On 1 February 2021 the sitting chairman of the Democratic Party (Partai Demokrat), Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono – also known as ‘AHY’ and the son of the former president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (or ‘SBY’) – gave a bombshell press conference. Surprising all observers, he claimed that he was facing an attempt at a forced takeover of the party leadership. ‘There is a political group that is trying to assume control of the Democratic Party by force’, Agus stated, stressing that such a move threatens the party’s sovereignty and leadership. ‘According to the testimonies we received from many sides’, he continued, ‘this group involves important government officials from the circle of power close to President Joko Widodo’. It was a thinly veiled allegation that political intimates of Jokowi, as the president is popularly known, were meddling in this opposition party’s internal affairs.
The shock statement triggered intense political gossiping. Could this be true? If so, who would be these persons from within the presidential palace? The answers came just a few hours later, when the chief of Jokowi’s presidential staff, General Moeldoko, decided to hold his own press conference. Of course, Moeldoko first denied the allegations. If there were a coup, it would be done by party insiders, not him. Yet, he added rather ambiguously, ‘do not bother Mr Jokowi with this. This is my personal matter, not of Moeldoko as head of the presidential staff’. He left the impression that Democratic Party insiders had actually asked him to replace Agus as party chair: ‘Several times people came to me, and they shared their misgivings about the situation they are facing. I listened to them, because I am concerned with this situation and because I am someone who cares about the Democratic Party.’ This was a rather ambiguous way of denying he was seeking the party’s chair position.
It turns out that during the tense months before the Democratic Party’s ‘extraordinary congress’ on 6 March 2021, an extensive campaign was undertaken to get Moeldoko elected as the party chairperson. Through social media analysis as well as our interviews with buzzers, we documented an extensive online campaign that aimed to boost Moeldoko’s popularity and tarnish Agus Yudhoyono’s image. As we encountered indications that this campaign was set up by PDIP politicians, this ‘digital coup’ was an extraordinary intervention of ruling elites in the internal affairs of an opposition party. When Moeldoko was elected and – albeit briefly – replaced Agus as the new party head, this campaign almost succeeded in neutralising one of the few remaining opposition forces.
Moeldoko the leader
After these press conferences a feverish swirl of rumours and gossiping unfolded on Twitter. Some posts made fun of the Democratic Party, while other posts – often from the same people – praised Moeldoko and his capacity to ‘rescue’ the party. All these posts supported the organisation of an impromptu extraordinary party congress in order to hold a referendum on AHY’s leadership. Remarkably, many of the posts seemed highly coordinated, as many messages revolved around the theme of how suitable Moeldoko would be for the position of party chair. Using Drone Emprit’s software, we counted 157 thousand Twitter posts mentioning the Democrat’s extraordinary party congress or ‘KLB’ (kongres luar biasa) between 28 February and 6 March. Many of these posts contained hashtags supporting Moeldoko’s bid, such as #MoeldokoSaveDemokrat (in English), #MoeldokoSelamatkanDemokrat (‘Moeldoko Saves Democrat’), #MoeldokoKetumSahPD (‘Moeldoko is the rightful head of Partai Demokrat’) and (also in English) #MoeldokoTheLeader.
In addition to this promotion of Moeldoko, a concerted effort seems to have been undertaken to counter possible resentment about the planned outside interference in the party. Social media posts that presented Moeldoko’s candidacy as the ‘karma’ of ex-president Yudhoyono, were tagged with the hashtag #KarmaPolitikSBY. In 2008, when he was president, SBY had also intervened in the internal affairs of a rival political party, the National Awakening Party or PKB (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa). He had used the PKB’s congress to have the party founder and ex-president Abdurrahman Wahid removed from his position on the party’s advisory board. At the time, this paved the way for PKB joining SBY’s coalition. By bringing up these past events, the social media posts around ‘karma’ effectively served to legitimise the ongoing interference in a political party’s internal affairs. As one such post put it, ‘Once you played with drama, there will be karma’. Even Mahfud MD, a coordinating minister in Jokowi’s cabinet, referred to these past events to legitimise an intervention in the internal affairs of the Democratic party.
A planned campaign
This online campaign appears to have been planned long before Moeldoko’s press conference. Several social media influencers we interviewed admitted to being part of this campaign. One ‘buzzer’, who operated a dozen fake Twitter accounts, told us that ‘yes, there is a [buzzer] team that has been mobilised to support organising a KLB’, or an extraordinary party congress, so that an election for the chair position could take place. This buzzer operation lasted ‘not just for one week’, but was launched ‘already months before [the congress]’, he said. This buzzer further explained that one of the tactics they used was doxing. ‘Have you ever heard of [rumours about] AHY having a forbidden love?’ He grinned: ‘We launched it concurrently with the news that Nisa Sabyan [an artist] was also rumoured to be having an affair.’ Fabricating sensational news, whether fake or not, was a common buzzer tactic to divert the public’s attention and damage an opponent’s reputation, especially on moral grounds. ‘This is getting into the media too.’
Indeed, on 4 January – three months before the party congress – the hashtag ‘AHY forbidden love’ became a trending topic when suddenly more than 4000 tweets with this hashtag were posted within half an hour, between 22:30 and 23:00. Many of these posts contained a picture of AHY with a woman, which, it turned out later, was fabricated by cropping a larger group photo. The next day, the ‘trending’ status of this topic offered a reason for various media to publish articles with headlines such as ‘“Forbidden love AHY” trending on Twitter, why the Democratic Party’s chairperson is being attacked’ (halodepok.pikiran-rakyat.com) and ‘The AHY Democrats silence the issue of the forbidden love scandal’ (genpi.co). The articles elaborately discussed (without clear evidence) an allegation that AHY had a mistress before meeting his current wife. Not all media fell for this ploy. For example, SindoNews interviewed people who disbelieved the story under the headline, ‘AHY was attacked by a hoax photo of a beautiful woman; netizens: “it is wicked”’. Yet this outlet also contributed to the dissemination of the story by publishing the cropped picture.
There are strong indications that this social media campaign against AHY’s leadership of the Democratic Party was organised and coordinated by people in the circle around Jokowi. Jokowi’s presidency could benefit from such a coup. Not only would the move ensure the co-opting of the last remaining opposition party in Indonesia’s parliament (apart from the Prosperous Justice Party, PKS), this move would also provide Jokowi with a two-thirds majority in parliament. Such a majority might serve, it is rumoured, to change the constitution in order to enable a third presidential term for him. In that light, it seems that people around Jokowi had decided to employ social media as a means to ensure support for Moeldoko’s takeover. The sudden emergence of pro-Moeldoko hashtags, the high number of tweets over a long period and the consistency of the messaging all point to a concerted cyber troop operation.
While Moeldoko had previously been a relative outsider in the Democratic Party, a combination of internal wrangling, money politics and a social media campaign almost succeeded in putting one of Jokowi’s right-hand men in control of the largest opposition party. On 6 March, Moeldoko was elected as chairperson during the Democratic Party’s extraordinary congress. However, this success proved to be temporary. His opponent, AHY, made use of the authority accorded to the Ministry of Law and Human Rights to evaluate and annul the election of party leaders. In response to an appeal from AHY, the ministry declared that the extraordinary party congress had not been legitimate and that, consequently, Moeldoko’s election had been illegitimate. It was rumoured that the ministry took this decision in response to fierce public criticism and protests in response to Moeldoko’s takeover. The Democratic Party, however, was considerably weakened during this episode. The party has become divided between a ‘Moeldoko faction’ and a ‘AHY faction’ as Moeldoko’s supporters continue to engage in legal battles to prove the legality of his election. So while Moeldoko and his backers did not succeed in taking control of the party, they did succeed in severely weakening one of the main opposition parties.
The online pro-Moeldoko campaign provides a telling illustration of the damaging effect that social media propaganda can have on democratic politics. Amidst growing concerns about the weakening of democratic opposition in Indonesia, social media propaganda proved to be instrumental in cementing the already considerable political dominance of the coalition behind President Joko Widodo. Once again, demonstrable cyber troop operations – in this case targeted at cornering and co-opting Indonesia’s largest opposition party – served the interests of the ruling elites. In that sense, organised social media propaganda can be considered an ‘authoritarian innovation’ – as the scholars Nicole Curato and Diego Fossati have termed the novel authoritarian methods used by democratically-elected regimes in Southeast Asia – further contributing to the weakening of democracy in Indonesia.
Wijayanto (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of Center for Media and Democracy LP3ES and senior lecturer in Government Science study program, Diponegoro University.