Photo by M Risyal Hidayat for Antara.

On the 14th of February, presidential elections will take place in Indonesia. These will be among the most important and complicated in contemporary Indonesian history. This is because of the polarised Indonesian political landscape that developed during Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s presidency and the controversial profiles of the presidential candidates themselves.

Most notably, Prabowo Subianto faces heavy scrutiny about past human rights violations committed throughout his military career, recently leading to public demonstrations in support of victims.

Similarly, Ganjar Pranowo, who was the governor of Central Java, has been criticised for heavy-handed policing of environmental activists on his watch.

Anies Baswedan, has also been attacked for his alignment with the country’s hardline Islamic Defenders Front during the 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial elections.

These elections are also notable for the importance of Generation Z and millennial voters, who together constitute almost 60% of the electorate. These digital natives are very active on social media.

This is well recognised by the presidential candidates, and, just like teenagers, they are busy constucting online identities, concealing blemishes and covertly trolling their rivals. It’s no wonder some voters are finding it hard to separate fact from fiction.

A shifting media landscape

Despite comprising a significant portion of the population, young voters lack political representation in Indonesia. Their primary avenue of political expression remains social media, where they share preferences and criticise the country’s politics.

In fact, Indonesia remains among the top users of social media in Asia. Although internet penetration does not cover all areas of Indonesia, the country is among the leading users of Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

This means social media can present a conundrum for political elites. That is because although traditional media, like TV, is heavily dominated by media oligarchs,  such as Surya Paloh, social media has evolved much more indepenently.

Not only is social media accessible to everyone, but its reach is much broader, Influencers, even ‘mini-influencers’, can convey political messages that can potentially reach millions of Indonesians. The perspectives of social media users can therefore quickly influence public opinion on events or political figures.

This initially meant it was much harder to manipulate social media relative to legacy media platforms. However, in recent years Indonesian politicians have become far more skilled at controlling online narratives.

Cybertroops and buzzers

Social media, in particular, played a crucial role throughout Joko Widodo’s presidency, with the terms “cybertroops” and “buzzers” – content creators who get paid to create and propagate materials online – becoming public knowledge. Both buzzers and cyber troops are recruited to amplify social media election campaigns, spread disinformation, and propagate hate speech for political gain.

Over the years, this has evolved a genuine industry of disinformation, supported by an increasingly intricate system and a growing number of influencers. This trend is partly fueled by the fact that, as a profession, being an influencer can be lucrative.

Cypertroops and buzzers were pivotal in manipulating public opinion, through the spread of religious and racial hate speech, during the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections between Anies Baswedan and Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama. Anies ultimately emerged victorious but was accused of running a racist black campaign, an allegation that haunts his current campaign.

Similar tactics were observed during the 2019 presidential elections when accusations that President Jokowi was Chinese and a communist were widely circulated on social media. He was forced to issue a public statement denying the claims.

It is important to note that cyber troops are not unique to Indonesia but are a global phenomenon. Indonesia shares many similarities with the Philippines, where buzzers and cyber troops played a significant role during Rodrigo Duterte’s rule and the recent elections that saw the election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

What has changed in 2024?

To date, the 2024 election campaign has been decidedly less divisive than in 2019. As a result, candidates have been much more focused on building fun and relatable online personas than directly attacking their competitors.

None more so than Prabowo Subianto. Through social media, he has somehow managed to transform his image from that of a fierce and serious military figure to “gemoy” – meaning cute.

To do this, he has worked with a range of social media platforms and influencers to spread his new brand. He serves as an example of how social media is a powerful tool for changing or distorting public perceptions – even for a figure like Prabowo, a former general and Special Forces commander who has faced persistent accusations of human rights abuses.

But despite the more convivial tone this year, disinformation, black campaigns and hate speech have still ensnared all three candidates.

For example, recently a photo emerged depicting Prabowo and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka with symbols depicting support for the LGBT community. This online campaign was likely carried out by buzzers seeking to portray Prabowo and Gibran as supporters of LGBT rights in a country that generally still holds conservative views on this issue.

The use of social media in this way to reach, manipulate and discriminate against political opponents poses a threat to the democratisation process in Indonesia. Social media does not adhere to the same oligarchic power structures as television – however, these cases show it can still be easily controlled by those can afford it.

Hiring entire teams of influencers and buzzers to create fake news or manipulate public opinion throughout the country can hardly be considered democratic or ethical. However, it remains a challenging area to address with legislation. The actions of Buzzers are governed by the requirements of the ITE Law, although no law specifically prohibits political movements from using buzzers. However, the ITE law itself represents a threat to freedom of expression in Indonesia because it can be used to harass Indonesian netizens and activists, especially those who dare cross the political and business elites.

This only increases the onus on social media companies to ensure a level playing field. Social media has proven itself again and again to be a powerful influencer of public opinion. When the next big social media storm is constantly lurking around the corner, every election can go down to the buzzer.


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