JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesian police announced on Thursday the arrest of 14 members of a network called the Muslim Cyber Army, which they say has been using hacking, online misinformation campaigns and hate speech to push the world’s fourth most populous country in a more conservative direction.
Mohammad Fadil Imran, director of the Indonesian national police cyber crimes unit, said the suspects are accused of defamation, spreading false reports and racial and religious discrimination, among other crimes. They were found in various regions of Indonesia, he said, and more may be detained.
“The operation is ongoing, and new developments may emerge soon,” Imran said. “We were able to use common, basic technology to track them down.”
Analysts believe that social network campaigns — including fake news, or “hoax” news as it is called here — have helped drive a slow lurch to the right in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
According to police and expert accounts, Muslim Cyber Army, MCA, is a name used by a loosely connected network of groups that mostly produce online content for open distribution on platforms such as Facebook and the WhatsApp direct messaging service. The groups are also accused of infiltrating other users’ accounts and publishing the private information and locations of their enemies — a process known as “doxing.”
The network allegedly spread rumors that the country’s Islamic clerics were under attack and that the Indonesian Communist Party — banned since 1966, after it was decimated by the military — was being resurrected. Both claims provoked a violent response from Indonesian conservatives.
Imran said he could not confirm earlier reports in the Indonesian media that a wanted member of the group is at large in South Korea or elsewhere.
A number of groups reportedly operate in the Muslim Cyber Army network using different names, such as the Family MCA, the United MCA, the Legend MCA, Special Force MCA, Muslim Sniper and MCA News Legend.
Despite their militant names the groups began with legal, nonviolent political aims, according to Damar Juniarto, founder of digital rights group Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network, who has been tracking MCA since last year. Only later did they turn to illicit activities, and with serious consequences, he said.
“Their activities have led to people losing their jobs, being kidnapped or even tortured,” Juniarto said. “Indonesian society was already divided, but they have provided fuel for hatred and had a significant impact on politics here.”
Some of the MCA groups want Indonesia’s traditional military elite reelected, according to Juniarto’s research, while other, more radical groups want a caliphate or sympathize with global Islamist groups that advocate violent jihad. But all are united against what they perceive as excessively liberal or secular politics.
Indonesia is a democracy led by moderate President Joko Widodo, who took office in 2014. But over the last year, his government has been under attack from an insurgent religious right. Last year, former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent and a Widodo ally known as “Ahok,” was jailed after being accused of blaspheming Islam.
The successful movement to jail Ahok was propelled by mass protests coordinated on social media, as well as selectively edited footage of comments he made about the Koran.
Conservatives have also succeeded in inserting legislation banning gay sex and sex outside marriage into a planned revision to the criminal code, and many hard-liners hope to unseat Widodo in elections next year.
In September, a group of self-styled anti-communists attacked a conference that was convened to discuss the 1965 massacre of 500,000 to 1 million suspected leftists after false reports spread on social media that the researchers and human-rights activists were actually there to bring back the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The mob surrounded the building, throwing rocks and shouting “Allahu akbar” and “Kill PKI,” according to those trapped inside all night. Police are trying to sort out which groups spread which rumors, and who committed crimes.
Indonesia, a country of more than 260 million people, is home to millions of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and followers of Confucianism. They are protected from blasphemy and discrimination by Indonesian law.
Cania Irlanie, a political science student who appeared on television debate show last year and publicly opposed laws infringing on LGBT and individual sexual rights, said she was specifically targeted by MCA groups. They circulated images of her, accusing her of blasphemy, until she was receiving constant death threats, she said.
“I’m not sure if they broke the law when they targeted me specifically, but they have definitely affected my life, and I worry about my future,” Irlanie said. “Soon even my university teachers were attacking me. I knew how bad this had become when I went to the mall, and a group of old women recognized me, and began pointing at me like I was the daughter of Satan.”
Stanley Widianto contributed to this report.