Wijayanto & Ward Berenschot
When in 2019 the Indonesian government wanted to curtail the powers of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), students took to the streets. Many Indonesians were angry about this seemingly blatant attempt to undermine the policing of corrupt politicians. Within a few days, however, debate on social media revolved around a surprising topic: ‘KPK and Taliban’. The many posts around this theme suggested that the KPK needed to be brought under control because it was infested with radical Muslims. As improbable as this claim may sound, the hashtag became a trending topic on Twitter and newspapers felt compelled to write about it. The online campaign to frame the KPK as ‘Taliban’ helped to turn public opinion in the government’s favour.
This kind of strategic, orchestrated social media campaign has become increasingly common. Social media (Facebook, Instagram and particularly Twitter) are used to influence public opinion on a range of issues – from the government’s policies around the COVID-19 pandemic, to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, the organisation of regional elections and the take-over of the Democratic Party. In this article we draw on our research experience documenting these social media campaigns as well as 78 interviews with ‘buzzers’ to discuss how such campaigns are organised and how they are funded. The campaigns are executed by flexible, ad-hoc networks of various kinds of online mercenaries set up and funded by political and economic elites.
As political forces inside Indonesia have come to recognise the power of social media, a new industry of online influencing has come into being, providing a livelihood for many people. This online public opinion manipulation is conducted by teams of collaborating individuals, which we call ‘cyber troops’: networks of buzzers, influencers, coordinators and content creators who work together to influence public opinion on social media. They do so by disseminating and boosting particular narratives and interpretations of political issues via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. In contrast to reports about ‘click farms’ and ‘digital marketing companies’ elsewhere, in Indonesia these cyber troops are relatively unorganised, flexible collaborations. Generally they are brought together only temporarily for the purpose of specific campaigns. The fluid, ad-hoc nature of this collaboration resembles the character of election campaign organisations (called “success teams”) in Indonesia. It is likely that these cyber troops first came into being as appendices to election campaigns and then gradually evolved to take up a wider range of issues beyond the campaign period.
The people involved in this kind of public opinion manipulation are mostly young, well-educated men. Of the 78 ‘cyber troopers’ who we managed to interview, only eight were women (nine per cent). Almost all of them were below 45 years old, and of those, 39 per cent were between 26 and 35 years old. Many of them are well educated (65 per cent have at least a Bachelor’s degree), which perhaps reflects the considerable computer-savviness and creativity that this work requires.
On the lowest rung of cyber troopers are 'buzzers', the Indonesian term for the relatively anonymous foot soldiers of online campaigns. Their job is to disseminate the content that is given to them, as widely as possible. Sometimes they post such content themselves, but they also retweet (or comment on) posts of influencers. Buzzers are also involved in the attacking or ‘trolling’ of people, to discourage them from voicing opinions that are opposed to the aim of their client. For these purposes one buzzer generally manages between ten and three hundred Twitter accounts, all of which are anonymous ‘fake’ accounts. To obtain such ‘breeding accounts’ buzzers need multiple phones as well as different phone numbers. During some of our interviews we could see piles of phone cards lying around. The more accounts they have, the more money they can make: once buzzers have ‘bred’ a large number of accounts with a sizable number of followers, they can more easily sell their services to prospective clients.
Buzzers use these accounts in a coordinated manner. Generally they have one leading account, called the ‘general’s account’, to post content on Twitter or Instagram, after which they use their many troop or ‘soldier accounts’ to retweet these posts, sometimes in a semi-automatic manner using programs like TweetDeck. This kind of automated dissemination of posts through interlinked social media bots (fake ‘robot’ accounts) facilitates a very fast diffusion of posts and hashtags that helps to create trending topics on Twitter.
The second group are the content creators. They prepare the materials, memes and hashtags that the buzzers will disseminate. Using their knowledge of politics and feeling for public opinion to assess which kinds of posts would ‘do well’, content creators aim to influence public debates by proposing an interpretation of events that is not only attractive but also in line with the political interests of their clients. This usually involves a narrative that is catchy, funny and easy to follow. For example, the hashtag #KPKTaliban neatly tied into an ongoing discourse and fear about religious terrorism. More recently, memes about the ‘karma’ of ex-president and Democratic Party founder Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was a funny way of legitimating the meddling of Joko Widodo’s (or Jokowi) government in this opposition party’s chair election. These interpretations often involve deliberate misinterpretations or falsehoods. For example, there is no indication whatsoever that KPK members had embraced extremist versions of Islam.
Our informants openly acknowledged that they sometimes disseminated falsehoods. One content creator, working on a campaign to discredit the sitting chair of the Democratic Party, Agus Yudhoyono (AHY), said, ‘We play.’ Before the party congress [where the fate of AHY was to be decided] we heat up the atmosphere.’ He shared that they also used doxing, spreading stories ‘about a forbidden love of AHY’, which they launched together with the news that the artist Nisa Sabyan was having an affair. Another informant summed up his pragmatic attitude towards spreading such misleading information: ‘I do not really follow my heart. The important thing is that you pay me, I work, that’s it. Because our goal is money.’
The third layer of cyber troops is made up of coordinators. These are individuals who recruit buzzers and coordinate their activities. They send around the content prepared by the content creators, and tell the buzzers when to post this content and how often. The timing of posting is important: the orchestrated activity of a group of buzzers using the same hashtag can succeed in generating a trending topic on Twitter – which further facilitates the dissemination. Coordinators also maintain the contacts with the ‘client’ paying for the cyber troop activity, and they are responsible for the overall strategy as they discuss possible narratives and memes with the content creators.
A fourth group consists of influencers. These are individuals with some fame and a high number of followers, such as artists; society figures or political figures, who actively use their personal social media account to share their political opinions. Through a combination of name recognition and an active online presence, well-known influencers like Denny Siregar (1.1 million followers), Eko Kuntadhi (149,000), or Rudi Valinka (353,000) have built up a large number of followers and, consequently, considerable influence. We consider high-profile social media influencers as part of the cyber troops networks because we came across indications (not involving above-mentioned examples) that some influencers are in touch with cyber troop coordinators and also receive payments in exchange for posting particular content or supporting certain opinions. One influencer that we interviewed openly admitted to receiving payments in exchange for particular posts. Several coordinators also shared with us that paying influencers is a strategic part of their online campaigns.
Some of these buzzers and influencers do have mainly idealistic considerations and work on a strictly voluntary basis. At the same time, we found that this emerging industry of online public opinion manipulation generates considerable income. Buzzers generally get paid per social media account. For example, we interviewed a buzzer who was paid between Rp.50,000 and Rp.100,000 per account. As he had 35 accounts, he made between two to three million rupiah per month (between A$190 and A$280). Sometimes buzzers and particularly content creators get paid per project, which seems to average at about Rp.4 million per project per month. Coordinators make much more. One coordinator explained he was paid on the basis of the number of accounts he managed (including those of the buzzers under him). He was paid Rp.200,000 per account. He had 65 accounts under him, which meant that he earned Rp.13 million per month.
The social media activity of influencers is particularly lucrative. For example, we interviewed an influencer who received Rp.20 million to support a presidential candidate during the elections. By taking on a range of causes, influencers can make a considerable amount of money. Remarkably, we even came across two influencers who were rewarded with well-paying commissioner positions at a state enterprise in return for their active support of a gubernatorial election campaign.
The funding of cyber troops
Where does this money come from? Who funds these cyber troops and for what reason? This funding is a shady, secretive affair that generally remains in the realm of gossip. Yet our interviews with particularly the coordinators – many of whom interact with funders – indicate that a remarkably diverse group of political and economic elites is funding cyber troops. A first important source of funding is Indonesia’s government. During the controversy on the New Normal policy – Jokowi’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic – some government officials used ‘socialisation funds’ to finance considerable buzzer activity to promote and defend the central government’s policy. One buzzer said that he was paid by people close to Erick Thohir, the Minister of state-owned enterprises and the person in charge of coordinating the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Another buzzer mentioned that, for his work in promoting the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, he was paid by people close to Airlangga Hartanto, the coordinating minister of economic affairs in Jokowi’s cabinet.
A second group of funders are individual politicians. Political actors often use buzzers during (and after) an election campaign – whether at the national or regional level – to boost their popularity and online presence. One buzzer confided that he was paid by a politician to raise his profile. This politician was considered for a cabinet position, and felt that having an active Twitter account with many followers and frequent engagements on his posts would help to make him look popular. The buzzer received three million a month to comment on, and retweet, posts from this politician’s Twitter account. Occasionally, it seems that groups of politicians (often from the same party) also collaborate to initiate a particular online campaign. For example, an experienced buzzer mentioned that PDIP politicians had commissioned him (via a broker) to coordinate the above-mentioned campaign to help Moeldoko get elected as chair of the Democratic Party.
Third, economic elites also spend money on social media propaganda. This seems to mainly take the form of funding the online initiatives of politicians. For example, a coordinator of a digital campaign team for the 2019 presidential election, stated that he was regularly offered financial assistance by entrepreneurs. It seems that such contributions serve entrepreneurs to curry favour with Indonesia’s ruling elite, thereby smoothening their access to business licences or government contracts.
Cyber troops and political equality
While the sources of funding remain somewhat opaque, one thing is clear: commissioning the campaigns of cyber troops is only affordable for an already privileged and powerful section of Indonesia’s society. That makes this phenomenon particularly worrying. This kind of public opinion manipulation is not only unethical – as it hampers public debate by spreading misinterpretations and even falsehoods – but also undemocratic. These large teams of online mercenaries are a powerful tool for Indonesia’s economic and political elites to defend their interests. Their manipulation of public opinion enables these elites to push through laws and policies that do not necessarily serve the interests of ordinary Indonesians. Thereby, cyber troops deepen the already considerable political inequality characterising Indonesia’s democracy. Their strategic, orchestrated use of social media is helping Indonesia’s economic and political elites to further cement their dominance.
Wijayanto (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of the LP3ES Center for Media and Democracy and lecturer in Government Science, Diponegoro University. Ward Berenschot (email@example.com) is Professor in Comparative Political Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and senior researcher at KITLV, Leiden. He is co-author (together with Edward Aspinall) of Democracy for Sale: Clientelism, Elections and the State in Indonesia.