Inside Indonesia’s Fake News ‘War Room’

By Medha Basu and Shirley Tay

Exclusive interview with Indonesia’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology Johnny Plate.


Wearing a fuschia feather boa and sequinned mask, Miss Lambe Hoaks is a flamboyant YouTube character dishing out tips to combat misinformation. Lambe Hoaks means ‘hoax lips’ in Javanese, and is meant to represent the act of sharing hoaxes. She is the face of Indonesia’s battle against fake news.

This is a growing problem in Indonesia. Political falsehoods spiked 61 per cent before Indonesia’s general elections last year, and often centre around knotty issues of racial harmony. They can lead to political violence, with a series of riots last year echoing a bloody history of massacres of minority religions.

The country’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology (KOMINFO), Johnny Plate, tells GovInsider that he wants the nation to be a “literate, connected, effective, efficient, also responsible digital society”. He shares his vision to achieve this.

Combating fake news

Tackling online misinformation and enhancing digital literacy is crucial as the nation rapidly digitises. “Massive user growth has opened up wider space for the increasing misuse of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and the Internet,” says Plate.

The country has created a “War Room” to tackle what it deems to be fake news. A hundred staff trawl through the net round the clock to identify and ban rumours, gambling websites and – being a strongly conservative nation – online pornography.

Indonesian users of Telegram and LINE, popular messaging platforms, can send texts to an anti-hoax chatbot to check if a piece of news is fake. The bot uses artificial intelligence to detect words sent in users’ queries and cross-references it with the ministry’s database of fake news. If it’s false, the bot will respond with links to accurate articles. No user statistics are available for the tool yet.

The ministry is also working with the Indonesian National Police to identify creators and disseminators of false rumours, such as banking scares or racially insensitive slurs that could incite violence. “Our citizens need to be aware of the circulation of negative contents on the internet to realize a healthy flow of information for the digital environment,” says Plate.

Apart from all of these initiatives, the Ministry has conducted comprehensive digital literacy campaign and training programs through Siberkreasi, the National Movement on Digital Literacy. “At the most fundamental level, to tackle the spread of negative contents, including but not limited to fake news and hoaxes, we need to equip the people with adequate knowledge and skills to make them more digitally literate,” adds Plate. The Siberkreasi program comprises of campaigns and educational roadshows on various topics on digital literacy, such as basic personal data protection, digital parenting, and many more.

Digital savvy businesses

Plate also thinks that Covid-19 has demonstrated the increasing importance of digitisation and has paved the way to accelerate digital transformation. 60 per cent of Indonesia’s economy is propped up by small businesses, and they need an online presence to survive.

These small businesses sell a range of products including textiles, food and beverage, and beauty products. Sales were more than halved after the pandemic struck the country, a sign that more businesses require an online presence.

As part of the ministry’s Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) Go Online initiative, one million free .id web domains have been given out for businesses to set up websites. “We started these initiatives because we are aware of the potential of how digitising MSMEs will add to the economy,” says Plate.

The government has also collaborated with the country’s six largest e-commerce websites, including Lazada, Shopee and Tokopedia, to allow small businesses to promote and sell their products. “By digitising these businesses, they will become more adaptive in responding to global challenges by creating innovations, developing human resources, and expanding their market target,” Plate says.

Training manpower

With the transition to a digital economy comes the need for skilled talent. “When people already have awareness on how the internet can add values to their activities and solve problems, they need digital skills to get to the next step,” Plate highlights.

To improve the skills and competitiveness of Indonesia’s ICT sector, the Digital Talent Scholarship program for 50,000 people has been established by Plate’s ministry during the pandemic. In general, the scholarship is divided into seven academies, namely: Fresh Graduate Academy, Vocational School Graduate Academy, Online Academy, Digital Entrepreneurship Academy, Thematic Academy, Regional Development Academy, and Coding Teacher Academy.

The Online Academy is part of the scholarship, and holds virtual training programmes on AI, data analytics and cloud computing. It aims to equip Indonesians with relevant skills for the IT sector.

Other aspects of the scholarship program are currently on hold due to the pandemic. The Digital Entrepreneurship Academy set out to train 22,500 small business owners on how to reach customers on digital platforms. These initiatives will encourage Indonesians to adopt digital technology in the strategic sectors and move the country towards its goal of being an inclusive economy, Plate says.

Enhancing digital infrastructure

Born in the small town of Ruteng in the island of Flores, Plate was appointed the Minister of KOMINFO back in 2019. Connectivity is vital for areas like this, which are not part of the power centre of Java and often lack good quality infrastructure. “A digital economy will not function well without the support of extensive connectivity, especially in the rural areas,” says Plate.

Telkomsel, the largest telecom in the country, recently announced plans to expand its 4G network in East Nusa Tenggara, and the country as a whole is spending a sizable chunk of its budget on connectivity.

Some priorities are changing due to Covid-19, but the need for connectivity has increased. As of now, Indonesia has 348,442 km of national fibre optic backbone lying across the archipelago, with 12,148 km of it being the Palapa Ring. The Palapa Ring project was initiated to cover areas not deemed commercially viable by the operators, especially in rural areas. Plate hopes the project will improve access to public services, and encourage e-commerce businesses.

But 12,548 villages remain without access to 4G networks. The ministry plans for 100 percent of all these villages to be connected by 2022 by partnering with private operators to build 4G broadband infrastructure in the rural areas.

Expediting the implementation of 5G will also be a priority in 2020 to 2024, Plate said. The ministry is looking to increase the available frequency spectrum to reach the projected requirements for the country’s 5G networks.

Miss Lambe Hoaks may be dressed to entertain, but hidden beneath the mask is a question mark about Indonesia’s digitisation. Connectivity can bring strong economic benefits, but it’s vital to fight its worst excesses to prevent further violence and social tensions.