A favourite pastime of Indonesian netizens when scrolling Twitter is ‘spot the buzzer’. They know that some of the posts on their timeline are the work of cyber troops – including influencers, ‘buzzers’ (i.e., fake account operators) and ‘bots’ (i.e., semi-automated robot accounts) – that try to influence public opinion on specific topics and manipulate conversations on social media. As the articles in this edition show, cyber troops have become increasingly common in Indonesia’s cybersphere, and so netizens have become accustomed to their presence and tactics. Yet, the use of cyber troops remains a secretive affair. No political actor will openly admit to employing cyber troops in order to sway public opinion in their favour by spreading disinformation and ‘trolling’ (provoking, insulting, or harassing) or ‘doxing’ (exposing private information with the purpose of slandering) opponents. The work of cyber troops is therefore not only shrouded in mystery, it also carries connotations of underhanded ‘dirty politics’.
As public awareness of the role and impact of cyber troops is growing, so too is public resistance to this form of ‘dirty politics’. On social media, netizens frequently criticise ‘buzzers’ (a catch-all term they also use for influencers that promote certain agendas), calling them ‘the real virus’. They ridicule them with the label ‘BuzzeRp’ – buzzers selling out for money. Some netizens have even adopted buzzer-like tactics in order to expose political buzzers, calling them out with slurs and occasionally trolling and doxing them. While such netizen vigilantism may entail further degradation of public debates on social media, netizens’ vigilance highlights an emerging grassroots response to social media propaganda. In mainstream media, too, there is increasing attention on political buzzers and their detrimental impact on public debates.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) have also started to tackle the problem, recognising it as a serious threat to Indonesia’s already weakening democracy. These groups perform important work to raise public awareness and strengthen the public’s resilience to online disinformation and manipulation. Without effective institutional responses, however, impact remains limited. To thoroughly tackle the problem of cyber troops, a critical debate is needed to address the unfair playing field created by social media propaganda.
Raising awareness, building resilience
Soon after the controversial reform of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) in September 2019, CSOs began scrutinising the role of buzzers in manipulating public debates on this issue. On 11 October 2019, activists organised a public discussion at the Jakarta office of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), on ‘Buzzers and the Threat to Democracy’. One of the speakers, Hendri Satrio (founder of polling institute Kedai Kopi), pointed out that buzzers are difficult to curb because strictly speaking, they are exercising their citizen’s right to freedom of expression. Nonetheless, he added, pro-government buzzers also hinder the democratic process by drowning out public criticism, threatening and spreading disinformation about opponents.
Many similar discussions on the ‘threat of buzzers’ have assessed their role in the suppression of the protests in September 2019 against the KPK’s weakening, and a series of other contentious bills. Student organisations such as the Student Executive Bodies (BEM, based at each university) have also played a prominent role in the protest. As a consequence, they became prime targets of pro-government buzzer attacks, with disinformation spread about student actions and student leaders. Buzzer campaigns effectively divided the student protest and sped up its decline – not only during the KPK controversy but also, one year later, during the protest against the Omnibus Law on Job Creation. At that time buzzers launched an aggressive campaign against the protesters, painting them as ‘destructive anarchists’. These experiences made students particularly wary of the impact of negative buzzer campaigns. For student activists, raising awareness of the harmful impact of buzzers became a key concern.
They are supported in this effort by various CSOs advocating for digital rights and promoting critical digital literacy. These include the Anti-Slander Society (MAFINDO), the Institute for Digital Law and Society (ToRDiLaS), the Digital Literacy Activist Network (Japelidi), the Indonesia-based Southeast Asia Network for Freedom of Expression (SAFENet), and established organisations such as the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the research institute LP3ES. Using various channels, these organisations work to promote a democratic public sphere, defend civic rights in the digital realm and strengthen Indonesians’ digital literacy, in the hope of building the public’s resilience to online manipulation. In reality, however, these groups rarely reach publics beyond urban, educated circles, which include those with low levels of digital literacy who are most susceptible to cyber troop manipulation. For digital literacy efforts to reach broader publics, ultimately more grassroots work is needed outside the urban centres.
In addition to the sensationalist stories that media outlets publish on the shadowy but lucrative ‘business of buzzers’, citizens need more concrete, evidence-based information about the work of cyber troops. In that regard, important work is being carried out by Ismail Fahmi using the Social Network Analysis (SNA) program he developed, called Drone Emprit. The program’s mission is to ‘educate the public with data’. Launched after cyber troops attacked then Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama ahead of the 2017 gubernatorial election, Fahmi has since debunked numerous cases of disinformation by analysing contentious online conversations, instantly sharing his SNA findings on his Twitter account (which has over 104.000 followers) in the form of accessible SNA graphics and visuals, accompanied by clear explanations. He makes frequent media appearances, and provides free services and education for CSOs, academics and schools. The high demand for Fahmi’s services indicates the public’s hunger for factual information in a public sphere infested with fake news.
These efforts offer a critical counterbalance to the detrimental impact of cyber troops on Indonesia’s public sphere and democracy. But they cannot prevent cyber troops from continuing to manipulate public debates on social media. Despite growing public awareness and resistance, it is very likely that cyber troop campaigns will remain prevalent and accelerate ahead of the 2024 elections. In order to mitigate their impact, more determined institutional responses are needed than we are seeing today.
Surveillance and control
Social media giants like Facebook are notoriously reluctant to restrict posts that generate high traffic on their platforms. Buzzers specialise in creating and spreading exactly those kinds of posts, including contentious and sensational ‘fake news’. Twitter is especially prone to disinformation: its format of quick tweets and retweets – centred on hashtags and memes designed to go viral – lends itself to the rapid dissemination of messages by buzzers and bots.
Responding to growing public pressure, in recent years social media platforms have pledged to step up efforts to combat disinformation and weed out the many fake accounts that buzzers and bots are using, constantly refining their methods of (human and algorithmic) moderation to detect them. Once detected, the fake accounts are banned from the platform, while influencers that are found to spread disinformation are flagged and monitored, and also banned when repeatedly breaking the platform’s community rules. Such semi-automated surveillance is known to be ineffective, since cyber troops often find ways to dodge the algorithm, or will simply create new networks of fake accounts when detected and banned. Banning a prominent influencer may only increase their popularity and influence. Ultimately, with its emphasis on technical fixes, the social media corporations’ response to cyber troops is mainly aimed at fighting the symptoms of a much bigger problem.
Indonesia’s Communication and Information Ministry and the Coordinating Ministry of Politics, Law and Security have established a number of task forces to combat online disinformation, occasionally in collaboration with groups like MAFINDO. The government announced it will also fortify the Electronic Transactions and Information (ITE) Law, Indonesia’s cyberlaw. In June 2021 the Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security, Mahfud MD, announced plans to create an Omnibus Law for the Digital Sector to strengthen cybersecurity. However, as digital rights group SAFENet has documented, the government’s cybersecurity approach has so far selectively targeted voices critical of the government, while leaving pro-government cyber troops untouched. These efforts, in other words, seem more targeted to stifle opposition rather than a genuine attempt to curb social media propaganda.
There is reason to doubt the government’s commitment to stopping malicious cyber troop campaigns. As several of the articles in this edition show, many of these campaigns serve the ruling elite’s interests and appear to be orchestrated by political agents close to the circle of power. In a discussion on 29 September 2021 conducted virtually via Twitter with LP3ES director Didik Rachbani, Mahfud MD acknowledged that Indonesia has a problem with political buzzers, and he likened them to ‘pests’. He also claimed this ‘pest’ is the ‘inevitable consequence of democracy’, thus implying the problem lies with freedom of expression – and not with the economic and political elites who fund and coordinate Indonesia’s cyber troop campaigns.
From fatwa to ethics
The Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), which Indonesia’s majority Muslim population holds in high esteem, appears to be taking the problem of social media propaganda seriously. On 12 February 2021, the MUI issued a fatwa on ‘buzzer activities with negative purposes’, which it labelled ‘haram’. This includes ‘spreading hoaxes, badmouthing, slandering, pitting people against each other, bullying, disgracing, gossiping and similar activities conducted professionally, for economic or non-economic gain’. The MUI emphasised the fatwa applies not only to those executing negative buzzer activities, but also to those facilitating and ordering them. Indonesia’s entire cyber troop network – from the political brokers and the elites they serve, to the digital strategists and content creators, to the frontline workers operating multiple fake accounts – is thus considered haram.
While fatwas may not be a popular measure among liberal-minded civil society groups, the MUI’s intervention does call attention to the issue of accountability. It acknowledges that negative buzzer campaigns are not a ‘pest of democracy’, but a moral crime in which every party involved is to blame. It remains to be seen, however, if this fatwa will have any effect as long as the parties at the top of the buzzer hierarchy continue to deny any involvement in social media propaganda, absolving themselves from any responsibility for their role in degrading Indonesia’s public sphere.
The prevalence and impact of cyber troops are both an effect and a symptom of the deeply ingrained corruption in Indonesian politics. In that regard, the use of cyber troops is mainly a digitally-enhanced extension of the political elite’s corrupt and manipulative practices, such as the electoral vote buying and influence peddling described in Edward Aspinall and Ward Berenschot’s book Democracy for Sale: Elections, Clientelism, and the State in Indonesia. In a political culture that normalises such unethical practices, efforts to counter cyber troops need to include a discussion about the ethics of digital campaigns, during and between elections, especially when such campaigns appear to be largely funded from government resources, as the case of the New Normal campaign illustrates.
The articles in this edition of Inside Indonesia illustrate that the line between the kinds of digital campaigning that are ethically justifiable, and those that are not, are increasingly blurred. However, as netizens’ ridicule of the ‘BuzzeRp’ indicates, for more and more Indonesians this line is actually crystal-clear: using paid anonymous sources to propagate government policies and attack adversaries is when that line is unjustifiably crossed.
Yatun Sastramidjaja (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and an Associate Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.