Hackers, doxers and influencers: the limits of political participation on social media

There was a time when Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s candidacy for the presidency was imagined to represent grassroots political participation. Photo by Adiwinata Solihin for Antara.

 

If Joko Widodo’s supporters had been asked what they thought of social media and politics in 2014, they would have been highly optimistic. At least, that is how I remember the vibrant energy of the time. Supporters shared pictures of their clothes, stickers and other campaign paraphernalia via Instagram and Facebook, and created memes and videos that spread instantly via WhatsApp.

 

Granted, hate speech and disinformation were commonplace even then. But shared enthusiasm for political engagement on social media was a major part of Jokowi’s rise in national politics. The excitement was not limited to Jokowi as political figure but his candidacy was imagined to represent grassroots political participation. The use of social media by his campaign cemented this image.

 

Six years into Jokowi’s presidency, these expectations have been shattered. It is hard to argue now that Jokowi’s leadership has enabled further political participation, whether through social media or otherwise. Rather than encouraging citizens to openly engage with government policy proposals, social media has now become a tool for the government to exercise social control.

 

This shift is apparent even beyond cases involving the highly problematic Information and Electronic Transactions Law (UU ITE). Mysterious cases of hacking and doxing – publishing private information with malicious intent – and well-documented cases of government-funded influencers, or buzzers, have raised questions about the limits of social media’s potential to boost public participation in politics.

The illusion of participation

Pop heartthrob Ardhito Pramono recently caused a stir on Twitter when he publicly retracted paid tweets in support of the controversial omnibus bill on job creation (RUU Cipta Kerja). The bill has been widely criticised for prioritising business and investment while risking exploitative labour and environmental degradation.

 

Acknowledging his ignorance of the issue, the singer stated that he had unknowingly endorsed the bill through his paid use of the hashtag #IndonesiaButuhKerja (‘Indonesia Needs Work’) and retracted his earlier comments. It seems he was not the only public figure on the job – numerous social media influencers used the same hashtag in their tweets around the same time, suggested that many had been recruited.

 

The government has yet to admit that it paid influencers to promote the job creation bill. Nor has the talent agency involved disclosed the source of the request to use the hashtag. But this is not an isolated incident. Other government agencies have readily admitted that they rely on social media influencers to promote their policies. Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW) recently revealed that since 2017, the government has spent Rp 90.45 billion (A$8.6 million) on social media influencers.

 

The recruitment of social media influencers by Jokowi’s government is hardly surprising. Digital platforms have always been integral to Jokowi’s political campaigns, at least since his run in the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial election. In fact, even when he was just the mayor of Solo, Jokowi already believed that online platforms were crucial political tools. Yet the case of the omnibus bill suggests the recruitment of social media influencers can sometimes do more harm than good for those who hire them.

 

Unlike organic political participation, engagement in politics by influencers remains superficial. Like Pramono, many of these influencers do not understand the cause they are paid to promote. Political support is treated as a commercial product marketed through social media accounts – except on the rare occasion it is called to account by questioning fans.

 

Besides popular celebrities who occasionally dabble in politics, there is another kind of influencer emerging in Indonesia’s social media landscape – the kind whose identity online is established by their commentary on social and political issues.

 

Should they gain economic benefit from their commentary, that is just because the promoted policies align with their personal beliefs on political and social issues – or so they argue. One such influencer has even defended his collaboration with government by arguing that social media influencers are simply better than traditional media at promoting government programs.

 

The problem is, these kinds of influencers rarely disclose their sources of funding, because part of their credibility comes from being seen as ‘organic’ political supporters. This is particularly concerning because financial resources can play a significant role in determining which political ideas gain traction on social media.

 

Further, the employment of influencers by government promotes perpetual political polarisation. Especially at election time, political debate is increasingly reduced to political tribalism. Online, this stifles debate about proposed policies, since most supporters are already committed to a chosen candidate regardless of the arguments on either side.

 

It is not surprising that Jokowi and his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, both used influencers to promote their campaigns in 2019. Yet by continuing to sponsor content even after winning the election, Jokowi’s government risks carrying this antagonism and polarisation over into day-to-day politics.

 

Sadly, this is not the only way digital platforms in Indonesia are becoming less democratic.

Silencing dissent

Ravio Patra, an independent researcher who had previously been vocal in criticising the president’s special staff, was suddenly arrested in April this year. In an official statement, he was said to have been charged with spreading provocative messages on WhatsApp. Ravio said his phone had been hacked and the messages posted by the hackers, and many suspected the government itself was responsible. Later, as public pressure mounted, he was released from custody.

 

Ravio’s might be an extreme case, but it is not an isolated incident. Plenty of Indonesian internet users have experienced similar threats in connection to their political stance. In recent years, individuals who are critical of government policies have also found themselves at risk of online attacks in the form of hacking and doxing.

 

Victor Mambor, a West Papuan journalist, became the target of doxing via Twitter. His personal information was leaked and spread by an anonymous account, and accusations were made against him that put him in physical danger.

 

Journalist Febriana Firdaus, a contributor to Al Jazeera, was also harassed on social media for her report on Papua that presented different facts from those found in official government statements. This kind of treatment can make social media users hesitant to voice criticism or even report facts that may differ from the government narrative.

 

More recently, efforts have been made to silence critics of the government’s response to Covid-19. A few weeks ago, Pandu Riono, an outspoken epidemiologist, was locked out of his Twitter account by hackers. Just before his Twitter account was hacked, he had questioned the credibility of research into a Covid-19 treatment by Airlangga University, the National Intelligence Agency (BIN), and the national military.

 

Individuals are not the only targets of hacking. Major media have faced similar issues. Tempo magazine recently found that its homepage had been hacked and replaced with accusations that it was propagating false news. While the hack itself is still under the investigation, it is hard not to connect it to previous reports by Tempo investigating the network of buzzers supporting Jokowi’s Omnibus bill.

 

Tirto.id also found its site had been infiltrated. The hacker replaced a number of articles, including those critical of the government’s handling of Covid-19. Both Tirto and Tempo reported the incidents through legal avenues, however it is not yet known whether the perpetrators will face consequences – or even be identified.

An uneven playing field

Whether through doxing, deactivating personal accounts, or removing articles from news sites, online attacks like these pose another level of threat against critical voices. The elusive nature of online attacks makes it near impossible to identify the perpetrators and their affiliations – whether they are part of government, sympathisers, or simply Internet trolls.

 

But when critical voices are bullied into silence, raising public criticism involves a considerable degree of risk. This turns social media into an uneven playing field, tilted heavily in favour of the government.

 

Despite these obstacles, social media is still a crucial avenue for Indonesian internet users to voice their social and political concerns. Activists still regularly use social media to demand justice from the government over human rights abuses. As soon as Pandu Riono regained access to his Twitter account, he continued to hold the government to account over its management of the pandemic.

 

Nevertheless, we can no longer entertain the pretence that these platforms promote civic engagement. Just like in the world beyond the keyboard, the state is very much present in this arena, and does not intend to relinquish control anytime soon.

 

Ibnu Nadzir is a researcher at the Center for Culture and Society in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). He holds a master's degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Amsterdam.