Three members of the Saracen group have so far been arrested in Indonesia.
On Friday, in a significant development, Facebook Inc has removed hundreds of Indonesian accounts, groups and pages from its social network following the discovering that they were linked to an online group accused of spreading fake news and hate speech.
In 2016, Indonesian police had uncovered the existence of a group called Saracen and had arrested three members on suspicion of being part of a syndicate that was paid to spread incendiary material online through social media.
“These accounts and pages were actively working to conceal what they were doing and were linked to the Saracen Group, an online syndicate in Indonesia,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of Cybersecurity Policy.
“They have using deceptive messaging and… networks of concealed pages and accounts to drive often divisive narratives over key issues of public debates in Indonesia,” said Gleicher in an interview.
The development comes in the wake of Facebook, the world’s largest social network, coming under intense pressure from regulators around the globe, for the presence of fake news and misinformation being on its platform.
To this end, earlier this month, Facebook announced the opening of two new regional operations centers that are focused on monitoring election-related content from its Singapore and Dublin offices.
Indonesia is set to have a presidential election in April; the country’s internet watchdogs have flagged the prevalence of fake news in the country as a concern.
Incidentally, Indonesia is estimated to be Facebook’s third largest markets, with more than 100 million users.
According to Indonesia’s police cyber crime division, the Saracen group was posting material online which involved ethnic and religious issues, revolving around fake news, to defame government officials.
Indonesia’s ethnically diverse population of 260 million people, includes a vast majority of Muslims; however, it also has significant religious minorities. Ensuring unity across the archipelago has been a priority for past and present governments.
According to Gleicher, Facebook’s investigation discovered that Saracen agents would target and compromise accounts; he stressed that the removal of these accounts were crucial due to the “coordinated deceptive behavior (by Saracen)… [and] not due to the content they had shared”.
While the pages and the deleted accounts had 170,000 followers on Facebook and more than 65,000 on Instagram, the reach of the people exposed to the content is believed to be significantly higher.
Indonesian police have also alleged that there were financial links between the Saracen group and a handful of organizers which protested against the former governor of Jakarta in 2016. The protests took place after a doctored video of supposed anti-Islam comments went viral.
In April 2018, the Indonesian supreme court ruled that the Saracen group had not been guilty of spreading hate speech and the police’s case fell apart.
A spokesman for Indonesia’s national police stated, they were continuing to monitor the Saracen Group’s social media activity and would ask Facebook for the data from their investigation.