Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Beyond scandal: Facebook and Indonesian politics

More than a million Indonesian profiles are said to have been compromised in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Photo: Hernán Piñera/Flickr
Photo: Hernán Piñera/Flickr
Published 26 Apr 2018   Follow @dmkmtoday

In social media-loving Indonesia, Facebook is big business. As one of the biggest markets for the platform, it’s little surprise that Indonesia was the third most affected country in the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal.

Facebook estimates that 748 Indonesian accounts hosted a personality quiz that was used to collect their data, as well as that of all their Facebook friends, representing a whopping 1,096,666 users. This data was then sold to Cambridge Analytica for apparent use in targeted political campaigns.  

The responses from Indonesian politicians have been much stronger than elsewhere in the world. Threats have been made to block access to Facebook, while lawmakers have embraced the opportunity to confront the platform on other social media issues, including the spread of fake news and extremist content.

Communication and Information Technology Minister Rudiantara has a reputation for being trigger-happy when it comes to blocking sites and content in Indonesia. In March, popular blogging platform Tumblr was blocked after Rudiantara cited the easy access it provides to pornographic content.

Likewise, in 2016 Korean messaging app LINE was threatened with blocking unless it removed stickers and images seen as being “pro-LGBT”. Last year, encrypted messaging app Telegram was also temporarily blocked from Indonesia after the ministry said it failed to properly address extremist content.

Facebook might be popular, but the pressure is mounting. The Indonesian National Police have launched an investigation into the data breach, with warnings that local Facebook employees could be jailed for up to twelve years for violating privacy laws.

While police are yet to isolate users whose data was compromised, individual reports may be unnecessary. Prosecution could occur under the controversial Information and Electronic Transactions Act, which requires that users give permission before personal data is shared.

A five-hour-long public hearing last week at parliament in Jakarta raised more questions than answers. Facebook staffers offered apologies but little clarification about the extent of the breach. With more than a million Indonesian profiles said to be affected – representing almost 1.3% of the global total – Rudiantara has sent a second letter to Facebook in an effort to determine exactly what data was taken and how it has been used.

But the bigger issue is timing. There are fears the stolen data could be used to influence regional elections for district heads, mayors, and governors in June. Pointing to still-hazy reports of data being used to influence users during the 2016 US presidential election, Indonesian politicians are concerned the scope of the breach could allow similar interference to occur.

Perhaps this is a reasonable concern given the involvement of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company, SCL Group, in Indonesia’s politics, which far predates Facebook. The British firm arrived in Jakarta in the heady days of the immediate post-Suharto era, supposedly at the “behest” of pro-democracy groups.

A Quartz report earlier this month cited unreleased SCL Group reports that said its involvement in Jakarta included large-scale surveys, political communications, and organising university rallies to help students “let off steam”. These rallies were reportedly held in response to survey data that found students “were the principal instigators of the unrest”, and were designed to occupy the younger generation in lieu of further social unrest.

The documents cited by Quartz did not indicate which politician or politicians had hired SCL, but the firm is thanked in a testimonial by former president Abdurrahman Wahid for its support in managing his campaign. While commentators and experts doubt SCL had much influence on the political machinations of the immediate post-Suharto years, particularly given Wahid was impeached in 2001, this is the kind of “foreign interference” that nationalistic lawmakers rail against.

No evidence has yet been presented to suggest the breached data was used to “influence” Facebook users in Indonesia. Facebook has repeatedly said it has forced Cambridge Analytica to delete any data taken from the site.

But with Facebook and other social media platforms blamed for exacerbating intolerance and divisive language during both the 2014 presidential election and the 2016 Jakarta gubernatorial race, the reckoning goes far beyond data scandals.

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