The Jakarta Post
WhatsApp has a serious fake news problem.
The messenger application has already come under scrutiny in several countries amid allegations it was culpable for helping spread misinformation that led to, among other problems, mob killings in India and a yellow fever outbreak in Brazil.
It has now caught the attention of Indonesian authorities following revelations that it has played a significant role in spreading fake news in the country.
WhatsApp, which claims to apply end-to-end encryption to protect privacy, was blamed for circulating misinformation about child kidnappings that stirred up fears among parents.
Police so far have only arrested people accused of spreading the hoax on their Facebook pages, not those thought to have spread the hoax via WhatsApp.
The application was also seen as partly responsible for the low success rate of the national vaccination campaign, after false reports on the dangers of immunization circulated on WhatsApp group chats, mainly family group chats.
About 40 percent of 142 million internet users in Indonesia use WhatsApp, making it the nation’s most popular messaging application and third-most popular social media platform after YouTube and Facebook, according to a study by creative agency We Are Social and Hootsuite.
A 2018 study conducted by business and IT news portal DailySocial revealed that 57 percent of Indonesian internet users say they often received false information via the messenger application.
The study, which surveyed 2,032 smartphone users nationwide, also showed that 51.03 percent of respondents decided to do nothing upon receiving false information, although they did not believe it either.
Communications and Information Minister Rudiantara told The Jakarta Poston Friday that his ministry was currently in the middle of a discussion with WhatsApp to prepare a set of policies to address the problem.
“We are currently preparing a set of rules, and whoever violates the rules will be penalized with a fine,” Rudiantara said on Friday.
The rules would be included in a revision of Government Regulation No. 82/2012 on the electronic transactions, the minister said. He declined to elaborate on the regulation or say when it would be enacted.
Facebook, as the owner of WhatsApp, is less optimistic than the government, however, saying there was little it could do to address fake news on the messenger application, simply because it could not control the messages people send through its platform because of the end-to-end encryption.
“Therefore, the only thing we can do is to limit the use of message forwarding services to 10 times a day,” Facebook Indonesia spokesperson Putri Dewanti told the Post on Saturday.
Other than being encrypted, the other feature that has made WhatsApp a perfect medium for hoaxes is its simple interface, experts say.
“The group chat feature has also made it easier for people to spread information to other people,” said Novi Kurnia, a Gadjah Mada University (UGM) researcher who received a grant from WhatsApp to conduct a study on fake news.
Novi, along with five other media experts and scholars, will conduct a study titled “WhatsApp Group and Digital Literacy Among Indonesian Women”.
The research will assess how Indonesian women apply their digital skills in using various WhatsApp groups and will be conducted in five main cities, namely Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Makassar in South Sulawesi, Aceh and Jayapura in Papua.
“In this research, we will map the interaction pattern between users in personal or group chats and analyze how those who have high digital awareness apply their skills to process information,” Novi said.
Ross Tapsell, a lecturer in Asian Studies at the Australian National University, said Indonesians now turned to alternative media such as WhatsApp for information, as many of them no longer trusted the mainstream media, which they perceived as politically biased, especially during election years.
But what made WhatsApp groups even more popular was the fact that Indonesians, like other Southeast Asians, loved gossip, he added.
“It is more common for Southeast Asians, including Indonesians, to create WhatsApp group chats because of their habit of sharing things among each other.”
This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post's print edition on Nov. 19, 2018, with the title "Time to leave? Hoaxes thrive in WhatsApp group chats".