Dec 05, 2021 Last Updated 12:15 AM, Dec 1, 2021

Languages of propaganda

Published: Oct 13, 2021

Pradipa P Rasidi & Khoirun Nisa Aulia Sukmani

Language in Indonesia’s political Twittersphere, like anywhere, ranges from civil to profane, and slang varies region to region. Cyber troops – including influencers, buzzers (fake account operators) and others – must be able to adapt to this diversity of languages. Buzzers are sometimes recruited from a targeted community specifically for speaking its slang. Notwithstanding this variety, cyber troops across the country and across the political spectrum use similar discursive tactics: they usually frame an issue in moral terms, as a matter of good and right versus evil and wrong.

In debates on Twitter, they not only frame their opponents’ claims as wrong, but also portray the opponents as bad or evil people. ‘Bad people’ are those with questionable motives; those who sell out the public for personal gain. ‘Evil people’, moreover, are framed in terms of disloyalty to Indonesia’s national ideology, Pancasila. This moralist discourse of right and wrong in the name of Pancasila has become especially prevalent since 2018, in the wake of the Jokowi government’s crackdown on Islamist organisations; Islamism was pitched against the Pancasila slogan ‘Unity in Diversity’. The discourse accelerated during the 2019 elections, and to this day, both pro-government and pro-opposition cyber troops commonly use the language of Pancasila to attack opponents on moral grounds. Occasionally they do so politely; more often they don’t.

Different styles, recurring theme

It is sometimes argued that the ruder a tweet is the more likely that it is from a ‘buzzer’ rather than a real influencer. For example, there were many offensive tweets from buzzers during the protests against the Omnibus Law for Job Creation in October 2020, when news and images of violent clashes between demonstrators and the police were widely shared on Twitter. One pro-opposition buzzer tweeted aggressively: ‘When police officers, whose salaries, uniforms and even weapons of war are financed from taxes, are beating up the owners and taxpayers of this country, they are nothing more than power lapdog scumbags.’

However, many influencers, too, use rude language. For example, while quote-tweeting a pro-Papua activist, one pro-government influencer tweeted: ‘Your price is that much, defending foreign donors while attacking your own nation on the pretext of defending humanity but in fact selling suffering by becoming a defender of separatists. These are the true BANGSAT BANGSA’. ‘Bangsat bangsa’ translates as ‘bastards of the nation’ but also connotes ‘bedbugs’ (bangsat) that constantly bug and cause itching.

The exception is influencers who work in commercial or public positions, including musicians, clerics and party officials. This group is rarely impolite. Rather, they often call for national unity. As pro-Jokowi musician and influencer Addie MS tweeted ahead of the 2019 elections: ‘Let us all be brothers and sisters’. The opposition politician Mardani Ali Sera similarly tweeted that, regardless of political differences, ‘we are brothers and sisters in the Republic of Indonesia’.

Despite the different styles, a recurring theme is the importance of nationalism under the ‘NKRI’, or the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (Negara Kesatuan Republic Indonesia). Even the tweet condemning the police violence suggested that the police had betrayed their national duty by assaulting fellow citizens. References to nationalism, including Pancasila, are thus mobilised with equal vehemence by both sides.

Pro-government defenders of Pancasila

From August to December 2020, pro-government cyber troops worked hard to undermine the Omnibus Law protests. Besides portraying the protesters in October as anarchists, they linked the ongoing resistance to the subversive schemes of the opposition, the rise of radical Islamist movements and the separatist movement in West Papua. Altogether, they pushed the narrative that protestors wanted to destroy Pancasila and the integrity of NKRI, be they opposition supporters, radicals, separatists or activists. Their style of promoting this narrative differed, but the message was essentially the same: Pancasila is in danger.

According to pro-government cyber troops, activists are ‘bad people’ for ‘selling out the people’s suffering’ to foreign donors for their own benefit. They adopted the term SJW (social justice warrior) from netizens, labelling activists self-righteous hypocrites and depicting them as no less harmful for the integrity of the nation than radicals and separatists. Pro-government influencer Denny Siregar, for example, tweeted: ‘No need to check my opinion on Benny Wenda [a Papuan activist] and people who support an independent Papua like those SJWs… The Free Papua Organisation and worshipers of the caliphate are just one creature with different clothes. They are both traitors that the state must exterminate’. Another influencer responded, ‘Moronic SJW seller of the suffering & blood of the Papuan people’.

As Denny Siregar’s tweet indicates, ‘radical’ Islamist ideology was also pinned as anti-Pancasila and framed as foreign to Indonesia. Pro-government buzzers frequently spoke of the ‘virus of radicalism’. To illustrate this danger, one pro-government buzzer posted a photo of Islamic demonstrators carrying a banner with the text, ‘NATIONALISM Cracks the Unity of the Ummah’, while waving a black-and-white flag with the Islamic declaration of faith written in Arabic, typically identified as the flag of HTI (Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia). The buzzer added, ‘Idiotic yet proud’.

The opposition reclaims Pancasila

September 2020 marked the start of a no-less-busy period for pro-opposition cyber troops. The Omnibus Law controversy was reaching a climax; the regional elections in December were nearing. September also marks the annual season for conversations about ‘defending Pancasila’, triggered by the 30 September commemoration of the 1965 coup attempt, also known as the ‘treason of the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party)’ towards the ‘sacred Pancasila’. Thus, it was a good month for the opposition to reclaim the language of Pancasila and use it against the government. Since pro-opposition cyber troops are far more diverse than the pro-government side, they had different ways of talking about Pancasila.

Some influencers simply refute claims that Islamic opposition groups are anti-Pancasila. Islamic influencer Hilmi Firdausi, for example, countered the claim that West Sumatra was a hotbed of radicals opposed to Pancasila – ‘So where did Hatta & Sjahrir come from?’, he tweeted, recalling the birthplace of two of Indonesia’s founding fathers to prove the opposition’s affiliation with the unitary nation-state.

Pancasila is also invoked to delegitimise government policy. This happened during the Omnibus Law controversy, which coincided with the spread of Covid-19. Activists criticised the government for prioritising foreign investment over public health. As one activist tweeted, the government’s ‘NKRI’ slogan is only valid for rallying the nation behind pro-investor policy, not when it comes to tackling the pandemic. This tweet was quoted by economist Rizal Ramli (a minister during Jokowi’s first term, until he was sidelined for his criticism), who commented: ‘Spot on! The motto: Investors are King, the people just make things complicated – Then they claim Pancasila for themselves – Surely that’s not Pancasila!’ The government’s slogan ‘I am Pancasila’ is thus ridiculed as an empty oxymoron. Pro-opposition cyber troops promptly adopted this argument, highlighting the Omnibus Law as a neoliberal policy that contravenes one of Pancasila’s main pillars: the people’s welfare. ‘Pancasila is socialist’, wrote one pro-opposition influencer, ‘Eh, then why does it become neoliberalist?’

In addition, the opposition argues that the Jokowi government and its affiliates are anti-Pancasila because they do not respect Islamic practices that differ from the government’s version. The disbandment of HTI in 2017, and generally the government’s harsh stance towards Islamic organisations branded as ‘radical’, was framed as contravening another main pillar of Pancasila: religious tolerance. One influencer tweeted: ‘There are those who lose the competition for dakwah [Islamic proselytising] and then use “the power of Pancasila” to disrupt their competitors’ recitations’. This was in reference to an incident in which Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation – here painted as pro-government – disrupted a HTI recitation. In another tweet, this influencer mocked pro-government supporters, including NU, as ‘Ahlul Pancasila’, using a Qur’anic Arabic term for ‘people of a house’ or followers of certain teachings. Here it denoted people who pretend to follow Pancasila’s teachings for their own benefit. Promptly, other cyber troops also used and amplified this label. One of them tweeted, ‘Ahlul Pancasila plus Jokowi Ahok fans make up bad narratives about Islam from fake links’, in reference to a fake news story about unknown Muslim groups allegedly forbidding the consumption of sweet rice cake balls (klepon), citing syariah law.

Building on this narrative that the Jokowi government is anti-Pancasila, some buzzers even claimed that the government was seeking to fundamentally alter Pancasila’s. In the run-up to the regional elections in December 2020, one buzzer tweeted: ‘Refuse to be led by people like those candidates from PDIP [Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, the ruling party] that want to remedy Pancasila’. He shared a video posted by another influencer showing a regent candidate’s speech that argued for the need to squeeze Pancasila (which literally means ‘Five Pillars’) into a concept of Trisila (‘Three Pillars’). In the concept, the first principle of ‘Belief in the One Supreme God’ is changed to ‘belief in cultural gods’ to accommodate Indonesian diversity. This invoked a debate that has been running since the 1945 Jakarta Charter on the inclusion of the unitary conception of God in Pancasila. The influencer introduced the video with the text, ‘Want to change Pancasila?’

Finally, the ‘evil’ of the government and its affiliates is suggested in a hashtag accompanying the abovementioned tweet condemning NU’s attack on HTI: #PKIMembantaiUlama, or ‘PKI slaughters clerics’. Although the PKI was eradicated after being accused of masterminding the 1965 coup attempt, it has since been repeatedly invoked as an eternal threat to the unitary nation-state – and to the Islamic community. Thus, while this particular tweet also questioned the NU’s Islamic credentials, cyber troops frequently play on historic Islamic sensibilities to amplify the notion that Islam is being marginalised and even threatened under Jokowi. The classic mantra ‘PKI is anti-Pancasila’ was thus reframed into ‘Jokowi = PKI’, insinuating that Jokowi’s rule heralds the PKI’s revival. Indeed, ever since the 2014 election and more pungently during the 2019 election, cyber troops have amplified the idea that the PKI could multiply under Jokowi – and could, at any time, actually be in power in the government. The government’s response, of course, was to brush it off. But any government denial was countered with a conspiracy theory. As one pro-opposition buzzer stated: ‘Those who use Pancasila as a shield and mask are usually PKI.’

An empty state dogma

Despite the prominence of Pancasila in cyber troop propaganda, there is rarely a debate about what is meant by Pancasila. Pancasila is simply presented as a truth claim. For pro-government cyber troops, Pancasila defines those considered a loyal member of the unitary nation-state of Indonesia. ‘Radicals’, ‘separatists’ and ‘SJWs’ are equally framed as destroyers of the nation and disqualified as anti-Pancasila. Among pro-opposition cyber troops, the Pancasila claims are more varied. Some simply reaffirm the opposition’s loyalty to the national ideology. Others reverse the accusation and frame the Jokowi government as betraying Pancasila’s principles. The uses of Pancasila by both camps are two sides of the same coin. A moral judgment in which one’s commitment to Pancasila equals dedication to the nation, it serves to ‘other’ the ‘anti-Pancasila’ opponent as ‘bad’ and ‘evil’,

The various uses of Pancasila by cyber troops indicate that, in its discursive practice, it is an empty state dogma. It is a ‘floating signifier’: anyone can try to fill it with truth claims and use it to attack opponents. While the language of Pancasila is capable of conjuring strong feelings about the nation, it has become a public doctrine that remains unquestioned. Furthermore, the mutual attacks in the name of Pancasila revive a New Order-style image of a nation perpetually threatened by a formless intruder, gnawing at the nation from within. The cyber troops’ languages of propaganda thus represent the exploitation of New Order discourse in its wild form. Rather than creating a common ground for healthy debate, the exploitation of Pancasila causes chaos in the Twittersphere, reducing conversation about policies and other important issues to pseudo-moral bickering.

At the heart of this chaos is an Indonesian political culture that glorifies with unquestioning vehemence the concept of a nation-state and its apparatuses. If we want to address the problem of cyber troops, then, we need to also address the political culture upon which it is built. We need to strip away this loyalty to the nation-state to be able to see the work in progress underneath.

Pradipa P Rasidi (pp.rasidi@gmail.com) is an aspiring digital anthropologist and occasional web developer, studying cyborg politics and rumour/conspiracy theories. He has an MA in Anthropology from Universitas Indonesia and currently works as a research assistant. Khoirun Nisa Aulia Sukmani (auliasukmani@gmail.com) is a geography teacher at APM Equestrian School, Tangerang, and also works as a research assistant. Her research focuses on social media, community culture and agroforestry.

Inside Indonesia 146: Oct-Dec 2021

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