Facebook takes down pro-Indonesian pages targeting West Papua

Removed pages masked themselves as West Papuan pages while promoting Indonesian state interests

(Source: @AlyssaKann/DFRLab)

As independence protests continued to rile the Indonesian province of West Papua, Facebook removed pages designed to appear supportive of West Papuan independence but that instead shared pro-Indonesian government content.

In total, Facebook took down 69 Facebook accounts, 42 pages, and 34 Instagram accounts for engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The DFRLab analyzed 23 of the Facebook pages ahead of their removal.

In its announcement, Facebook stated:

The people behind this network used fake accounts to manage Pages, disseminate their content and drive people to off-platform sites. They primarily posted in English and Bahasa Indonesia about West Papua with some Pages sharing content in support of the independence movement, while others posting criticism of it. Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to an Indonesia media firm InsightID.

The DFRLab’s analysis found that, while many of the pages looked supportive of the West Papuan independence movement on the surface, they primarily posted content demonizing the protesters as extremists and supporting the Indonesian government’s vested economic and political interests in the region. The DFRLab was unable to corroborate the link to InsightID, though some of the content came directly from the Indonesian government’s state news agency, Antara.

Protests in West Papua, particularly for independence, are common. In 1962, the Dutch agreed to cede West Papua to Indonesia, providing that West Papuans voted to become a part of Indonesia within seven years. In the period between 1962 and 1969, the Indonesian army killed 30,000 West Papuans. In August 1969, many West Papuans were forcibly coerced into voting for Indonesian control in what was called the “Act of Free Choice.” As of 2017, a majority of West Papuans wanted the right to self-determination.

Amid this high interest in independence, renewed allegations of Indonesian racism against Papuans led to a recent protest on September 23, 2019, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 30 to 40 people. Indonesian authorities claimed that most of the deaths were non-Papuans who died from burns, stabs, and arrow wounds. In contrast, witnesses to the protest have alleged that many Papuans died from shootings after the Indonesian police opened fire on the participants.

Camouflaging as West Papuan news outlets

All of the Facebook pages taken down had “Papua” or “West Papua” in their names and related to West Papuan issues. Names such as “West Papua Independence” and “West Papua Freedom” created the impression that the pages were sympathetic toward West Papuan protesters. In reality, the pages promoted Indonesian state interests.

So-called pro-independence West Papua pages actually promoted content supporting the Indonesian government. (Source: Facebook)
The “West Papua Media” Facebook page characterized the pro-independence protesters as extremists. (Source: Facebook)

Descriptions such as “West Papuan extremist groups” and “anarchist demonstrations,” as in the example above, indicated that these Facebook pages were not supportive of the ongoing West Papuan protests.

Inauthentic and coordinated activity over time

Several sets of Facebook pages created on the same dates shared a number of similarities, indicating a coordinated effort to push a pro-Indonesian government agenda. At least two individual dates (August 14, 2018, and February 28, 2019) saw the creation of five pages, while three additional subsets comprising two or three pages were also created on other individual dates.

Five Facebook pages created in September 2019 showed evidence of coordinated behavior to push Indonesian state interests and decry the West Papuan independence movement. Out of the five pages, three were created September 13, 2019, and two were created on September 16. All of these pages had “West Papua” in their names followed by a noun: “Independence,” “Channel,” “Fact,” “Talks,” and “Freedom.” All five pages posted in Indonesian and English, had a low number of likes ranging from 12 to 198, and ran video ads.

The creation dates for these five pages were notable as they were created in the lead up to the 2019 UN General Assembly on September 17. Three of the pages had ads that directly invoked the United Nations, particularly in reference to West Papuan independence.

Ads from three of the pages invoking the United Nations. (Source: Facebook)

In 2017, 70 percent of West Papuans — 1.8 million people — signed a petition for the right to self-determination, an act the Indonesian government has banned. The petition was presented to the United Nations, and the Pacific Islands Forum has called on the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate human rights abuses in West Papua. Seven Pacific states expressed support for West Papuan independence at the 2016 UN General Assembly.

Indonesia has resisted the calls, arguing that the unrest in West Papua is purely a domestic issue. The pages’ ads defended the Indonesian government’s stance on West Papua.

An ad from one of the five pages, defending Indonesia’s control of West Papua and decrying the Prime Minister of Vanuatu, who had condemned the human rights abuses while at the UN General Assembly podium. (Source: Facebook)

Three out of the five pages shared the exact same video post of Indonesian diplomat Rayyanul Sangadji speaking at the 2019 UN General Assembly. Sangadji, who describes himself in the video as “an Indonesian with Melanesian roots,” defends Indonesia’s human rights record in West Papua and asserts that the area is an integral part of a pluralistic Indonesia.

Each page had several videos of the same Indonesian diplomat speaking at the UN (red boxes). (Source: Facebook)

Other posts from the pages further spread the message that the recent West Papuan protests were purposefully coordinated to sabotage Indonesia ahead of the UN General Assembly.

The pages posted rumors that “extremists” were intentionally putting West Papua on the agenda ahead of the UN General Assembly. (Source: Facebook)

All five of these pages pushed the same narrative on West Papuan “extremists,” denounced those countries that support pro-independence West Papuans in the United Nations, and spread rumors about the true perpetrators of the protests.

Some of the removed pages also talked about Indonesian government-funded development projects in West Papua, continuing a thread of positive narratives around Indonesian development in West Papua that first surfaced in August 2018. Development in West Papua is a contentious issue. Indonesia has made billions of dollars from West Papua’s rich reserve of natural resources — which include gold, copper, and timber — while West Papua remains underdeveloped and poor.

Of five pages created on February 28, 2019, three of them — West Papua Independence, Papua Info, and West Papua Channel — shared different development-related articles from two websites: en.antaranews.com and news.mongabay.com. Antara is Indonesia’s state-owned news agency. Indonesian President Joko Widodo personally appointed Antara’s most recent chief executive officer in 2016.

In addition to posting about sustainable development in West Papua, as with the previous three pages, the remaining two pages in the subset created on February 28 also shared more recent content vilifying the West Papuan protesters. Perhaps in an attempt to camouflage the pages’ intent, posts variously labeled the protesters as “separatists” and “activists” in between references to them as “Armed Criminals” and “extremists.”

A post referred to “West Papua Armed Criminals” attacking Indonesian soldiers as Indonesians forces attempted to provide humanitarian aid after a flood. (Source: Facebook)

While the influence and impact of these pages is unknown, users left reviews condemning the pages. “[I]t seems to be fake,” one user said, “when there is [sic] crises in West Papua and this turns up.”

User reviews left on West Papua Media Facebook page, which was rated 1.9 out of 5 stars. (Source: Facebook)

Narratives around Indonesian development in West Papua were seen in another subset of five pages, all created on August 14, 2018. Evidence of coordination among these five Facebook pages suggested that they may have been created by the same entity. While the pages all appeared on the surface to be separate media entities, as indicated by their “About” sections, several similarities indicated otherwise.

All of these pages each had one page manager in the United Kingdom, two in the United States, and between 24 to 29 in Indonesia.

The Page Transparency sections of the subset showed nearly identical numbers of page managers in the same countries. (Source: Facebook)

In terms of the content they posted, all of the pages in this subset had also previously run ads “about social issues, elections or politics,” according to Facebook’s transparency pages. All five of the pages posted in Indonesian and English and linked to their own eponymous off-platform websites.

The “About” sections of each page, including links to eponymous external websites. (Source: Facebook)

According to the domain registration, all of the five pages’ associated off-platform websites were created on August 2, 2018. Two of the websites were updated October 5, 2019, and a third was updated October 6, 2019. The last two websites were updated on August 4, 2019. This similarity in creation and last-updated dates is further evidence of likely coordination between the pages.

The domain registration of all five pages indicated that the external websites were all created on the same date, August 8, 2018. (Source: @AlyssaKann/DFRLab via WhoIs.net; lookup.ICANN)

Conclusion

Many of the removed Facebook pages shared identical creation dates, posted in the same languages, advertised similar videos, pushed equivalent content, and were managed from the same geographic locations. These similarities indicate that the pages were affiliated with and managed by pro-Indonesian-state actors.

West Papuan protesters have continued to be killed in pro-independence demonstrations in recent months. The overarching narrative of these Facebook pages characterized the West Papuan independence movement as radical and dangerous, even though most Papuans are supportive of it. The pages pushed positive narratives about Indonesian development in West Papua, advocated for Indonesian interests in the United Nations, and defended Indonesia’s human rights record.


Alyssa Kann is an intern with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab) and is based in Washington, DC.

Eto Buziashvili is a Research Assistant, Caucasus, with @DFRLab and is based in Georgia.

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