The opinion piece Hoax dan Demokrasi by Rocky Gerung (Tempo, Jan. 6) exposes some important problems that Indonesians encounter every day in this current political climate.
Reminiscent of the past authoritarian regime, the Joko “Jokowi” Widodo administration has blocked several websites to contain the recent flow of hoaxes, such as the claim made by Islam Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab about the communist symbol being embedded in the new rupiah banknotes, the rumors about “migrant Chinese workers taking over jobs from ‘native’ Indonesians”, the letter from the Flat Earth Community to the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN) and many more.
According to Rocky, the reactionary move by the government is a rash decision that will only “endanger democracy because the public is led to believe in the mainstream media”. He also asserts that the advent of hoaxes should actually be viewed as “a signal of the growth of an alternative power” within the republic’s jurisdictions.
Rocky’s piece subsequently sheds light on one thing that most Indonesians are now familiar with: the breeding of authoritarianism through the practice of censorship.
However, his über-normalization of fake news and hoaxes in current political, economic and social discourses in Indonesia has obscured a major point.
Perhaps the question we should ask is whether the circulation — and subsequent normalization — of hoaxes is a threat to democracy. If so, how?
A hoax is essentially similar to a lie, an act of public disinformation, regardless of whether it was perpetuated for a person’s or a group’s particular gain or just for a joke. It is ultimately an act of fraud. A hoax distinguishes itself from misinformation because of its nature of deliberately deceiving society.
Together with conspiracy theories, rumors and political gossip, hoaxes are common in any democratic society. Hoaxes stem from the idea of freedom of speech, which the very notion of democracy is committed to protect. The problem, however, is when hoaxes gain traction in public or are mistaken as genuine products of journalism and consequently a repertoire of hoaxes are transformed into political fraud and propaganda.
The phenomenon of the selfmultiplying perpetuation of fraud and hoaxes can destabilize the social and political order, particularly in one as plural and diverse as Indonesia.
With the addition of an external shock, such as an economic crisis, such phenomenon sets the stage for a regime — or societal — breakdown to unfold itself.
It is important for us to recall scholar John Sydenham Furnivall’s concept of a plural society. In Colonial Policy and Practice ( 1948 ), Furnivall defines the plural society as “in its strictest sense a medley, for [peoples] mix but do not combine. Each group holds by its own religion, its own culture and language, its own ideas and ways. As individuals, they meet, but only in the marketplace.”
Together with British Burma, the Netherlands Indies, according to Furnivall, was an example of a plural society, a prominent characteristic of most post-colonial states. Furnivall treated this phenomenon as an excess of colonialism and rightly pointed to the formation of a common culture through nationalism or federalism as the cure. Without a common culture, the nation-state is doomed to fracture. This is true in Indonesia, or in other nations with a plural society such as Singapore or the United States.
The late historian Benedict Anderson in his Imagined Communities ( 1991 ) explains how a common culture — nationalism — is formed through the emergence of “print-capitalism”, a shorthand for the printing presses of the various newspapers and magazines of the era. Streams of information, roots of cultural awareness and the embryos of nationhood were, according to Anderson, incubated by the various newspapers that circulated across the archipelago, thus spurring a nationwide imagination of a “community”, which would later be defined as nationalism (a similar role later is played by radio sets and televisions).
Media plays a huge role in informing the public — or, depending on how one might see it, misinforming them. What is currently happening in Indonesia is that the emergence of the internet has trumped the circulation of “conventional” media outlets such as radio and television.
Throughout history, the advent of new media technologies has had significant effects on how politics are done in a nation-state. Just like how radios had shaped Franklin D. Roosevelt’s America, the advent of the internet and social media affects Indonesian politics today. Unfortunately, it is the fear-mongers and rabble-rousers who are dominating the airwaves.
Meanwhile, the current day politics of fear and dissent is also an old creature. In the November 1964 edition of Harper’s Magazine, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about this tradition of hoax-perpetuating, fear-mongering and paranoid-inducing politics that were rampant in early Cold War America.
In The Paranoid Style in American Politics ( 1964 ), Hofstadter alluded to how rumors and conspiracy theories became the predilections of American politicians such as senator Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist witchhunt of the 1950s, linking them with earlier paranoia against the Illuminati, Freemasons and Jesuits in 18th century US.
Hofstadter correctly argued that “the paranoid style [of politics] is not confined to [the US]; it is an international phenomenon”. Indeed, we can see its resurgence in Indonesia today.
If Rocky claims that “the best hoax is from the rulers”, he alludes to the unequal race on the methods and instruments of information dissemination, which is controlled by those in power. The obvious case of the hoax buzzers and fear-mongers, however, explicitly underlines the feasibility of those with lesser power to influence public opinion. As with warfare and markets, the division of power is now asymmetrical, where conventional rules no longer dominate the playing field.
One might imagine how a firebrand Islamic figure like Rizieq and his alleged claim of communist symbolism in the country’s new banknotes may easily trigger a crisis of confidence on the currency — hence, hyperinflation — subsequently harming the economy. Likewise, the anti-Chinese migrant worker propaganda may render Indonesians more vulnerable to religious, ethnic and xenophobic provocations. These kinds of dangerous ideas should not be left alone to percolate in the minds of the masses.
Perpetuating hoaxes to gain support for a political cause, to manipulate public opinion by disseminating fear and spreading hate, is no longer an act of hoax. It is a political propaganda of an unhealthy breed and it should be mitigated, either by the government or civil society.
The state’s act against hoaxes, banning numerous fake news media websites, is perfectly legitimate. It serves as a signal that President Jokowi’s administration, as the legitimately-elected government, is decisively countering the perpetuation of fear — rather than normalizing it — through legal procedures.
Indonesia is most probably experiencing a phase in its history similar to that in the US.
One thing is for sure, a laissezfaire approach in normalizing the hoaxes will only make things worse and a lecturer from one of the nation’s top universities should know better.