The Muslim Cyber Army and the Virtual Battlefield - New Naratif

The Muslim Cyber Army and the Virtual Battlefield

It was 6am on 21 March 2018 when an account by the name of “Fathul Khoir Ham” asked members of the Muslim Cyber ‚Äč‚ÄčArmy News (MCA News) Facebook group to attack an “intruder”—a possible supporter of the Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo—Ham suspected was trying to spy on the MCA’s activities.

“It’s been a long time [since] we’ve had an intruder. Let the ‘R’ [report] button go wild,” Ham said, including a link to the account. In the comment field Ham, an administrator of the MCA News group, wrote, “Go to the intruder’s wall. Spam and report the post. ”

He also gave a step-by-step tutorial on how to report an account to Facebook to get the website to shut it down. Dozens of MCA News members liked the post and replied to say they had done as instructed, although there were no follow-up comments on whether the account was suspended as a result of their actions.

MCA has been accused of spreading fabricated content and hate speech to fan religious and ethnic divisions, as well as stoking fears over the resurgence of PKI, ethnic Chinese Indonesians and the LGBT community

Such is the modus operandi of the Muslim Cyber Army (MCA). MCA News, which boasts over 300,000 members, is only one of three Facebook groups under its umbrella: there’s also the United Muslim Cyber Army (United MCA) and the Muslim Cyber Army 212 (MCA 212), with over 150,000 and 18,000 members respectively.

These three groups all claim to defend Islam and Muslim clerics and are populated with derogatory posts about the government, especially President Jokowi, who’s often referred to by the name of meme characters “Dilan” and “Mukidi” (comedic figures who are backwards and easily bullied), or “Anything But Jokowi” (Asal Bukan Jokowi or ABJ). Members are directed to act against particular online targets, with the goal of getting the accounts of their “enemies” shut down.

Apart from that, MCA has been accused of spreading fabricated content and hate speech to fan religious and ethnic divisions, as well as stoking fears over the resurgence of PKI (the former Indonesian Communist Party, banned in 1966), ethnic Chinese Indonesians and the LGBT community. New Naratif saw various posts that showed the group disseminate falsehoods about the persecution of Muslim clerics and post slanderous content about the president. The Indonesian police have also said the members were fraudulently reporting Facebook accounts and sending viruses to Jokowi supporters to damage the recipients’ electronic devices.

But the Facebook-reporting game works both ways. A day after Ham’s post about “intruders”, another administrator with the account name “Fauzul Putra Anam” announced to the group that Ham’s account had been attacked and taken down. He pointed the finger at “tadpoles”—a reference to the rumour that Jokowi keeps tadpoles and frogs as pets at the presidential palace, and now used as a derogatory term for the president’s supporters.

It all points to a troubling development in Indonesian political contestation, when battlegrounds exist both online and off, and not all players are clearly identifiable.

Enlisting in the Army

“In Indonesia, there has been significant concern about the so-called rise of ‘berita hoax’ (‘hoax news’) in the aftermath of the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election,” says Ross Tapsell, author of Media Power in Indonesia: Oligarchs, Citizens and the Digital Revolution. “As more and more Indonesians turn to social media for their daily news intake, political parties and interest groups have, unsurprisingly, attempted to influence people via these platforms”. The Muslim Cyber Army is one such group.

While United MCA is an open group with public posts, it’s a little tougher to join the ranks of MCA News and MCA 212. Prospective members must write the shahada (declaration of one’s belief in Islam) and swear that they love Muslim clerics and habaib (the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad) before their request to join is approved by an administrator. Only then can one consider oneself a defender of the faith.

“If there are any members here who promote the presidents and vice presidents of political parties that support blasphemers or who support the dissolution of mass organisations, with all due respect please get out of here,” Ham once wrote in a post. It was liked by nearly three thousand members.

“Their social media-centric strategies are perfect for citizens who spend more and more time on their mobile phones scrolling through social media sites”

In the MCA’s book, “blasphemers” are political figures such as former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who was sentenced in 2017 to two years’ imprisonment for insulting Islam. Those who support the Government Regulation in Lieu of Law regarding the Dissolution of Mass Organisations (Peraturan Pemerintah Pengganti Undang-Undang or Perppu Ormas)—issued by Jokowi’s administration in 2017 to prevent the spread of ideology contradicting the state ideology of Pancasila, a philosophical theory based on five moral principles such as the belief in one true God, and the 1945 Constitution—are also particularly reviled. Soon after the law was issued, the government dissolved the hard-line Muslim group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), a move that MCA members have interpreted as an attack. “Muslims were victimised by the Ahok case and the dissolution of mass organisations like HTI,” Anam claimed in a post.

As Tapsell explains, the rise of groups on Facebook reflect deeper issues in Indonesia, such as a distrust of traditional news media and ongoing struggles with identity: “Citizens can be compelled by the opinions prevailing in their social media feeds to become divided on sectarian or other identity issues. Facebook is the central medium for this divisive discourse. Facebook bloggers … are a highly innovative new form of campaign communication practice … Their social media-centric strategies are perfect for citizens who spend more and more time on their mobile phones scrolling through social media sites.”

Moving on despite the clampdown               

New Naratif infiltrated the MCA News group for a week and found it operating as usual, with tens of thousands of posts in the past month alone, even though 14 members of the group had been arrested in late February 2018.

After the arrest, one of the group’s administrators, “Muslimah Marifatullah”, said that those arrested by the police were part of the 212 protests—the demonstrations on February 21, 2017, that demanded Ahok’s imprisonment—and was quick to portray the MCA members as victims of a politically-motivated clampdown.

“They were fighting to get rid of the accounts of the blasphemers,” said Marifatullah in a post on the MCA wall. “They are victims of regime slander. We must all be aware that the police are a political tool of the government, the police are not on the side of Muslims, especially the MCA.”

Muslim Cyber Army - New Naratif
Credit: MCA

In carrying out research for this article, New Naratif found countless posts, both from administrators and MCA News members, asking other members to attack “intruder” accounts, as well as pages by Jokowi’s supporters or fan pages for Jokowi that had been labelled as “tadpole” and “deceiver” accounts. The rationale for this, according to Anam, is that “tadpole” accounts allow “blasphemers” to flourish and getting their accounts deleted prevents them from spreading ideology contrary to that of Muslim clerics. When approached, Anam confirmed that some of the individuals arrested in February 2018 were members known for attacking or reporting accounts of “blasphemers”.

“Yes, they are 100% MCA members, but they were not leaders of the MCA or anything like that, the media and the police just exaggerated it. And they did not spread hoaxes—that’s slander,” Anam says.

From Anam’s point of view, the police’s actions reflect a clear political slant. “If the news is against the government, it’s categorised as a hoax,” says Anam, explaining that the Indonesian Law on Electronic Information and Transactions (UUITE) does not cover parties who report accounts to Facebook.

He points to some of the members behind pro-government accounts on Facebook even when they have allegedly harassed Muslim clerics, arguing that there’s a double standard in response from the authorities.  “Just try to join a group like Ahoker Followers, Poso Watch, Save Ahok and many more. Did the police arrest them? How many clerics and workers who are not pro-regime have been shamed, abused and had their photos edited?”

This is not strictly true however, and there have been a number of high profile cases across several different online groups where individuals have been arrested due to defamatory comments about religious leaders and political figures, in addition to the recent arrests of former MCA members.  

MCA and the 2019 Presidential Election 

Anam says members of MCA News came together in the beginning simply to defend Islam: “I myself joined MCA as I wanted to defend my religion because under this regime the law is selective.” Although almost all the posts support particular figures and parties, he insists the group isn’t affiliated to any of them.

An administrator for MCA News named “Mahsyar Oddy” announced that, for the 2019 presidential election, MCA News would only recommend candidates from the “four parties of Muslim advocates and clerics”

Every post sent by members to the MCA News group must first be approved by an administrator, and almost all the topics of discussion and subsequent responses follow the same pattern. Over the course of the week that New Naratif followed the group, administrators and MCA News members regularly voiced support for the “Habib Rizieq Coalition”, a group that allegedly supports firebrand Indonesian cleric Habib Rizieq, the leader of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) who wants Indonesia to adopt Shariah law across the country, and potentially one of Jokowi’s opponents in the 2019 presidential election.

Despite their claim of being apolitical, an administrator for MCA News named “Mahsyar Oddy” announced that, for the 2019 presidential election, MCA News would only recommend candidates from the “four parties of Muslim advocates and clerics”: namely the Great Indonesia Movement party (Gerindra), the National Mandate Party (PAN), the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the Crescent Star Party (PBB). Anam told New Naratif that every administrator has the right to nominate certain political figures or groups for discussion, as long as that figure isn’t Jokowi, a member of a party supporting “blasphemers”, or someone from a party that supports the Perppu law.  

The important role of administrators

Although the term “cyber Muslims” has existed for quite some time, Anam says the group really started to gain momentum after a series of actions defending Islam from 2016 to 2017 including mass demonstrations in the capital city of Jakarta which called for ex-Jakarta governor Ahok to be jailed for blasphemy. Its main role, as defined by its members, has been to eradicate supposedly blasphemous accounts, or “nasty accounts” that allegedly insult Muslim clerics.

But Hendardi, who like many Indonesians goes by one name and is the chairman of the human rights organisation Setara Institute, says the MCA network—with its hundreds of thousands of followers—spreads hoaxes and hate speech based on religious, racial, and inter-religious (SARA) content on social media on an even larger scale than other counterparts.

“MCA looks more ideological, has thousands of networks in different parts of Indonesia and therefore the destructive power of this group is greater than that of Saracen,” he warns, referring to another hoax-sharing group that triggered police action in 2017.

“MCA looks more ideological, has thousands of networks in different parts of Indonesia and therefore the destructive power of this group is greater than that of Saracen”

Administrators have a huge amount of authority to filter incoming posts, but MCA News doesn’t have a rigid organisation structure. Anam refuses to divulge the number of group administrators, but admits they are spread across a number of countries. “Many MCA administrators are based abroad,” says Anam, whose Facebook profile says he lives in Bangkok. “[The other administrators] just look at how much time you spend taking care of the group and how strong your account is against an opponent’s attack – that’s all.”

He also claims that administrators are unpaid: “If we got paid, maybe I’d already be rich, because I spend almost 15 hours or 18 hours just tapping away on my phone continuously.” There is no suggestion, from speaking to MCA members and from posts in the MCA News Facebook group, that anyone is paid for their services as administrators. If they are, this has yet to be made public by any members of the group.

Anam refuses to reveal if he’s using a fake or genuine account, but once suggested using an anonymous account when criticising the government. “Use genuine but anonymous accounts if you want to be vocal [about protesting against the government]. Remember, anonymous means freedom of speech,” he wrote in the group on March 2, 2018.

Hendardi suspects that MCA’s practice of spreading falsehoods and hate speech is underpinned by the political motivation to overthrow certain parties or the incumbent government. This, he says, not only endangers the integrity of political contests in Indonesia, but also causes conflict in society which undermines the unity of the nation.

There is no easy fix for this situation; dealing with such a wide network is a mammoth task. There’s only so much a taskforce set up by the authorities can do; at the end of the day, it’s an issue that will require many more organisations and individuals—from political parties to fact-checking groups to ordinary citizens—to step up.

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