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Papua unrest: Social media bots ‘skewing the narrative’

October 12, 2019

Papua unrest: Social media bots ‘skewing the narrative’

2:56 pm on 11 October 2019

By Benjamin Strick & Famega Syavira for the BBC

Indonesia has blocked internet access in unrest-hit Papua over fears that a stream of offensive and racists posts online will spark more violent protests in the region, the government said on August 22. (Photo by BAY ISMOYO / AFP)
Photo: AFP

Indonesia’s Papua province has become the focus of a well-funded social media campaign using bots to promote a pro-government agenda, the BBC has found.

A long-running Papuan separatist movement has flared in recent months, sparking fresh calls for self-rule.

But with access to the region heavily restricted, social media has become a key source for the foreign press.

One expert told the BBC the apparently co-ordinated campaigns were seeking to skew international views of Papua.

Papua – which takes up half of the island also known as Papua – was controversially annexed by Indonesia in 1969.
Many Papuans still want independence and are calling for a new referendum.
The military has been accused of gross human rights abuses in the past in its attempts to quell dissent, while the separatist movement has also killed civilians.
Tensions rose recently, amid accusations of racism at a university. To control deadly unrest, the government has deployed thousands of extra security personnel to Papua.
It has also at times cut off the internet, and foreign journalists are now banned from reporting in the region, meaning it’s very hard to know what is going on.
Narrative ‘doesn’t reflect reality’

The investigation, by the BBC and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), identified a network of easily recognisable "bots" – or automated accounts – which were sharing the same pro-government content about Papua at the same time.

The Twitter accounts were all using fake or stolen profile photos, including images of K-pop stars or random people, and were clearly not functioning as "real" people do on social media.

This led to the discovery of a network of automated fake accounts spread across at least four social media platforms and numerous websites which could be traced to a Jakarta-based media company, InsightID.

The bots would jump on to hashtags being used by groups supporting independence, such as #freewestpapua, so they swamped negative reporting with positive stories about investment in the region, a process known as "hashtag hijacking".

This technique was also used on Facebook. One such message, in English, said Indonesia had invited the UN to Papua to assess the situation. But the UN has complained that, despite an agreement more than a year ago, an official visit has still to take place.

The company pushed out content on Facebook with paid ads targeting users in the US, UK and Europe.

"The risk of a campaign like this, in a place with so little access to truly independent media, is it skews the perceptions and understanding of the international community in a way that doesn’t reflect reality," says ASPI cyber researcher Elise Thomas.

"That appears to be the goal, one which someone is willing to spend hundreds of dollars and many months to achieve."

Many of the Twitter bots identified in the joint investigation have been removed. But more have been created to replace them.

‘Manipulating facts is very dangerous’

In line with the findings of this investigation, Facebook recently shut down more than 100 of these accounts, saying they didn’t want their services "used to manipulate people".

Facebook also said it had found links to InsightID. About $300,000 (£245,000) had been spent by the removed accounts on advertising on the site, although not all of them were attributed to InsightID.

InsightID could not be contacted. But a statement posted on social media credited to the firm said: "Our content defends Indonesia against the hoax narrative of the Free Papua separatist groups."

Indonesia has seen a significant rise in fake news and hoaxes in recent years. With both side of politics accused of using bots.

Although the manipulative social media campaign was supporting the Jakarta narrative on Papua, the government told the BBC it supported the move to shut the fake accounts down.

"Manipulating facts in order to discredit certain groups is very dangerous and can create social unrest," said Ferdinandus Setu, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Communication.

The investigations also uncovered a separate but overlapping campaign that Ms Thomas said was "a network of accounts and websites that has been built to promote ‘news’ stories which are either slanted to reflect a pro-Jakarta narrative or are simply false".

For example the bots shared a photo of UN human rights’ chief Michelle Bachelet, with a comment saying the UN had responded "positively" to the way Indonesia has dealt with the uprising in Papua.

Ms Bachelet in fact said she was "disturbed" by the violence and called for the government to "restore internet services and refrain from any excessive use of force".

The stories the accounts were sharing came from English language site Wawawa Journal. It looks like a legitimate news site, but its articles rely on unnamed sources, and vilify the international media’s coverage of the unrest in Papua.

The domain holder for this and a similar site, is Muhamad Rosyid Jazuli, the CEO of the Jenggala Institute, a research centre founded by Indonesia’s former Vice-President Jusuf Kalla.

Mr Jazuli told the BBC the campaign was a personal project that he was independently funding, in response to what he claimed was biased reporting of events in Papua.

"The international media are only getting information from a few people, that’s not fair, there must be a counterweight. This is an effort to enrich the discourse," he said.

Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication told the BBC it would investigate the sites identified by this investigation and if found to be spreading "fake news" or provocative content they would be taken down.

Targeted abuse from bots

The Twitter bot networks revealed by the BBC investigation have actively targeted Indonesia human rights lawyer Veronica Koman.

She told the BBC: "Rape and death threats are now part of my daily life."

Now based in Australia, she has been a major source on social media of photos and footage of protests and unrest, sharing information passed to her by contacts in Papua.

Ms Koman now stands accused by the government of spreading "false news" and "provoking unrest" by publishing reports about the racist attacks on Papua students in Java.

She faces charges under the controversial Electronic Information and Transactions law (ITE) that makes it illegal to spread "fake news". If found guilty she could be jailed for six years.

Press and rights groups say this law suppresses free speech and is open to misuse.

"It’s an information war that has been raging for decades," Ms Koman said.

"We are fighting machines, the only thing individuals like me can do is remain hopeful that the truth will be stronger than any kind of propaganda."


2) Police in Indonesia’s Papua to investigate alleged killings

11 Oct 2019 09:28PM
JAKARTA: Police in Indonesia’s restive Papua region pledged on Friday (Oct 11) to hold an investigation after a local leader said the bodies of five villagers had been found with bullet wounds in an area where there has been a military crackdown.
The village is in the mountainous Nduga area, where the military has been hunting separatist rebels since December, following the killings of 16 construction workers building a highway.

Samuel Tabuni, an Nduga youth leader, said by telephone that villagers suspected the five – three women, a teenage boy and a teenage girl – had been shot by the military.

He said the five, whose bodies were found buried under mud and leaves, had been missing since they were out collecting food on Sep 20.

Papua police spokesman Ahmad Kamal said no reports of missing persons or deaths had been filed, but officers would begin to collect information about the alleged killings.

"We will still begin a process to find out whether there were murders or whether the incident really happened. We hope family members will report to police in Nduga so we can follow up," Kamal said by telephone.

Papua military spokesman Eko Daryanto also said the families of the victims should report the deaths to authorities so that an investigation could be carried out, adding he regretted that the accusation had been made before there was proof.

The Free Papua Movement’s military arm, which claimed responsibility for killing the construction workers, also blamed the Indonesian military in a posting on the group’s Facebook page.

Some 40 per cent of the estimated 100,000 Nduga population had been internally displaced since violence flared in December, Nduga said. He called on Jakarta to withdraw troops from Nduga, while also asking for support from the international community.

"Many thousands of people in Nduga have already fled because of the threat of being killed," he said.

"This is their home, this is where they live – it is the army that needs to leave, not the people who live here."

READ: More than 16,000 flee unrest in Indonesia’s Papua

There has been a spike in violence since August in Papua, which encompasses Indonesia’s two easternmost provinces on the island of New Guinea. Papua was a Dutch colony before it was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a widely criticised UN-backed referendum.

President Joko Widodo recently said he was open to holding talks with Papuan separatists to end the unrest, a departure from the stance of previous governments and some of his cabinet ministers.
Source: Reuters/jt

3) Jokowi confirms total evaluation of Papua’s special autonomy status
10 hours ago
Jakarta (ANTARA) – Indonesia’s central government, along with the Papua provincial government, will conduct an evaluation of the policy and implementation of Papua’s special autonomy status, according to President Joko Widodo (Jokowi).

"The central and provincial government will discuss in detail about this later on," Jokowi remarked at the Merdeka Palace, Jakarta, on Friday.

President Jokowi reiterated that matters concerning the status and funding of Papua’s special autonomy pertain to how it will be beneficial to Papuans. Related news: Jokowi ensures Papuan representation in subsequent cabinet line-up

"So as to proffer wealth and prosperity and improve the quality of human resources in the land of Papua," he stated.

Comprehensive evaluation and corrections will be made on how it has been applied over these years.

Researcher of Alpha Research Database Indonesia Ferdy Hasiman pointed to the fact that despite the central government being provided large grants through the general allocation fund (DAU), special allocation fund (DAK), as well as special autonomy fund, it had yet to reflect on Papua’s development.

Furthermore, the Audit Board (BPK) data in 2017 indicated that funding for Papua totaled Rp11.9 trillion (or some US$840 million).

"However, the high grant could not boost the Papuans’ wealth and prosperity comprehensively," Hasiman noted.

Related news: Minister Nasution inaugurates 523.7-ha Special Economic Zone in Sorong

It was counterproductive taking into account the fact that the grant was provided since 2002 following Law Bill Number 21 of 2001 on Special Autonomy Status of Papua.

In a written statement, Hasiman conjectured that this situation was caused by the funding not reaching Papuans but more likely remained with government elites.

He remarked that it was apparent from the poor population in Papua that has the highest percentage than other provinces.

The Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS) data indicated that Papua’s poor population had reached 28.54 percent as per September 2016, while touching 27.62 percent in 2017, and 27.74 percent in 2018.

The numbers were in accordance with the Human Development Index (HDI) in Papua, which from 2013 to 2019 remained stagnant at 34.

Related news: Police name 94 suspects in Papua violence cases

Related news: Ministry, military join hands to rebuild Wamena’s damaged facilities


Reporter: Agus Salim, Suwanti
Editor: Fardah Assegaf


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