Indonesia has a serious online fake news problem – and its long-maligned Chinese community has emerged as a favourite whipping boy.

Observers say the increasingly strident and outlandish anti-Chinese sentiment on display on social media reflects the ethnic tinderbox President Joko Widodo will have to contend with in 2017 as politically influential Islamist hardliners look to reopen old grievances with the tiny local Chinese population who wield economic clout.

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The deluge of innuendo and misinformation about China could also hurt Jakarta’s diplomatic engagement with Beijing – an engagement that has reaped a surge in mainland investment in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.

This week, the Indonesian military was forced to refute a widely circulated WhatsApp message that alleged its top commander Gatot Nurmantyo had made derogatory comments towards China in a speech to commemorate the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday on December 11.

And China’s embassy in Jakarta last week labelled as “very worrying” widespread online rumours that Beijing was using “biological weapons” to destabilise the Indonesian economy. That line of fake news spread after chilli seeds in an Indonesian farm run by Chinese nationals were found to contain a crop-killing bacteria.

“We hope that the bilateral relations and friendship between the people of China and Indonesia will not be affected by this matter,” the embassy said.

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Experts say China is an easy target for fake news perpetrators seeking to stoke ethnic tensions for political gain.

Thousands of people led by hardline Islamist groups have rallied on the streets in recent weeks to demand the jailing of Jakarta’s prominent Chinese-Christian governor Tjahaja Purnama, who is accused of committing blasphemy in comments to supporters in September.

He is currently on trial for the charge but some of his supporters say the case reflects acrimony faced by the local Chinese community who make up under two per cent of the national population but are among the biggest players in the country’s $900 billion (HK$6.9 trillion) economy.

“The fake news targeting China has been around for some time now...many Indonesians are becoming anxious about the growing number of Chinese investors here and that is translating to speculation and fake news on platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook,” said Damar Juniarto, the Jakarta-based regional coordinator of the Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network.

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Mustafa Izzuddin, a Southeast Asia politics researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said fake news was generating anxiety and fear in Indonesia “within the context of heightened volatility in ethno-religious relations in the country”.

Part of the anti-China sentiment is driven by a segment of Indonesians who feel their country “is being sold to China, given the sheer [number of] loans and investment China has been providing,” he said.

He added: “Religion also comes into play domestically as Chinese, most of whom are not Muslims, are seen with suspicion, contempt and distrust by an increasing number of Indonesian Muslims who are more immoderate and intolerant towards non-Muslims.”

Australia-based Indonesian politics watcher Marcus Mietzner said the Islamist factions were conflating “the issue of China’s economic and political rise with the position of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, producing a toxic mash that threatens to undermine social stability in the country.”

Observers say Purnama – commonly known as Ahok – is in his current predicament partly because of online misinformation as well.

Speaking to fishermen in a campaign speech in September ahead of February’s gubernatorial election, he said he knew some Muslims would not vote for him as they were convinced by community leaders that voting for a non-Muslim was against the Koran. An edited version of the speech circulated online omitting crucial context, making it seem like he was slighting Muslims.

The president has also been a victim of fake news.

“Before Jokowi’s election in 2014, people thought he was half-Chinese, communist and what not. So this is not a new problem...it is partly a political strategy used by some people. Now it is being used to segregate society,” said Juniarto, the free speech activist.

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Internet researchers say Southeast Asia’s rising number of nascent internet users are particularly susceptible to being taken in by fake news online as they lack the know-how to sieve out inaccurate information.

These groups of people are classified as being on the digital divide, as opposed to being on either side of it.

They “can access the internet via smartphones but are mostly doing so to access WhatsApp or Facebook, but nothing much else,” said Ross Tapsell, a digital media researcher at the Australian National University.

“In that world, your personal WhatsApp groups are a source of seemingly reliable information, but also you feel it a duty as citizen to pass on information to the group, whether it is credible or not,” Tapsell said.

“In fact, these WhatsApp groups are in many ways an extension of how a lot of Indonesia’s information society operated pre-internet. Government and mainstream media messages are less trusted, but information or gossip through personal networks is seen to be more reliable.”

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Observers say moves to ban websites that host fake news stories will have limited effect. And blocking the re-sharing of content on platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger is out of the question without a wholesale ban on their use.

About 24.2 per cent of Indonesia’s 250 million people use mobile phone messaging apps, according to study by market research firm GfK.

Mustafa, the Singaporean researcher, said the most viable approach to combating fake news was to “focus not only on clamping down on fake news pieces at the source, but also confronting or correcting those fake news pieces, particularly those that have gone viral on social media as swiftly as possible”.