How a wave of disinformation is endangering Rohingya refugees in Indonesia

Dozens of photos and videos that have been either “doctored” or taken out of context so as to negatively portray Rohingya refugees have been circulating on Indonesian social media. This wave of disinformation has become so intense that the United Nations is worried about the refugees’ safety – even in Aceh province, which has, historically, been considered very welcoming. Our Observer, an Indonesian journalist who specialises in fact-checking for a publication called Mafindo, has been looking at the rise in online hate speech and fake news targeting the Rohingya.

Hundreds of protesters forced a group of Rohingya refugees to leave their temporary shelter in a parking lot in Banda Aceh, the capital of the Indonesian province of Aceh, on December 27, 2023. Videos show the protesters chanting slogans like “get them out” and threatening the frightened refugees, among them women and children. 

This footage, which was widely circulated both on social media and by media outlets, has shocked the Rohingya community and its advocates. Each year, many Rohingya arrive in makeshift boats on the beaches of this province in the far northern part of Indonesia. Up until now, they were welcomed by locals. 

The Rohingya, a Muslim minority from Myanmar, have long faced persecution in their country, but more than 700,000 of them fled when the Myanmar military began a violent campaign of repression in August 2017. Many of them now live as refugees in Bangladesh, often in dire circumstances. Many Rohingya have been attempting to flee the terrible situations in both Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat. 

Many of these boats are bound for Malaysia. However, few reach their target destination, whether due to poor weather conditions, overcrowding or badly equipped boats.  

Many of the boats end up coming ashore in the Indonesian region of Aceh. More than 1,600 landed there in 2023, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

However, in recent months, it seems like the Rohingyas are no longer welcome in Aceh. A group of locals rejected a boat filled with more than 250 refugees back in November 2023, forcing them back to sea and, since then, there have been other cases of the same kind of response. There have also been other reports of locals physically and verbally threatening refugees. Locals have also accused workers with the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) of being part of a human trafficking network. 

The spike in anti-Rohinyga actions is occurring alongside a rise in online hate speech and disinformation about Rohingya on social media in Indonesia. 

The number of photos and videos taken out of context to feed into a negative narrative about Rohingya refugees has exploded on Instagram and TikTok in recent months.

For example, a video that claims to show Rohingya refugees burning down a warehouse has gone viral on TikTok. We did a reverse image search on the footage (click here to find out how) to figure out when this footage first appeared online. Turns out, it actually shows a fire that took place back in 2020 in Cimahi, a town in the Indonesian province of West Java.

This is a screengrab of a video posted on TikTok. The caption, in Indonesian, says, “Rohingyas burned down this warehouse in Aceh because they weren’t given food.” © FRANCE 24 Observers

Another video, which has garnered more than 11 million views on TikTok since December, shows an enormous boat filled with passengers. The caption on the video reads: “Rohingyas are once again being transported from Bangladesh to Indonesia.” In reality, the footage shows a boat that carries out internal voyages within Bangladesh. You can see the name of the boat in the footage and, from there, we were able to find out its itinerary. It turns out that some of the footage of this boat was taken from a Bangladeshi YouTube channel.

This is a screengrab of a video published on TikTok that claims to show a boat filled with Rohingya refugees who have left Bangladesh bound for Indonesia.
This is a screengrab of a video published on TikTok that claims to show a boat filled with Rohingya refugees who have left Bangladesh bound for Indonesia. © FRANCE 24 Observers

‘Fake information linked to hate speech targets people’s emotions’ 

The Indonesian platform Mafindo investigated these two videos and uncovered their origins. Aribowo Sasmito, a journalist with Mafindo, says that there has been a sharp rise in fake information about the Rohingyas online in recent months :

Everything began with a series of TikTok videos that were made to look like they were from the UNHCR. It became so intense that the UNHCR had to speak out to say that these weren’t their videos.

In this thread posted on X, the United Nations in Indonesia warned social media users about fake information about the Rohingya published by accounts pretending to be the UNHCR. These fake accounts claimed, for example, that the UNHCR in Bangladesh gave special passes to Rohingya.


There are also more and more videos on Instagram and TikTok that paint the Rohingyas as ungrateful. 

The problem with these videos is that people allow themselves to be influenced without verifying them, especially anything that reaffirms the narrative that the Rohingya are bad.


There are common themes that emerge in these fake news items. One portrays Rohingyas as ungrateful for the help offered by Indonesians. Another common narrative is that they are all part of a human trafficking network. Another is that they are “fake” Muslims.


Because most Indonesians are very religious, faith is one of the main themes exploited by disinformation and hate speech. 

It is very difficult to dismantle fake information based on hate speech, because it targets people’s emotions. The easiest way to spread disinformation in a religious and family-orientated society like Indonesia is to integrate religion and racism into it.


Some posts compare the Rohingya refugees arriving in Indonesia with the situation in Israel and Gaza – but, in these posts, the Rohingya are portrayed as spoiling the land belonging to Indonesians. 

A fake UNHCR account, for example, seemed to claim that it was going to give the Rohingya an “empty island”. Another fake news item that is supposed to show boats filled with Rohingya refugees is captioned: “The situation in Israel is happening again here.” In actuality, however, the boats shown are Chinese fishing boats.

This is a screengrab of a video posted on TikTok that claims to show boats filled with Rohingya heading towards Indonesia. “Protect our seas from illegal Rohingya refugees,” reads the text.
This is a screengrab of a video posted on TikTok that claims to show boats filled with Rohingya heading towards Indonesia. “Protect our seas from illegal Rohingya refugees,” reads the text. © FRANCE 24 Observers

Some local NGOs are actually starting to believe this negative discourse about the Rohingya. Some of their members believe the narrative that the refugees are ungrateful and badly behaved.  

One reason for the increasingly negative view of the Rohingya in Aceh is an incident that took place in 2021 – three fishermen were imprisoned after they helped 99 Rohingya refugees trapped on a sinking boat. They were sentenced to five years in prison on human trafficking charges. There remains a sense of in injustice in Aceh and sometimes the Rohingya are blamed for this. 

In this impoverished region, the image of the refugees being “ungrateful” has spread quickly, explains journalist Sasmito :


The few isolated cases where a Rohingya refugee has been badly behaved end up being applied to the whole population. When people already have an aversion to another group, then they can be easily incited to share false information that reaffirms their beliefs.

There are also external factions that feed into this narrative, like when Indonesian president Joko Widodo said [in December 2023] that the number of Rohingya in the country had increased because of human trafficking.


In early January, a video clip that was shared more than 200,000 times made it look like the Indonesian president wanted to deport the Rohingya. But in the full speech, which was obtained by fact-checking outlet AFP factuel, Widodo doesn’t talk about deportation. He says that he wants to end human trafficking and that he is committed to providing temporary aid to the Rohingya “while prioritizing the interests of the local community”. 

‘The Rohingya have become scapegoats’  

The anti-Rohingya sentiment is also growing amid a backdrop of heightened nationalism and patriotism, with elections having been held on February 14. Chris Lewa, the president of the Arakan Project, an association dedicated to Rohingya rights, has kept a close eye on the evolution of this anti-Rohingya discourse online: 


When the first boat was prevented from landing [in November], the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a statement underscoring that Indonesia didn’t sign the 1951 Refugee Convention, which meant that they were under no international obligation to receive the Rohingya. His words have often been cited in anti-Rohingya discourse. 

However, the country does need to respect national laws [Editor’s note: which require the country to accept refugees, including a presidential decree from 2016].

Against the backdrop of presidential elections, the Rohingya have become scapegoats. 

[Faced with the rising tensions] the government said that they want to work with the UNHCR and the IOM but, in this climate, it hasn’t changed anything. Locals keep displacing the Rohingya and some of the Indonesian members of my association don’t want to go into the camps anymore. Some have even faced physical threat. It isn’t like that everywhere though, thankfully, and some villagers are still showing their support to the Rohingya refugees. 


Some journalists and analysts are speaking about what looks like a coordinated “campaign” of disinformation, but have, so far, been unable to determine who might be behind this. 

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Former hedge fund star says this is what will trigger the next bear market.

Much of Wall Street expects easing inflation, but an overshoot could dash hopes of a May rate cut, curtailing the S&P 500’s
waltz with 5,000, warn some.

Read: Arm’s frenzied stock rally continues as AI chase trumps valuation.

What might take this market down eventually? Our call of the day from former hedge-fund manager Russell Clark points to Japan, an island nation whose central bank is one of the last holdouts of loose monetary policy.

Note, Clark bailed on his perma bear RC Global Fund back in 2021 after wrongly betting against stocks for much of a decade. But he’s got a whole theory on why Japan matters so much.

In his substack post, Clark argues that the real bear-market trigger will come when the Bank of Japan ends quantitative easing. For starters, he argues we’re in a “pro-labor world” where a few things should be playing out: higher wages and lower jobless levels and interest rates higher than expected. Lining up with his expectations, real assets started to surge in late 2023 when the Fed started to go dovish, and the yield curve began to steepen.

From that point, not everything has been matching up so easily. He thought higher short-term rates would siphon off money from speculative assets, but then money flowed into cryptos like Tether and the Nasdaq recovered completely from a 2022 rout.

“I have been toying with the idea that semiconductors are a the new oil – and hence have become a strategic asset. This explains the surge in the Nasdaq and the Nikkei to a degree, but does not really explain tether or bitcoin very well,” he said.

So back to Japan and his not so popular explanation for why financial/speculative assets continue to trade so well.

“The Fed had high interest rates all through the 1990s, and dot-com bubble developed anyway. But during that time, the Bank of Japan only finally raised interest rates in 1999 and then the bubble burst,” he said.

He notes that when Japan began to tighten rates in late 2006, “everything started to unwind,” adding that the BOJ’s brief attempts [to] raise rates in 1996 could be blamed for the Asian Financial Crisis.

In Clark’s view, markets seem to have moved more with the Japan’s bank balance sheet than the Fed’s. The BOJ “invented” quantitative easing in the early 2000s, and the subprime crisis started not long after it removed that liquidity from the market in 2006, he notes.

“For really old investors, loose Japanese monetary policy also explained the bubble economy of the 1980s. BOJ Balance Sheet and S&P 500 have decent correlation in my book,” he said, offering the below chart:

Capital Flows and Asset Markets, Russell Clark.

Clark says that also helps explains why higher bond yields haven’t really hurt assets. “As JGB 10 yields have risen, the BOJ has committed to unlimited purchases to keep it below 1%,” he notes.

The two big takeaways here? “BOJ is the only central bank that matters…and that we need to get bearish the U.S. when the BOJ raises interest rates. Given the moves in bond markets and food inflation, this is a matter of time,” said Clark who says in light of his plans for a new fund, “a bear market would be extremely useful for me.” He’s watching the BOJ closely.

The markets

Pre-data, stock futures


are down, while Treasury yields

hold steady. Oil

and gold

are both higher. The Nikkei 225 index
tapped 38,000 for the first time since 1990.

Key asset performance






S&P 500






Nasdaq Composite






10 year Treasury


















Data: MarketWatch. Treasury yields change expressed in basis points

The buzz

Due at 8:30 a.m., January headline consumer prices are expected to dip to 2.9% for January, down from 3.4% in December and the lowest since March 2021. Monthly inflation is seen at 0.3%.


stock is down on disappointing results and a slow launch for its Alzheimer’s treatment. A miss is also hitting Krispy Kreme

is up on a revenue rise, with Hasbro
Molson Coors

and Marriott

still to come, followed by Airbnb

and MGM Resorts

after the close. Hasbro stock is plunging on an earnings miss.


is surging after billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn disclosed a near 10% stake and said his firm is discussing possible board representation.

Tripadvisor stock

is up 10% after the travel-services platform said it was considering a possible sale.

In a first, Russia put Estonia’s prime minister on a “wanted” list. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate approved aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

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The chart

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In Philadelphia, skin-rotting drug ‘tranq’ invades a neighbourhood already devastated by opioids

Drug users in the Philadelphia neighbourhood of Kensington have increasingly been turning towards a drug called xylazine, or “tranq”, a veterinary sedative often mixed with other drugs such as heroin or fentanyl. But when people begin to use the substance, it quickly causes horrific damage to their bodies – including necrosis and skin tissue rotting. Authorities in Philadephia and across the nation are getting increasingly worried about the drug’s spread and the damage to victims.

The footage widely shared on both TikTok and Twitter (examples here, here and here) show people in frightening states – men and women, doubled over, seemingly sleeping standing up. People with their limbs wrapped in bandages. People shaking and jerking uncontrollably or, in other cases, lying on the ground, inert.

The people in the footage are users of a substance called xylazine – often called a “zombie drug”. The videos were all filmed in the Kensington neighbourhood of Philadelphia.

In many of the videos, you can see a bridge made of bluish metal (here, circled in red), which is part of the Philadelphia metro system. It also enables us to locate all the videos in the Kensington neighbourhood. © Observers

Drug users, many of them homeless, often go to this neighbourhood, called a “Walmart of heroin” by the New York Times. But, in some ways, heroin is becoming a drug of a past era – these days, Kensington is a painful epicentre of the American opioid epidemic.

For the past few years, fentanyl, a painkiller 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, has been one of the most widely trafficked drugs here. In 2021, the public health department of the city of Philadelphia reported that 77 percent of deaths by overdose in its territory were linked to fentanyl. 

‘I thought it was a fentanyl crisis, but it was a tranq problem’

When he launched his YouTube channel “Jeff’s High On Life”, 43-year-old Jeffrey Weeks was hoping to raise awareness about fentanyl use. But that’s not what he found when he went back to the streets of Kensington – a place that he himself used to haunt before he became sober seven years ago. 

When I first went down there [to Kensington last November], I thought it was a fentanyl crisis, but it was a tranq problem. Fentanyl and tranq are two different drugs. You see a lot of people bent over, almost sleeping standing up, not in the real world – that’s tranq. Fentanyl doesn’t do that.  

The terrifying symptoms visible in Jeffrey’s videos are a result of the so-called “zombie drug”, xylazine, also known as “tranq”. Initially developed as a tranquilliser for animals, people looking to get high also take it – sometimes alone or sometimes mixed with other drugs. 

There are a lot of people taking other drugs that are cut with fentanyl, and they’re also putting tranq stuff in all of it: 90 percent of the drugs tested here are positive for fentanyl and xylazine. I used to use regular heroin. When I interview people, I ask if they can find regular heroin and they say no.

The spread of tranq is not just happening in Kensington, but also at a national level. On March 23, 2023, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the agency tasked with combatting drug trafficking, posted a rare public health alert about xylazine. 

The US Drug Enforcement Administration is warning the American public of a sharp increase in the trafficking of fentanyl mixed with xylazine,” the statement begins. “Xylazine and fentanyl drug mixtures place users at a higher risk of suffering a fatal drug poisoning. People who inject drug mixtures containing xylazine also can develop severe wounds, including necrosis – the rotting of human tissue – that may lead to amputation.”

‘She went into the hospital for an amputation and they took four fingertips from her left hand’

In his videos, Weeks invites people suffering from addiction to sit in his car for a filmed interview. During these conversations, he’s seen the terrible physical repercussions of xylazine use firsthand.

“Jojo”, a person suffering from addiction, is interviewed by Weeks in his car on July 25, 2023.
“Jojo”, a person suffering from addiction, is interviewed by Weeks in his car on July 25, 2023. © Jeffrey Weeks

The problem I run into in interviewing people on tranq is the smell, because of the wounds. Around 80 percent of the people have sores, they’re living in filthy conditions and a lot of them have the same bandage for many weeks. I help them with that. It’s a specific symptom of these wounds: shooting up in the same spot starts to damage the skin, there’s not enough blood so it starts rotting

Kelsie, a tranq user, shows Weeks the necrosis and wounds on her arms. Kelsie tried to get help for her addiction a few months ago but now is back on the streets, according to Weeks.
Kelsie, a tranq user, shows Weeks the necrosis and wounds on her arms. Kelsie tried to get help for her addiction a few months ago but now is back on the streets, according to Weeks. © Jeffrey Weeks

Weeks talks about the connections he’s made with the people he interviews – connections that have enabled him to follow them as they seek help for the violent addiction they are suffering from.

I posted an interview that I did a few months ago with Kim. She went into the hospital for an amputation and they took four fingertips from her left hand. One of the fingertips broke off the day before the surgery. She left one hour after the surgery, because she felt sick from withdrawals.

Kim shows Weeks the terrible necrosis on her fingers during an interview published on June 30, 2023.
Kim shows Weeks the terrible necrosis on her fingers during an interview published on June 30, 2023. © Jeffrey Weeks

Withdrawal with no real medical solution

Severe anxiety is another symptom experienced by people addicted to xylazine. It’s hard to treat this addiction because of the lack of a recognised treatment option, something that does exist for people embarking on the hard battle to escape heroin or fentanyl addiction. 

For the most part, national and local institutions have recommended that people trying to get off of xylazine use a number of drugs to help manage terrible withdrawal symptoms. Some institutions, however, continue to use the “cold turkey” method, which involves stopping drug use without substitutes or any other kind of medical support.  

That’s the route that First Stop Recovery takes. This non-profit organisation has been operating in Kensington for the past 20 or so years. Our team spoke to Tony Gardner, a chiropractor and addiction counsellor responsible for the medical side of First Stop. He told our team how patients are treated. 

We get people mostly from the street. They have a 30-day blackout – we take their cellphones. We detox you “cold turkey”, except if you are on alcohol or benzodiazepines, which could be dangerous. The reason is that if detox is easy, you will just relapse. If it’s a painful experience, you won’t do it again

The patients are fully cared for during a period of 90 days, which allows them to focus on their withdrawal and therapy

Your job is recovery until day 90. After day 90, you have to get a job and start paying rent. When you’re in our programme, you can learn job skills, and when you feel ready, you can step out.

There is some debate about the efficacy of this method for treating addiction to all kinds of drugs. But Gardner says they encounter specific issues with xylazine in particular

They have to be addressed a lot differently, because of open wounds and diseases. That is something we are working on right now. It will depend on the degree of the wound. If it’s deep, it can become septic and we need to send them to the hospital.

‘It’s out there on the streets, becoming more and more popular’

Gardner sees the fact that tranq users almost always end up in hospital as an obstacle to getting them through the rehab program. He says he is worried about what will happen to this growing number of users in the coming months. 

It’s a nasty, nasty drug. We don’t see a lot in our programme, because it’s summer, but when it gets cold we will see more people. It’s out there on the streets, becoming more and more popular. 

Weeks is also concerned by the growing grip that tranq has on the streets of Kensington – and the people it brings to the neighbourhood. 

It’s more crowded than ever down there. There are new faces, that’s the scary part. I saw a girl as young as 18 looking for dates, trying to make some money.

A few days after speaking to our team, Weeks documented this out-of-control situation for his YouTube channel. On July 27, he published a short video of a young woman lying inert on the ground, her arm bleeding. 

Screengrab of the video published by Jeffrey Weeks on July 27, 2023.
Screengrab of the video published by Jeffrey Weeks on July 27, 2023. © Jeffrey Weeks

While this victim did survive after receiving first aid from Weeks and other passersby, many more will never have this chance. In 2021, the public health department in Philadelphia indicated that 1,276 people had died of overdoses in the past year, a 10-year record.

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