AS YOU KNOW the online circulation of misinformation including doctored images, memes and videos has reached epidemic proportions in recent years.
Ever more bizarre conspiracy theories, with absolutely no basis in scientific fact, continue to do the rounds.
These include claims that vaccines cause autism, that fluoride in our drinking water is dangerous and that there are poisonous ‘chemtrails’ in the sky (they stand accused of causing everything from Alzheimer’s to poor sleep patterns).
Such theories are amplified and spread like wildfire on social media.
As poisonous and damaging to the individuals targeted as conspiracy theories are – they usually don’t lead to violence and bloodshed, at least not in Europe.
But in other parts of the world these hoaxes, fake news and doctored images can have terrifying consequences.
Recent events in Indonesia and Sri Lanka show how viral hoaxes can make bad situations much much worse.
Chinese Soldiers on the streets of Jakarta?
Late last month, incumbent Indonesian President, Jokowi Widodo, was officially re-elected with a comfortable 55.5% of the vote in the world’s third largest democracy.
His challenger, ex-special forces general Prabowo Subianto, refused to accept the validity of the results, which were deemed free and fair by national and international observers.
Thousands of supporters of Prabowo gathered in central Jakarta to protest the results. Once night fell, events spiralled out of control. Rioters clashed violently with police and special forces, and over the next 48 hours, chaos and misinformation reigned in Jakarta.
When the haze of smoke and tear gas finally cleared, at least eight lay dead and hundreds more were injured in the worst violence Jakarta has witnessed in 20 years.
A central factor in how the violence escalated so quickly was because of viral hoaxes and doctored videos, memes and images on social media.
These included fake images of Chinese soldiers on the streets shooting protesters, claims circulated online that police shot protesters inside mosques, and that a Catholic convert to Islam was also shot by the police.
The hoaxes spread like wildfire via WhatsApp and Messenger groups, as well as on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – inflaming the already combustible situation.
This flood of fake news rattled the Indonesian government – although doctored videos and paid troll teams (who influence social media opinion with fake accounts) were already commonplace, the situation had escalated, so false information was contributing to the violence.
Indonesia has long-standing communal and ethnic tensions, including resentment towards the small but influential Chinese-Indonesian community, a mistrust of China and the spread of a conservative interpretation of Islam.
Fearing these hoaxes would make a bad situation even worse, the government throttled access to social media. For almost a week, it was impossible to access any images or videos on any social media platform (unless you had a VPN).
While this decision has faced criticism as an assault on civil liberties, it was widely supported and certainly helped to cool tensions.
Sri Lanka set the tone
This decision to block access to social media in Indonesia mirrors actions taken by the Sri Lankan government after the horrific Easter Sunday church bombings.
It prevented access to social media in the aftermath of those attacks as officials were terrified that hoaxes being circulated online would further inflame anger towards the minority Muslim community.
This ban lasted more than a week before it was lifted. Fake news and hoaxes aimed at inciting violence against Muslims continue to plague Sri Lanka and, since then, the government has blocked social media on a number of additional occasions.
How memes lead to bloodshed
There are a number of reasons why social media hoaxes circulate so quickly in countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Firstly, people are obsessed with social media – even more so than in Ireland. In most workplaces, WhatsApp has replaced email as the primary means of communication.
Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are ubiquitous and just like elsewhere around the world, people spend their lives glued to their phones.
It is often in group chats and via social media that these hoaxes are spread – family member to family member, friend to friend, colleague to colleague.
Secondly, as flagged above, there are deep ethnic and communal fault lines in these countries, which date back centuries.
Resentments around religion, ethnicity, social class and – to a lesser degree – the legacy of colonialism, are handed down from generation to generation and are easily exploited by malicious actors.
Hoaxes including doctored images and videos can be difficult to distinguish from real news so, in places where the majority of people have a low level of educational attainment, they are arguably more likely to gain traction.
Whether the bans are actually effective, is still up for debate. The bans can be circumvented relatively easily via a VPN. Some academics believe that bans can backfire and lead to more violence.
Here in Indonesia, though as well as Sri Lanka, there is no doubt that these bans have had the intended effect of cooling down ethnic tensions, at least temporarily.
Coming to a country near you?
For readers in Ireland and Europe, these bans may seem remote, as our democracy (for all its flaws) is far more stable and our social media hoaxes and conspiracy theories are still pretty niche.
But that doesn’t mean we are immune.
Almost flawless deep-fake videos are becoming increasingly common and hoax memes are practically at epidemic levels.
Looking to Europe and the US, social media is already a war zone between competing tribes.
Another conspiracy theory that has been doing the rounds in Ireland, Europe and the US is the claim that global migration is being caused by a billionaire philanthropist, George Soros, in an attempt to grab power.
In one particularly worrying development, the government of Hungary, an EU country, appears to support that theory and are themselves spreading fake news to vilify minorities which is likely to stir up racial tension.
As fake images and videos continue to improve in quality and with racial tension being stirred up by the far right in many EU countries, it is increasingly likely that European governments could at some stage need to take radical action to stop the spread of doctored images from being circulated.