JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesian police arrested a man on Friday accused of creating an anti-Chinese disinformation campaign to incite racial hatred, amid a proliferation of rumors alleging Chinese involvement in post-election unrest that has raised fears of ethnic violence.
Police say the suspect created a viral hoax using a photo of three Indonesian police officers at protests this week with a caption describing them as secret Chinese soldiers based on their “slanted eyes”.
They presented the suspect in an orange jumpsuit and face mask at a press conference on Friday, along with three men described as the officers in the photo, deployed to Jakarta from the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
“We are real Indonesian mobile brigade police. We are not Chinese officers,” one of the men said.
Clashes have broken out between security forces and protesters this week after results showed President Joko Widodo had defeated challenger Prabowo Subianto in last month’s poll.
Eight people have been killed and more than 700 hurt in the unrest, which occurred after peaceful rallies descended into chaos after nightfall over three days this week.
Ethnic-Chinese Indonesians make up less than 5 percent of the population of 260 million people in the world’s most populous Muslim country. Many successful business figures are Chinese, and the community has been a target in the past of ethnic violence and discrimination over its perceived wealth.
The influence of China itself, Indonesia’s biggest trade partner by far, is also a sensitive issue.
Fact-checkers say hoaxes and calls for violence on social media have spiked this week. Indonesian authorities have announced social media restrictions, including limits on the ability to share or upload photos and videos.
Several Chinese Indonesians said that the volume of anti-Chinese sentiment on social media had prompted them to take safety precautions.
Citing experience of anti-Chinese riots that accompanied the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998, one man told Reuters he had bought himself a baseball bat, pepper spray and a stun gun to protect himself “just in case”. He asked not to be identified.
At Friday’s news conference, Rickynaldo Chairul, deputy head of the police cyber crime unit, said the suspect had confessed to creating the false campaign and spreading it via Whatsapp.
“He distributed information to incite racial hatred and hostility… by spreading hoaxes,” said Chairul. Creating and sharing disinformation is punishable by prison in Indonesia.
The masked suspect apologized for spreading the story, but denied creating the hoax. According to social media posts reviewed by Reuters, the hoax was shared widely and could still be seen on Facebook and Twitter on Friday.
Other social media posts were also spread with similar captions on at least two other photos of police officers.
Another popular video on social media purported to show the siege of a mosque in Indonesia by ethnic Chinese police. Authorities say no such incident took place. Fact checkers say the video was faked by splicing together unrelated footage.
In March, Reuters found that both the campaigns of Widodo and his opponent Prabowo had deployed social media teams to spread propaganda and fake news.
A significant portion of misinformation published during the election focused on stoking ethnic and religious divides, while depicting electoral agencies as corrupt, frequently using China as a bogeyman.
Prabowo alleges the election was rigged against him. He is expected to lodge a challenge to the result at the Constitutional Court on Friday evening. Some of his supporters attending a rally on Wednesday told Reuters they believed Beijing might have had a hand in election fraud.
The election supervisory agency has dismissed claims of systematic cheating.
Editing by Ed Davies and Peter Graff