Wijayanto & Albanik Maizar
Amidst other indications of the backsliding of Indonesia’s democracy, perhaps the most important and shocking event was the revision of the Law on the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) in 2019. The revision seriously weakened this anti-corruption body, turning it into a government body monitored by an oversight council, thereby effectively undermining its autonomy and powers of independent investigation. It was not the first time the KPK faced attempts to curtail its mandate to combat corruption, especially in the upper echelons of society. Corruption is deeply ingrained among the political and economic elites, thus politicians had every reason to keep the KPK at bay and, now, in check. Still, the revision of the KPK Law came as a surprise because it happened so quickly and suddenly. The revision process was carried out in just a matter of days, from its submission in the parliament until its ratification on 17 September 2019. The parliament approved the revision despite fierce objections and mass protests by students, academics and activists all over Indonesia.
In response to these protests, pro-government forces financed online public opinion manipulation in order to gain acceptance for the controversial legislation. To increase public support for the revision of the KPK Law, cyber mercenaries were mobilised to steer online discussions on the topic towards a pro-revision narrative, by bombing social media, especially Twitter, with pro-revision messages, memes and hashtags.
These online mercenaries promoted hashtags around the theme of ‘KPK and Taliban’, suggesting that the KPK was infested with ‘extremist elements’ and therefore it needed to be brought under control. Although this narrative was obviously based on disinformation – there is no indication that KPK members embraced extremist versions of Islam – it struck a chord with public fears of the threat of religious extremism and terrorism. The cyber troops’ narrative came to be echoed and amplified in mainstream media, completing the cycle of public opinion manipulation.
A hashtag battle
The announcement of the bill on revision of the KPK law on 5 September 2019 led to a flurry of conversations about the issue on social media. While this is natural for any controversial topic, there was a striking peak in the wave of conversations in the week before the bill was ratified, especially on Twitter. A social network analysis (SNA) conducted by Drone Emprit Indonesia shows a sudden spike in the number of tweets in the days leading up to the ratification. In total, more than half a million tweets mentioned KPK in that one week, which is unusually high for one topic.
Despite the unpopularity of the proposed revision, conversations on Twitter were dominated by accounts supporting the revision. A pro-revision narrative was built around a series of hashtags, starting with #KPKTaliban and variations on this theme. These were paired with hashtags such as #DukungRevisiUUKPK (‘support KPK Law revision’), #TempoKacungKPK (‘Tempo is KPK’s janitor’, bashing Tempo magazine’s critical commentaries on the bill to revise the KPK Law), #KPKCengeng (‘KPK crybaby’), #KPKKuatKorupsiTurun (‘Strong KPK, corruption declines’) and finally – the dominating hashtag on 17 September, the day the revision was passed – #KPKPATUHAturan (‘KPK OBEY the law’). Some of the hashtags also framed the revision in a language of patriotism – such as #RevisiUUKPKForNKRI, ‘KPK Law revision for the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia’ – which implied that those opposing the revision were unpatriotic. Meanwhile, netizens expressing their rejection of the revision – using the hashtag #TolakRevisiKPK (‘reject KPK’s revision’) – were far outnumbered on Twitter throughout that week. Those protesting the revision lost their hashtag battle against the cyber troops, as the online mercenaries could use numerous fake accounts and bots to amplify their pro-revision narrative.
Cyber troops used various tactics to tempt ordinary netizens into posting pro-revision hashtags as well. A common tactic was the ‘give-away quiz’, in which netizens could win a prize for posting certain content. One such quiz read: ‘50K for 2 lucky people’, on the condition that they tweet the hashtag #KPKPatuhAturan (‘KPK obey the law’). This helped to catapult the hashtag into Twitter’s trending list, creating the impression that public opinion on Twitter was overwhelmingly in support of the KPK Law revision.
Memes were used to convince the public this opinion was broadly shared among public figures. One meme showed support from prominent figures for the revision effort, including former minister of state secretary Yusril Ihza Mahendra, former vice president Jusuf Kalla, criminal law expert and KPK law drafter Romli Atmasasmita and member of parliament Arteria Dahlan. In reality, not all of these figures supported the KPK Law revision. But to make it seem that they did, quotes were added from the figures’ statements, which were not necessarily their words. Yusril Ihza Mahendra’s picture, for example, was accompanied by the caption: ‘All institutions need an internal supervisory body, KPK is no exception’. The caption accompanying Romli Atmasasmia’s picture read: ‘KPK must be monitored, [it must be] attached to the structure not outside the structure’. For the cyber troops’ content creators, memes with instant visual impact were an effective weapon to persuade netizens.
Gather the troops
Interviews with people engaged in this cyber troop campaign confirmed that manipulating public opinion was their job. For many of them, their online propaganda work was just that: a paid job. Their personal beliefs and views regarding the KPK played no role in carrying out this work, but simply provided a source of income. Several ‘buzzers’ or fake account operators acknowledged they were recruited and paid specifically to produce and disseminate online propaganda in support of the KPK Law revision. The recruitment process was not arbitrary. Those invited to this propaganda work were already accustomed to ‘playing’ on social media. In fact, some were previously part of the social media campaign teams in the 2019 presidential election.
Recruitment typically occurred through informal networks via WhatsApp. One of the buzzers recalled: ‘So there was this new issue [KPK Law revision], right, I got the information from some of my friends in this WhatsApp group; they said, let’s get together, let’s gather troops, bro’. They agreed to take on the ‘issue’ and shared the news across their network: ‘... in the end it spread to all buzzer groups like that. Because buzzers have their own groups, right, so in the end the info went viral’. Another person in this network was Arjuna (not his real name), an experienced buzzer who owned multiple fake accounts. According to him, not only the pro-revision campaign employed cyber troops. ‘It’s the same with the contra side’, he said, ‘they also prepared buzzing teams, an influencer team, really. It’s a lie if they claim they didn’t get paid’. After all, he added, ‘it's legal, in a digital democracy it’s all legal’.
For their work in disseminating content on a daily basis, Arjuna said, they were rewarded up to millions of rupiah per month. Special rates applied for services to popularise hashtags because this required extra work and more anonymous accounts with a large number of followers. Buzzers work by using certain hashtags and posting them on Twitter at predetermined times: ‘For raising hashtags, there must be a time, right’, Arjuna explained. Otherwise they were free to decide on the content and timing of the posts, ‘except for raising trending topics, that’s different again.’
Besides promoting the KPK Law revision directly through memes, infographics and hashtags, the propaganda work was also directed at building a narrative of sectarianism – the notion that leaving the KPK unchecked would boost extremism in Indonesia. At the heart of this narrative was the hashtag #KPKSarangTaliban (‘KPK is a Taliban Hotbed’), which was one of the most frequently used hashtags in this cyber troop operation. To support this narrative, so one buzzer explained, the coordinating buzzers received bits of information and ‘data’ from their client to serve as ‘evidence’, which were then spread across the cyber troop networks. While disseminating such posts, some of the messengers also started to believe the story. Arjuna, for example, was convinced of the existence of a ‘Taliban faction’:
‘If you want to know, [inside the KPK] there is a police faction, there is a prosecution faction, and a Novel [Baswedan] faction. Well, the one accused [...] of being a nest of the Taliban is the Novel faction because he is close to Abdullah Hehamahua [an ex-KPK advisor accused of radicalism].’
Mainstream media amplification
The cyber troops’ efforts to manipulate public opinion on the KPK Law revision had an impact beyond social media, as mainstream media amplified the online stories almost instantaneously. The story linking the KPK to the ‘Taliban’ was mentioned by mainstream media in at least 250 online news articles between 10 and 17 September. Some of the articles focused on debunking the story of the KPK being a ‘Taliban hotbed’. For example, on 7 May 2019 CNN Indonesia cited the KPK’s vice-chairperson, Busyro Muqqodas, who stated the story was a political ploy from the palace to justify the KPK’s weakening. On 16 September 2019, news site Tirto.id cited KPK investigator Novel Baswedan’s objection that the viral narrative on social media was just a scheme to break up the KPK. Other mainstream news sites, however, simply repeated the viral narrative uncritically. In an era of fast-paced click bait journalism, the cyber troops’ online fabrications provided quick fodder for news stories that, because of their sensational claims, are sure to attract a large audience.
Because of this media amplification, the ‘KPK-and-Taliban’ narrative came to dominate the public conversation. By constructing and disseminating stories that would likely be picked up in mainstream media, the cyber troops succeeded in setting the agenda of public debate as this sensational topic became the talk of the town. The constant repetition made the Taliban narrative credible: as a well- known propaganda proposition states, ‘a lie that is repeated over and over again will make people see it as the truth’.
A survey by newspaper Kompas, executed in mid-September during this online campaign, found that most respondents agreed that it was necessary to revise the KPK Law (44.9 per cent), while only 39.9 per cent disagreed. Moreover, a large majority (78.2 per cent) agreed with the statement that the KPK Law revision would strengthen this anti-corruption body. In previous years, the KPK consistently polled as one of the most trusted and popular institutions of the country, with around 80 per cent of respondents indicating they trusted the anti-corruption body. The Kompas survey thus indicates a considerable swing in public opinion, suggesting that the pro-revision campaign on social media had been very effective. Ironically, by reporting the results of the survey on 16 September (the day before parliament debated and ratified the KPK Law revision) Kompas also helped to further the cyber troops’ agenda. As one legislator and member of the commission debating the KPK bill, Nasir Djamil, commented, the Kompas survey confirmed that Indonesians approved of the government’s effort to revise the KPK law.
Cyber troops as a worrying precedent?
The online debate surrounding the KPK sets a worrying precedent. To our knowledge, the campaign was the first time that pro-government forces used cyber troops on a large scale to gain public support for government policies. Perhaps because of its effectiveness, this strategy was subsequently repeated to garner public support for the New Normal policy and the Omnibus Law on Job Creation. Because of the success of the campaign for the KPK Law revision, Indonesian ruling elites realised that the funding of cyber troops is an effective tool to sway public opinion in their favour. Their employment of cyber troops is undermining the quality of both public debate and democracy in Indonesia, because their online campaigns not only feed public opinion with disinformation but also prevent Indonesians from scrutinising and evaluating the behaviour of ruling politicians.
Wijayanto (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of the LP3ES Center for Media and Democracy and lecturer in Government Science, Diponegoro University. Albanik Maizar (email@example.com) is an associate researcher in LP3ES.