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Saturday, 26 January 2019

'Jokowi’s magic has now gone': Prabowo ready for presidential debate

Terrorism, human rights, legal affairs and corruption will take centre stage when President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and his opponent Prabowo Subianto square off in the first presidential debate of 2019.

Tens of millions of Indonesians are expected to tune in for the debatel, which will also feature Widodo's running mate, the Islamic cleric Ma'ruf Amin, and Prabowo's offsider, former Jakarta deputy governor Sandiaga Uno.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo may be targeted for not making enough progress in tackling endemic corruption in Indonesia.

Both camps have indicated they will try to focus on the issues that matter to voters and their political programs – rather than ramping up political attacks on their opponents – but both sides have vulnerabilities that may be too tempting for the other to ignore.

Prabowo is still dogged by allegations of human rights abuses taking place when he was a military commander in East Timor, and alleged involvement in the kidnapping of activists during the 1998 reformasi demonstrations that led to the end of former president Suharto's long rule – charges he has always denied.

The challenger, in turn, may target Widodo for not making enough progress in tackling endemic corruption in Indonesia.

Neither candidate had yet made big promises to tackle these issues, he said, but both had indicated their support for greater religious tolerance – a founding principle of Indonesia, but one that has been eroded by the rise of Islamism in recent years.

Prabowo-Sandi campaign spokesman Andre Rosiade flagged ahead of the debate the case of Novel Baswedan – an investigator with the respected Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (anti-corruption commission, or KPK) – who was attacked with hydrochloric acid in April 2017, and whose case remains unsolved, will likely be raised.

Rosiade said that "God willing, Prabowo and Sandi will solve it within 100 days [if they win the election] so that there will be legal certainty for KPK investigators that no more a group of thugs could terrorise KPK".

Rosiade claimed the shine had gone from the still-popular President.

"The most important thing is that Jokowi’s magic has now gone. He is in fact nothing special; we’ve seen it in the last four years. He offered hope and how he has no more hope [to offer]," he said.

"We won’t be attacking [Widodo and Amin]. We will only propose ideas for betterment."

Aria Bima, an official in the Jokowi-Ma’ruf Amin campaign team, said the President and his running mate would focus on the goverment's achievments in the nearly five years since the last election, and their plans for the future.

"We will say, you said that building infrastructure is not important, we will explain that it is not the case, that infrastructure is important. They [Prabowo] said that Indonesia will be extinct one day [an infamous claim made by the candidate in a 2018 speech], we will explain the fact that Indonesia is one among a handful of the most productive countries in the world. We want to build up a good spirit," he said.

Human Rights Watch Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono suggested neither of the candidates were likely to criticise the other on how to tackle terrorism, but each could critique the other on human rights and corruption.

"What are the biggest human rights issues in Indonesia? According to several public surveys, there are three issues. One is religious violence and intolerance; the second is land grabbing for palm oil plantations and mining; and the third is discrimination against women – female genital mutilation, child marriages, and the mandatory wearing of hijabs [in some places]," he said.

Infrastructure investment, including in road, rail and housing, has been a major focus for Widodo in his first term.

If re-elected – Widodo leads Prabowo in reputable polls – the President's campaign team says he will focus on investment in human capital and look to spend more on schools, universities and health care in his second term.

Prabowo, for his part, has promised tax cuts (though few Indonesians actually pay tax) and programs to improve childhood nutrition so far. Further major promises are expected in the lead up to the Aprl 17 poll, when Indonesians will also vote for local members of parliament.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Indonesia: Millions gather for anti-government rally in Jakarta

By Dandy Koswaraputra | Anadolu

JAKARTA: More than 2 million Indonesians gathered in capital Jakarta on Sunday to mark the second anniversary of the "212 movement" by holding a peaceful anti-government rally.

The protesters read verses from the holy Quran and sang songs against incumbent President Joko Widodo.

"People are lied to, promises are denied, scholars are tyrannised, mandates are betrayed. In 2019, replace the senseless president," said the lyrics of one song.
The protesters dressed in white poured into Jakarta on Saturday night from several cities. They camped overnight to pray in congregation at dawn.

Some 20,000 troops were deployed for their security.

The "212 movement" was formed after a rally on Dec. 2, 2016 to call for the prosecution over blasphemy of former Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent.

He was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison in May.    

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Rupiah at lowest since Asian financial crisis, but Indonesia keeps calm and carries on

With consumer prices falling, wages rising and inflation under control, the Bank Indonesia governor rubbishes comparisons with 20 years ago. “Come on!,” he says. “You make it sound like Indonesia is falling apart”


Saturday, 6 OCT 2018

The Asian financial crisis may have occurred two decades ago, but it continues to cast a long shadow over Indonesia. The country’s modern image was defined in the summer of 1998 as a currency crash sparked social and political chaos, culminating in the downfall of President Suharto and the birth of a reformed democracy.

This week, the rupiah fell to its lowest level since that fateful summer; it is now trading at more than 15,000 rupiah to the US dollar, having weakened by 10 per cent overall this year.

Southeast Asia’s largest economy has proved to be as vulnerable as other emerging markets to the uncertainty and turbulence triggered by the United States-China trade war and rising oil prices. Countries as diverse as Turkey, India, Argentina and South Africa have all seen their currencies weaken as investors retreat to more traditional safe havens and stores of value.

But the rupiah’s continued depreciation is a blow to Bank Indonesia (BI), the central bank, which has been determined to avoid another rout, increasing interest rates five times since May in an attempt to stabilise the currency.

But while Indonesian holidaymakers may be disappointed in the exchange rate for the rupiah while travelling abroad, back home there is no sense of an imminent crisis.

Consumer prices are actually falling rather than rising, largely due to a decrease in prices on staple foods such as chicken, eggs, onions and chillies. Wages are also slightly rising and, for the moment, inflation is under control.

As Perry Warjiyo, the governor of Indonesia’s central bank, puts it, “the fundamentals of the economy are sound”. Warjiyo dismissed comparisons to 1998 when asked this week about the currency’s current slump, which made headlines across the region.

“Why do you keep saying it’s ‘the lowest since the Asian crisis’, this kind of thing?” he tells This Week In Asia. “You make it sound like Indonesia is falling apart.”

He adds: “How much has the rupiah fallen this year? 9.8 per cent. But how much has the [Indian] rupee fallen? Twelve per cent. How much is the decline in Turkey, how much in South Africa, how much in Argentina?

“Come on! Compare [the rupiah] with the rupee and other countries’ currencies. Our depreciation sends many jitters, but it is still manageable. And of course our rupiah is undervalued, compared to its fundamentals.”

The BI governor is aiming to restore confidence not just in the aftermath of a terrible earthquake and tsunami in Central Sulawesi, but in advance of the annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings that will take place in Bali next week.

The biggest players in world finance and development economics will be arriving and Indonesia – as well as the economy of the wider region – will be the focus of attention.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

New Study Shows Half of Cancer Patients are Killed by Chemotherapy, Not Cancer

No matter how much doctors push the treatment, chemotherapy might not be the best option in the fight against cancer, as a new study shows up to 50 percent of patients are killed by the drugs — not the disease, itself.
Researchers from Public Health England and Cancer Research UK performed a groundbreaking study examining for the first time the numbers of cancer patients who died within 30 days of beginning chemotherapy — indicating the treatment, not cancer, was the cause of death.
Looking at those death rates in hospitals across the U.K., researchers found an alarming mortality rate associated with chemotherapy.
Across "England around 8.4 percent of patients with lung cancer, and 2.4 percent of breast cancer patients died within a month," the Telegraph reported.
"But in some hospitals, the figure was far higher. In Milton Keynes, the death rate for lung cancer treatment was 50.9 percent, although it was based on a very small number of patients."

Thursday, 4 October 2018

My friend the wind song | Demis Roussos

My Friend The Wind is a song by Greek singer Demis Roussos. It was released as a single in 1973.

The song was written by Alec R. Costandinos and Stelios Vlavianos.

Roussos was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, in a Greek family where his father George (Yorgos) Roussos was a classical guitarist and an engineer and his mother Olga was a singer; her family originally came from Greece.

As a child, he studied music and joined the Greek Church Byzantine choir in Alexandria. His formative years in the ancient port city's cosmopolitan atmosphere were influenced by jazz, but also traditional Arab and Greek Orthodox music. His parents lost their possessions during the Suez Crisis and consequently decided to move to Greece.

Demis Roussos has died on January 25, 2015, in Athens, Greece

- Source of stories: Wikipedia

Song lyrics:

My friend the wind will come from the hills 
When dawn will rise, he'll wake me again 
My friend the wind will tell me a secret 
He shares with me, he shares with me

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Breaking: At least 82 dead as earthquake rocks Lombok and Bali

At least 82 people have died after a powerful earthquake rocked the Indonesian tourist islands of Lombok and neighbouring Bali, triggering a tsunami warning just a week after another quake in the same region killed 16 people.

Monday, 30 July 2018

How Beijing is winning control of the South China Sea

Erratic US policy and fraying alliances give China a free hand

SIMON ROUGHNEEN, Asia regional correspondent

Chinese warships and fighter jets take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12.   © Reuters

Even by his outspoken standards, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's account of a conversation he had with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, was startling.

During a meeting between the two leaders in Beijing in May 2017, the subject turned to whether the Philippines would seek to drill for oil in a part of the South China Sea claimed by both countries. Duterte said he was given a blunt warning by China's president.

"[Xi's] response to me [was], 'We're friends, we don't want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we'll go to war," Duterte recounted.

A year later, Duterte was asked for a response to news that China had landed long-range bombers on one of the South China Sea's Paracel Islands -- a milestone that suggests the People's Liberation Army Air Force can easily make the short hop to most of Southeast Asia from its new airstrips. "What's the point of questioning whether the planes there land or not?" Duterte responded.

His refusal to condemn China's military buildup underlines China's success in subduing its rivals in the South China Sea. Since 2013 China has expanded artificial islands and reefs in the sea and subsequently installed a network of runways, missile launchers, barracks and communications facilities.

These military advances have led many to wonder if Beijing has already established unassailable control over the disputed waters. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea and its islands – claims that are looking increasingly forlorn in the wake of China's military buildup.

"What China is winning is de facto control of nearly the entire South China Sea, including all activities and resources in it, despite the other surrounding Southeast Asian states' respective legal rights and entitlements under international law," said Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

At stake is the huge commercial and military leverage that comes with controlling one of the world's most important shipping lanes, through which up to $5 trillion worth of trade passes each year.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis insists that China faces "consequences" for the "militarization" of South China Sea, which he says is being done for "the purposes of intimidation and coercion."

"There are consequences that will continue to come home to roost, so to speak, with China, if they do not find the way to work more collaboratively with all of the nations," Mattis said on June 2 at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a security conference organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Mac Thornberry, chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, added that the U.S. naval presence means China does not have a free hand in the South China Sea.

"I think you will see more and more nations working together to affirm freedom of navigation through the South China Sea and other international waters," Thornberry told the Nikkei Asian Review.

But what those consequences might be was left unsaid by Mattis, who suggested that there was little prospect of forcing China to give up its growing network of military facilities dotting the sea.

"We all know nobody is ready to invade," he said.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis talked up the "Indo-Pacific" strategy in his June 2 speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, "There is no reasonable basis for the U.S. to use military force to push China off its outposts, nor would any country in the region support such an effort."

The U.S. pushback so far has included disinviting China from a major Pacific naval exercise. It also continues to carry out so-called freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, the most recent of which took place on May 27. This was followed by U.S. military aircraft flying over the Paracel Islands in early June, a move that prompted a countercharge of "militarization'" against the U.S. by China's Foreign Ministry.

China regards the FONOPs as sabre-rattling and "a challenge to [our] sovereignty," according to Lt. Gen. He Lei, Beijing's lead representative at the Singapore conference.

He restated the government position on troops and weapons on islands in the South China Sea, describing the deployments as an assertion of sovereignty and said that allegations of militarization were "hyped up" by the U.S.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stopped short of endorsing the FONOPs but told the Nikkei Asian Review that "it is our belief that those sea lanes should be left open and free."

In contrast to Duterte's reluctance to confront China, his predecessor as president, Benigno Aquino, was frequently outspoken about China's increasing control of the sea. He pressed a case against Beijing to an arbitration tribunal in 2013 after a protracted naval stand-off the year before around Scarborough Shoal, a rock claimed by both countries and lying about 120 nautical miles off the Luzon coast.

In mid-2016 the tribunal dismissed China's expansive "nine-dash line" claim to much of the South China Sea and its artificial island-building and expansion, all of which the tribunal said contravened the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS.

Duterte said he would not "flaunt" the tribunal outcome, in contrast with his campaign pledge to assert the country's sovereignty -- he even vowed to ride a jet ski to one of China's artificial islands and plant the Philippine flag there. Manila hopes for significant Chinese investment in roads, rail and ports, as part of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, a multi continent plan outlining China-backed infrastructure upgrades.

Filipino activists rally outside the Chinese Consulate in Manila in February to protest Beijing's continued reclamation activities in the South China Sea.   © Reuters

Defense Secretary Lorenzana emphasized in remarks to the media in Singapore that good relations with China remain a priority, regardless of bilateral disputes. "It is just natural for us to befriend our neighbour. We cannot avoid dealing with China, they are near, [and] many Filipinos, including me, have Chinese blood."

For the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, there are growing doubts about whether the American navy would protect them in a conflict with China, something Duterte, a brusque critic of the U.S., has questioned publicly.

Mattis, like former President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sidestepped a question on that issue in Singapore, saying, "The reason why public figures do not want to give specific answers is that these are complex issues."

American evasiveness is a reminder to the Philippines that the U.S. might not risk war with China over its old ally. "It is debatable whether Filipinos believe that the U.S. will have its back in a conflict with China," Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines said. "Duterte's repeated statements against the reliability of the U.S. as an ally tends to undermine this further."

Duterte's reticence has left Vietnam as the sole claimant willing to speak up. Discussing recent developments in the South China Sea, Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen. Ngo Xuan Lich told the Singapore conference, "Under no circumstances could we excuse militarization by deploying weapons and military hardware over disputed areas against regional commitments."

Lich did not name-check China in his speech, but described "a serious breach to the sovereignty" of another country that "violates international laws, complicates the situation and negatively affects regional peace, stability and security."

As well as hindering oil and gas projects in waters close to Vietnam, China's navy has for several years harassed Vietnamese fishing boats -- as it does around the Philippines -- and continues to occupy islands seized from Vietnam nearly five decades ago.

In 2014, anti-China riots kicked off across Vietnam after China placed an oil rig in South China Sea waters claimed by Hanoi. In early June there were demonstrations against proposals that protesters claimed will give Chinese businesses favoured access in so-called Special Economic Zones in Vietnam.

The Lan Tay gas platform, operated by Rosneft Vietnam, sits in the South China Sea off the Vietnamese coast. China has been hindering Vietnam's oil exploration activities in the sea.   © Reuters

Vietnam's response to potential isolation has been a cautious dalliance with the U.S. In late 2016, shortly before the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, American warships docked in Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay naval base, the first such visit since the former antagonists normalized ties in 1995. That landmark was followed in March this year by the arrival of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the central Vietnam city of Danang.

Hanoi recently called for greater Japanese involvement in the region's maritime disputes, perhaps signalling an interest in a wider effort to counter China. But unlike in the Philippines, Vietnam, which like China is a single party communist-run state, is not a U.S. treaty ally. Historical and ideological differences mean that there are limits to how closely Vietnam will align with the U.S.

"I think there is a good momentum with defence cooperation with the U.S. But I don't think that it would immediately mean jumping into the 'American camp,' whatever it means," said Huong Le Thu, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

From Bollywood to Hollywood

The U.S. has sought to widen the array of countries it hopes will join it in countering China's rising influence. During his 12-day swing through Asia in late 2017, Trump peppered his speeches with references to the "Indo-Pacific," dispensing with the long-established "Asia-Pacific" label in favour of a more expansive term first used by Japan.

The "Indo-Pacific" was then mentioned throughout the U.S. National Security Strategy published soon after Trump's Asia trip -- a document that alleged China aims to "challenge American power" and "is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda."

Three days before his Singapore speech, Mattis announced in Hawaii that the U.S. Pacific Command would be renamed the Indo-Pacific Command, describing the expanded theatre as stretching "from Bollywood to Hollywood."

Mattis later added some gravitas to the cinematic catchphrase, saying in Singapore that "standing shoulder to shoulder with India, ASEAN and our treaty allies and other partners, America seeks to build an Indo-Pacific where sovereignty and territorial integrity are safeguarded -- the promise of freedom fulfilled and prosperity prevails for all."

The Trump administration clearly hopes for greater Indian involvement in its efforts to counter China's growing influence. Kori Schake, deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that while "Indo-Pacific isn't yet an established part of the lexicon," the implications of the term are clear.

"India is an Asian power. The countries adopting the term are encouraging India into greater cooperation in maintaining the maritime commons in the Indian and Pacific oceans," said Schake, a former U.S. State Department official.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security conference, in Singapore on June 1. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

Modi enthusiastically echoed American rhetoric about a "shared vision of an open, stable, secure and prosperous" Indo-Pacific, which he described as "a natural region" -- countering those who wonder if an area stretching from Bollywood to Hollywood might too vast and desperate to be cast into a geopolitical fact on the ground.

But Modi also heaped praise on China, despite its border dispute with India and increasingly close economic ties with Pakistan, India's neighbour and nuclear rival.

"Our cooperation is expanding. Trade is growing. And, we have displayed maturity and wisdom in managing issues and ensuring a peaceful border," Modi said.

China's foreign ministry described Modi's speech as "positive," while one of its military delegation at the Singapore conference gloated that India and the U.S. "have different understandings, different interpretations, of this Indo-Pacific."

China's first domestically designed and built aircraft carrier   © Kyodo

It is perhaps no surprise then that China's rivals in the South China Sea do not yet regard the nascent Indo-Pacific alliance-building as something to pin their hopes on when it comes to controlling of the sea.

"We are witnessing the great power shift toward Asia-Pacific with the 'Indo-Pacific strategy,' Belt and Road Initiative and a series of country grouping[s] in the region," Lich said, cautioning that "the outcomes for the region and the world are somewhat yet to be unveiled."

Lich's Philippine counterpart was even more circumspect, particularly regarding the Indo-Pacific concept. "I have to study it some more," Lorenzana said. "This is a new construct in this area."

Nikkei staff writers Mikhail Flores in Manila and Atsushi Tomiyama in Hanoi contributed to this article.


Thursday, 26 July 2018

Mesut Özil Walks Away from German Team Alleging Racism on a Sad Day for German Football

By Preity Uupala
Observer Staff Writer

Germany's world cup failure blamed on Özil, despite his stellar record over his career
Turkey president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says today in Ankara that he is glad with Mesut Özil's stance: "I called him on Monday night and we talked. They simply can't stomach the fact that he took a picture with me. His attitude was nationalistic. I kiss his eyes and I stand by him"

One of the most scandalous stories to hit the soccer world was yesterday's news surrounding mid-fielder Mesut Özil's departure from the German national team due to "racial and disrespect". A shocking departure following the 2018 world cup in Russia, of Arsenal star Özil, who also played for Germany and is of Turkish descent.

In a statement, Özil writes: " It is with a heavy heart and after much consideration that because of recent events, I will no longer be playing for Germany at an international level whilst I have this feeling of racism and disrespect"- Mesut Özil.

There may have been accusations that Germany's spectacular failure this world cup can be blamed due to his poor performance. But it seems ludicrous. The German team lost because they played poorly and lost as a collective team. No one player can be blamed and management and coach are equally at fault.

He made a spectacular statement" When we win, I am German; when we lose, I am an immigrant". The issue here is not one of his performance, but a much deeper issue of racism and abuse.

It all started in may 2018 when Özil met and posed for photography with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and signed a t-shirt with the words "For my president". Ozil was quick to justify that this was a courteous gesture on his part and he was not making any sort of political endorsement saying that "It would have been disrespecting the roots of my ancestry", had he not made the gesture. But the photo did not go down well with German media and the German Football Association (FA) who heavily criticized it and left Özil out for a lot of the pre-world cup promo activities.

It is a sad day for Germany because this idea of an integrated German team, one that is inclusive, diverse and respectful is under attack. The fact that one of the most high profile players does not feel comfortable representing the national team makes it a huge story. Özil has always claimed that he has two hearts: one German and one Turkish.

However, these are very tense times for Germany regarding race tensions and a story like this falls right into the arms of those who wish to use it for political gain. It is a shame to see far-right parties like the AFD, use this as a part of their identity politics strategy in an attempt to showcase that diversity and immigration simply don't work. Yes, there are serious issues with immigration and refugee influx, especially where there is no integration or assimilation on the part of those who take refuge. And in many ways, this human refugee experiment has failed Europe and especially Germany creating all sorts of internal conflicts and tensions.

But with Özil, this is hardly the case here. Far from bringing a refugee, he was born in Germany as was his father, speaks perfect German, grew up here and for all intents and purposes is very German, he is an example of the diversity that has triumphed not failed.
What makes things worse is that other foreign players in the German national team like Miroslav Klose and Joseph Podolski are always referred to as German and not German-Polish and yet Özil was always German- Turkish, because of his Muslim heritage.

For someone who has worn that German jersey 92 times scoring 23 goals internationally, being a vital part of the 2014 team that lifted the world cup trophy and who has been German player of the year 5 times, this is a sad ending to a wonderful career. He has done a lot of charity work and has been a great role model on and off the field but all of this seems to be of little significance and consequence for some in the German media and FA.

There have been mixed reactions; from a global outrage for soccer fans around the world who applauded Özil for standing up to racism, to some saying German Football is better off without him, to some in the German Football Association downplaying it and reducing it to poor performance instead of a much more larger, sensitive race problem and to some who realize something precious has been lost.

Once a hero, Mesut Özil's now just a scapegoat for racists. And his suddenly abbreviated Germany career serves as a microcosm of Europe's shifting stance on immigration.
The German FA seems to downplay the racial issues and condensing it to Özil poor performance in recent times. The Bayern Munich President, Uli Hoeness, and the German FA have been harsh to come back with scandalous quotes that Özil performance has slumped in the recent past and that he does not belong on the national team. It blames Germany's world cup failure down to one player and seems to erode Özil's stellar record over his career. You may not think he was playing his best soccer in recent times but a total ignorance over the racial issue is very reckless for Germany moving forward.

It shows wanted disregard for a serious issue of racial tensions not just in the team but the nation as well. It shows a lack of understating the difference inherent in a player and shoving that difference back into their face rather than protecting them from various racial abuses and mistreatment, subtle, as they may have been. Perhaps this shows the deeply embedded racism that still exists within the DFA and in Germany. How does this affect the future Mesut Özil who dream of playing for Germany; they may now think twice. Time will only tell.

Mesut Özil will continue to play for English club Arsenal and possibly create more history there but the real loser here is German football.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Indonesia | 'I felt disgusted': inside Indonesia's fake Twitter account factories

People attend a rally to show support for jailed former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama - known by his nickname Ahok. Photograph: Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images via The Guardian
Kate Lamb in Jakarta

Monday, 23 Jul 2018

To pass them off as real, Alex would enliven his fake accounts with dashes of humanity. Mixed up among the stream of political posts, his avatars – mostly pretty young Indonesian women – would bemoan their broken hearts and post pictures of their breakfasts.

But these fake accounts were not for fun; Alex and his team were told it was "war".

"When you're at war you use anything available to attack the opponent," says Alex from a cafe in central Jakarta, "but sometimes I felt disgusted with myself."

For several months in 2017 Alex, whose name has been changed, alleges he was one of more than 20 people inside a secretive cyber army that pumped out messages from fake social media accounts to support then Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as "Ahok", as he fought for re-election.

"They told us you should have five Facebook accounts, five Twitter accounts and one Instagram," he told the Guardian. "And they told us to keep it secret. They said it was 'war time' and we had to guard the battleground and not tell anyone about where we worked."

The Jakarta election – which saw the incumbent Ahok, a Chinese Christian, compete against the former president's son Agus Yudhoyono, and the former education minister, Anies Baswedan – churned up ugly religious and racial divisions. It culminated in mass Islamic rallies and allegations that religion was being used for political gain. Demonstrators called for Ahok to be jailed on contentious blasphemy charges.

The rallies were heavily promoted by an opaque online movement known as the Muslim Cyber Army, or the MCA, which employed hundreds of fake and anonymous accounts to spread racist and hardline Islamic content designed to turn Muslim voters against Ahok.

Alex says his team was employed to counter the deluge of anti-Ahok sentiment, including hashtags that critiqued opposition candidates, or ridiculed their Islamic allies.

Alex's team, comprising Ahok supporters and university students lured by the lucrative pay of about $280 (£212) a month, was allegedly employed in a "luxury house" in Menteng, central Jakarta. They were each told to post 60 to 120 times a day on their fake Twitter accounts, and a few times each day on Facebook.

'Special forces'
In Indonesia – which ranks among the top five users of Twitter and Facebook globally – they are what are known as a "buzzer teams" – groups which amplify messages and creates a "buzz" on social networks. While not all buzzer teams use fake accounts, some do.

Alex says his team of 20 people, each with 11 social media accounts, would generate up to 2,400 posts on Twitter a day.

The operation is said to have been coordinated through a WhatsApp group called Pasukan Khusus, meaning "special forces" in Indonesian, which Alex estimates consisted of about 80 members. The team was fed content and daily hashtags to promote.

"They didn't want the accounts to be anonymous so they asked us to take photos for the profiles, so we took them from Google, or sometimes we used pictures from our friends, or photos from Facebook or WhatsApp groups," says Alex. "They also encouraged us to use accounts of beautiful women to draw attention to the material; many accounts were like that."

On Facebook they even made a few accounts using profile pictures of famous foreign actresses, who inexplicably appeared to be die-hard Ahok fans.

The cyber team was allegedly told it was "only safe" to post from the Menteng residence, where they operated from several rooms.

"The first room was for the positive content, where they spread positive content about Ahok. The second room was for negative content, spreading negative content and hate speech about the opposition," says Alex, who says he chose the positive room.

Many of the accounts had just a few hundred followers, but by getting their hashtags trending, often on a daily basis, they artificially increased their visibility on the platform. By manipulating Twitter they influenced real users and the Indonesian media, which often refers to trending hashtags as barometers of the national mood.

Pradipa Rasidi, who at the time worked for the youth wing of Transparency International in Indonesia, noticed the phenomenon when he was researching social media during the election.

"At first glance they appear normal but then they mostly only tweet about politics," he said.

Rasidi interviewed two different Ahok buzzers, who detailed using fake accounts in the same fashion as that described by Alex. Both declined to speak to the Guardian.

A social media strategist who worked one of Ahok's opponents campaigns said buzzing was a big industry.

"Some people with influential accounts get paid about 20m rupiah ($1,400/£1,069) just for one tweet. Or if you want to get a topic trending for a few hours, that costs between 1-4m rupiah," Andi, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, explained.
Based on its study of the buzzer industry in Indonesia, researchers from the Center for Innovation and Policy Research (CIPG) say all candidates in the 2017 Jakarta election used buzzer teams – and at least one of Ahok's opponents skilfully created "hundreds of bots" connected to supporting web portals.
The Baswedan campaign denied using fake accounts or bots. A Yudhoyono spokesman said they did not breach campaigning rules.

Slander, hatred and hoax
The authorities have made moves to crack down on fake news and the spread of hate speech online but buzzers, which operate in a grey area have largely slipped through the cracks.

Even the central government appears to employ such tactics. The Twitter account @IasMardiyah, for example, which Alex says was utilised by his pro-Ahok buzzer team, now posts a steady flow of government messages and propaganda for President Joko Widodo – mostly retweets about Indonesia's infrastructure and diplomatic successes, or the need to protect national unity.
Featuring an avatar of a young woman wearing a headscarf and sunglasses, the account tweets almost exclusively pro-government content with accompanying hashtags.

Recently the account has posted about Indonesia's election to the United Nations security council, fighting terrorism, boosting agricultural exports, a new airport in West Java, next month's Asian Games, but also on sensitive issues such as West Papua.

A presidential spokesperson was asked for comment by the Guardian, but did not respond.

A spokesperson from Twitter declined to specify how many fake Indonesian accounts it had identified or removed from its platform in the past year. The company said it had "developed new techniques and proprietary machine learning for identifying malicious automation".

The Guardian