. It had been a vitriolic campaign between political outsider Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi, and former general Prabowo Subainto.

With a sick day from his tech job, he for once had time to follow the news unfolding 1,300 kilometers away. But he was not happy with what he saw. As the vote count rolled in, both contenders declared victory. To Indonesians like Najib, it was a deeply frustrating outcome.

“After so many months of this nation being polarized, each side was so hostile, I just wanted to get this over with,” Najib tells TIME. “That’s what I was really, really hoping to see, and instead I was seeing prolonged conflict.”

So Najib and several friends sprang to action. They set up a group called Kawal Pemilu, or Guard the Election, to independently verify the vote count. They put out a call on Facebook for volunteers to help, and had 700 recruits within a matter of hours. Using a combination of raw data released by the election commission and cross-checked data from polling stations, the team began publishing updated vote counts every 10 minutes.

Their work was a hit with Indonesians who were seeking clarity on the results. The organization provided quick updates, pacifying Indonesians who had to wait two weeks for the country’s electoral commission to announce the official winner. The extensive data published by Kawal Pemilu was also the first time that social media and technology played an important role in monitoring the election process.

“It was an effort to give transparency, to shed some light on what was really the result of the election because a lot of confusion and doubt had been spread,” said Najib.

That effort appears to have worked. Since the 2014 election, Kawal Pemilu has been approached by several local election officials thanking them for their work.

“The public scrutiny and the public transparency has allowed them to say no to people who attempted to either bribe them or coerce them into changing the results. Because they say ‘Hey its pointless, even if i change it for you, its all out there, it’s already published by Kawal Pemilu,'” Najib says.

Now Najib and his online team are gearing up to monitor Indonesia’s current election, which with approximately 190 million voters is the world’s largest single-day election. Voting begins on Apr. 17 in the rematch between incumbent President Jokowi, who eked out a victory in the last election with 53% of the vote, and Prabowo. As Kawal Pemilu hurries to recruit more volunteers, others in Indonesia are trying their best to undermine the process.

“There is a surge in fake news spreading in the last few weeks before the election,” Kunto Adi Wibowo, a lecturer in the department of communication at West Java’s Padjadjaran University, tells TIME. Supporters of different candidates may be trying to spread misinformation to attempt “public opinion engineering,” he says.

While many countries worry about the spread of false information and hateful rhetoric ahead of elections, the overwhelming popularity of social media in Indonesia may make it particularly vulnerable to the influence of misinformation. About half of the country’s 262 million people use Facebook, and 62 million people are active on Instagram. Indonesians also spend a lot of time online. People in the country use platforms like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp for an average of three hours and twenty-six minutes a day—the fourth highest rate of social media usage in the world. (By comparison, the global average time spent on social media daily is two hours and 16 minutes, and the average American spends two hours and four minutes social networking every day.)

Read More: Facebook Says It’s Trying to Tackle Fake News in India Before Elections

The huge number of social media users has given fake news creators a large audience to spread their content to, exacerbating deep-seated religious and ethnic tensions. In the run-up to the 2014 elections, claims that Jokowi was of Chinese descent, a Christian and a Communist ran rampant.

“The content of the fake news is heavily based on religion, ethnicity and the candidates’ past,” Wibowo says.

In Indonesia, where minority groups have faced persecution and bloodshed, the inflammation of ethnic and religious tensions is dangerous. Although the constitution guarantees religious freedom, hard-line Muslim groups have often targeted the country’s religious minorities, particularly Christians, Shiites and Ahmadiyah. According to the Setara Institute, an organization that monitors human rights in Indonesia, there were 201 attacks on religious freedom in Indonesia in 2017, and overall, religious intolerance is growing due to “the strengthening and spread of intolerant organizations.”

Various Islamic groups have staged attacks on non-Muslims at churches and nightclubs over the last two decades, and there is also evidence of growing religious conservatism in parts of the country. In Sumatra’s northwest Aceh province, the harsh Islamic laws implemented in 2015 have been strictly enforced recent years. Last year a gay couple received more than 80 lashes for violating Sharia law, and in early 2019, a teenage couple was publicly caned for cuddling in public.

Chinese Indonesians, whose public holidays and language were effectively banned under the authoritarian leadership of Suharto—the dictator who ruled Indonesia for 31 years until 1998—have also faced intense discrimination and violence. Anti-Chinese riots in 1998 left more than 1,000 people dead.

Authorities have taken note of the divisive content infecting their country’s social networks. In late 2018, the Indonesian government started holding weekly briefings to debunk online hoaxes and to promote digital literacy. Police have arrested dozens of netizens for spreading falsehoods online, and platforms like Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, are attempting to stymie election interference. In early March, the social media giant announced that it had removed thousands of fake accounts from its site, and that foreign electoral ads would not be allowed ahead of voting.

Other volunteer groups are joining the fight against fake news. Non-governmental organization Mafindo runs group classes and workshops to introduce the public to the dangers of deception on the internet. They also expose misinformation on their website and Facebook page, and they are rolling out an app that allows WhatsApp users to forward messages to Mafindo’s WhatApp for verification.

“WhatsApp is massively used to spread hoaxes,” Anita Wahid, a member of Mafindo’s presidium, told TIME.

The organization has also teamed up with almost two dozen media outlets to form a coalition called CekFacta who are working together to fact-check and verify information.

Despite the crackdown, misinformation is rife. “So far we’ve seen about 26 hoaxes saying that the election is rigged or the KPU is rigged, biased towards one candidate,” Wahid said, referring to Komisi Pemilihan Umum, Indonesia’s election commission which is responsible for organizing voting and announcing the results. She said that in March alone, Mafindo uncovered 78 politics-related hoaxes.

Although groups like Mafindo and CekFacta are doing their best to discredit false information before it has a chance to influence voters, experts agree that Wednesday’s vote will not be the end of online hostility.

“Whoever wins the election, we are going to still have people who are actually dissatisfied with the results and it’s going to be hard for us to come back together as a united country,” Wahid says.

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Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com