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Investigation reveals disinformation campaigns on Papuan issues

Kharishar Kahfi – The Jakarta Post

Two Melanesian Students in Wamena after being shot by Indonesian army declaring independence
Two Melanesian Students in Wamena after being shot by Indonesian army declaring independence

A recent digital forensic investigation has revealed that multiple attempts have taken place in the digital world to manipulate the narrative about the protests and riots in the Papua and West Papua provinces in favor of the Indonesian government.

The joint investigation, launched by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), found at least two online influence campaigns had been “disseminating pro-Indonesian government material on the issue of West Papua”.

The Papua issue refers to widespread protests against the racial abuse suffered by Papuans, which eventually led to riots. The first of the recent incidents of abuse occurred in August in Surabaya, East Java, which triggered protests in some cities, including in Jakarta.

The second abuse allegedly occurred in Papua, where a non-native teacher at a local high school reportedly called a native student a “monkey”. The incident sparked protests and violence on Sept. 23 when mobs, reportedly made up of native Papuans, set buildings and vehicles on fire. Thirty-three people, mostly non-natives, were killed during the riots.

The Indonesian authorities claimed they limited internet access in Papua during the riots in the hope of curbing the spread of fake news. However, the digital forensic investigation found otherwise.

The findings about the manipulative narrative were made by BBC open source investigator Benjamin Strick and ASPI’s international cyber-policy center researcher Elise Thomas. The report was also published online by a United Kingdom-based investigative group Bellingcat on Oct. 11.

“The goal of both campaigns was to influence international opinion about the increasingly violent situation in West Papua, as Indonesian security forces crack down on the local pro-independence movement,” Strick and Thomas wrote in the report.

The team revealed the first campaign was operated by InsightID, an Indonesian communications firm. According to the report, the firm had been promoting pro-Indonesian government content on various websites and social media accounts aimed at international audiences.

During the campaign, the firm was also found to have targeted an opposition hashtag to influence its followers with pro-Indonesian and anti-independence content, as well as actively harass people who publicly supported independence or were reporting information that contradicted the government’s narrative on the situation in Papua.

“We have not found evidence to identify the client who has hired InsightID to run this information campaign,” Strick and Thomas wrote.

“However, based on the available facts we can conclude the client is a party which is able to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to run a ‘fake news’ information operation with the goal of influencing the international community’s political perceptions in favor of the Indonesian government’s actions in West Papua,” they added.

Findings about InsightID had been separately confirmed by Facebook, which issued a statement earlier this month saying it had identified and removed dozens of accounts and pages suspected of committing coordinated inauthentic behavior in Indonesia, primarily sharing content mainly undermining the West Papuan independence movement. 

Facebook eventually found links to a local media firm, InsightID, which was said to be spending about US$300,000 on Facebook ads, mostly paid in Indonesian rupiah.

A group claiming to be InsightID later responded to the statement, saying the group worked to counter what it claimed was massive amounts of biased disinformation disseminated by the Papuan separatist movement.

“Our content is focused on messages of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika [Unity in Diversity], the unity of Indonesia and the optimistic efforts of Indonesia to resolve the problems in Papua,” it said in a statement.

The team also found a separate and smaller campaign running on the similar topic of West Papua. This one includes three “brands”, each of which has its own website and social media accounts: Wawawa Journal (WJ), Tell the Truth NZ and Noken Insight.

A notable example of an action undertaken by the campaign was the promotion of a statement attributed to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres saying he supported the Indonesian government over the brouhaha in Papua. Later, it was found that the statement had been fabricated.

Some content spread in the campaign smeared several international media outlets based in Australia and New Zealand, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Moreover, it also targeted people who spoke out about the Papuan issue, including human rights lawyer Veronica Koman and United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) chairman Benny Wenda.

One of the domains used in the second campaign was registered by Muhamad Rosyid Jazuli, who had worked since 2014 in an organization called the Jenggala Center. The organization was originally a supporter of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Jusuf Kalla when the pair ran in the 2014 presidential election.

Jazuli admitted to the team his responsibility for the Wawawa Journal and Tell the Truth NZ, while denying knowledge of Noken Insight despite evidence that the WJ Facebook page once used Noken Insight’s brand as its cover photo.

“Jazuli [said] that the sites and profiles were created on his own initiative by himself and friends, using personal money and were not related to his work with the Jenggala Center,” the report said.

It added that he claimed the campaigns were simply attempts to counter negative Western media coverage, rather than being propaganda or “fake news”.

Online influence campaigns are still common in Indonesia, according to a report by Oxford Internet Institute director Philip Howard and researcher Samanta Bradshaw entitled “2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation”.

The report listed Indonesia as among the 70 countries it found to have organized social media manipulation for shaping public opinions, deeming it a threat to democracy.

The report said the existence of cybertroops and computational propaganda in Indonesia was aimed at spreading pro-government or pro-party propaganda, attacking opposition or mounting smear campaigns, as well as driving division and polarization.

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