Oct 16, 2021 Last Updated 1:13 AM, Oct 14, 2021

The threat of cyber troops

Published: Oct 13, 2021

Yatun Sastramidjaja, Ward Berenschot, Wijayanto & Ismail Fahmi

When Indonesian parliamentarians wanted to curtail the powers of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), social media was suddenly awash with messages suggesting that the KPK was full of extremists. When thousands of students took to the streets to protest against the controversial Omnibus Law for Job Creation, Twitter lit up with posts complaining about the ‘anarchic’ demonstrators. When the government of Joko Widodo, or ‘Jokowi’, faced criticism concerning his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, social media was flooded with memes and hashtags touting the economic benefits of Jokowi’s New Normal policy.

These sudden outbursts of political messages on social media are examples of strategic, orchestrated campaigns employed by political and economic elites with the purpose of swaying public opinion in their favour. As Indonesia’s leading figures from across the political spectrum are realising the potential of social media as a tool for propaganda, a new industry of ‘cyber troops’ has emerged. Cyber troops are networks of online mercenaries who derive a livelihood from engaging in ad-hoc online campaigns in support of political causes. They do so in a highly coordinated and strategic fashion, tactically posting selected posts and hashtags in a pre-planned and partly automated manner, in order to create ‘trending topics’ on social media and maximise public attention. Cyber troops consist not only of anonymous ‘buzzers’ – i.e., fake account operators – and their coordinators, but also of well-known influencers, all of whom get paid in exchange for promoting particular political views.

In this edition we discuss the organisation, functioning and impact of this kind of social media propaganda. This edition is the product of a research collaboration between LP3ES, Universitas Diponegoro, Universitas Islam Indonesia (Yogyakarta), data analytics company Drone Emprit, the University of Amsterdam and KITLV, Leiden. Our research team examined online debates around a series of contentious topics – including the 2019 elections, the KPK Law revision, the New Normal policy, the Omnibus Law, and a leadership struggle within the Democratic Party. We not only engaged in digital ethnography to analyse the characteristics and contents of social media propaganda, but also used Drone Emprit’s software to conduct social network analyses of the online conversations. We subsequently traced and interviewed 78 buzzers and influencers. These interviews provided unique insights into the nature and organisation of Indonesia’s cyber troops, and the networks of people actually executing the propaganda, enabling the authors of this edition to offer a rare and detailed glimpse into this emerging shadowy industry.

Shining light on a shadowy phenomenon

Because very little is known about Indonesia’s cyber troops, Wija Wijayanto and Ward Berenschot open this edition with a general overview – explaining the structure and organisation of cyber troops, their strategies and methods, the division of labour and the profile of people carrying out this work. In contrast to other countries, it turns out that social media propaganda in Indonesia does not rely on ‘click farms’ or large digital marketing companies, but is executed by remarkably informal and fluid networks populated by skilled and pragmatic online mercenaries. These cyber troops seem to have grown out of the similarly unorganised and versatile networks of ‘success teams’ organising election campaigns in Indonesia. The authors also discuss the sources of funding of cyber troop campaigns, concluding that they generally serve to cement the elite’s grip on power.

The next five articles focus on specific cases of social media propaganda. First, Ali Nur Alizen and Maarif Setiadi Fajar discuss the rise of cyber troops as the secretive frontline of ‘digital success teams’ in election campaigns. The authors show that, during the 2019 presidential election, both Jokowi’s camp and that of his rival Prabowo employed cyber troops to flood social media with messages aimed to influence voters’ perceptions of the two candidates, making cyber troops an intrinsic part of electoral politics in Indonesia.

After Jokowi won this election, and then co-opted Prabowo within his cabinet, cyber troop campaigns generally shifted towards defending government policies. Although opposition parties also employed cyber troops to criticise these policies, the success of pro-government social media propaganda indicates that this was an unequal battle: supporters of the government could mobilise larger amounts of resources to win over public opinion. This became apparent in September 2019, during the controversy around the proposed reform of the KPK. Despite fierce public criticism, as Wijayanto and Albanik Maizar discuss, the KPK’s reform passed without difficulty due to a concerted cyber troop campaign that led the public to believe the KPK needed to be controlled because it was a ‘hotbed of the Taliban’.

Six months later, as Indonesia was severely hit by the COVID-19 crisis, cyber troops again proved to be an effective instrument to rally the public behind government policy – in this case Jokowi’s New Normal policy that urged the public to continue business as normal in order to save the economy. Pradipa Rasidi and Wijayanto show how the New Normal campaign became a lucrative business especially for buzzers and influencers, whose services were solicited by a number of government agencies in a concerted push to downplay the public health risks and promote economic recovery. This case exposes the government’s new strategy of outsourcing government communications to cyber troops, indicating the slippery slope towards state propaganda by underhanded means.

This propaganda strategy was also manifested in the government’s push to win public support for the Omnibus Law for Job Creation, which the parliament passed in October 2020 amidst widespread online and street protests from students and civil society groups. In response to these protests, Lailuddin Mufti and Pradipa Rasidi describe how government agents launched the biggest cyber troop campaign to date, in order to ‘sell’ this pro-business legislation to the public as a blessing for the nation’s economic welfare. Part of the campaign was to delegitimise and thus silence critics of the Omnibus Law, using ‘negative campaign’ tactics such as slandering, ‘trolling’ (online harassment) and ‘doxing’ (exposing private information on social media) in order to dishonour the critics and discredit their claims.

As Wijayanto describes, negative campaign tactics were also used to influence the Democratic Party’s leadership election in March 2021. In this ‘digital coup’, an extensive online campaign was launched to tarnish the image of sitting chairperson Agus Yudhoyono and boost the popularity of his challenger, the presidential chief of staff Moeldoko. This case suggests that cyber troop campaigns have moved beyond mere state propaganda, and are being used to meddle in the internal affairs of the opposition.

Across the different cases that we studied, we discovered striking patterns in the style and language of social media propaganda. Pradipa Rasidi and Aulia Sukmani found that nationalism is a recurring theme in cyber troop expressions. They show that both pro-government and pro-opposition influencers and buzzers similarly framed their messages in terms of Indonesia’s national ideology Pancasila in order to attack one another on moral grounds. But in leveraging Pancasila as a weapon in their pseudo-moral bickering, they further degrade Pancasila as an empty public doctrine. Generally, cyber troops contribute to the resurgence of New Order-style discourse in public debates.

A threat to democracy

This edition shows that social media propaganda poses a considerable and growing threat for public debate and democracy in Indonesia. Indonesia’s cyber troops do not shy away from spreading misinformation and fake news. For example, informants told us how they spread false rumours about an illicit relationship in order to discredit Democratic Party chair Agus Yudhoyono. Buzzers spread grandiose but unsupported claims of the potential economic benefits of the Omnibus Law. Likewise, the online campaign about Muslim extremism inside the KPK lacked concrete evidence. By flooding social media with such disinformation, cyber troops are drowning out reasoned debate. They further do so by engaging in sustained attacks on critical voices, who can be subjected to harsh and relentless trolling. Such online attacks are discouraging people from voicing their opinion, thereby also undermining the diversity and quality of public debate.

It is notoriously difficult to assess the actual impact of such campaigns on public opinion, but we encountered indications that this impact was considerable. According to an opinion poll taken at the height of the online campaign, a majority of Indonesians agreed that the KPK needed to be reformed – while the KPK was previously considered one of Indonesia’s most valued institutions. Similarly, the public outcry and protests against the Omnibus Law died out soon after intense online campaigns.

Cyber troops constitute a threat for the quality of democracy because only the rich and the powerful can afford to employ them. Our interviews with coordinators of cyber troops yielded indications that their activities were funded by a range of senior politicians, (circles around) cabinet ministers as well as wealthy businessmen. Cyber troops are a tool for Indonesia’s rich and powerful to defend their interests. Economic elites are employing cyber troops to generate public support for policies that serve their interests – such as the Omnibus Law and the reform of the KPK – while ruling political elites are employing cyber troops to deflect criticism and boost public acceptance of government policies. As opposing voices cannot afford to engage in similar online campaigns, the problem of social media propaganda is that it tends to skew public opinion and policymaking in favour of those with economic and political power. Cyber troops undermine political equality.

We made this edition with the aim of raising public awareness and debate about such effects. To stem the declining quality of Indonesia’s democracy, it is vital to expose and curtail this ongoing public opinion manipulation. As Yatun Sastramidjaja highlights in the concluding article, awareness of the role and impact of buzzers is growing, spurring various efforts from netizens, civil society organisations as well as social media platforms to counter the disinformation spread by cyber troops and weed out the many fake, anonymous accounts that buzzers are using. But apart from such technical and likely inadequate fixes, the emergence of cyber troops requires public debate about the ethics of social media propaganda: where is the boundary between digital advertisement and public opinion manipulation? Should online influencers not always disclose the fact that they are paid to support a political opinion? And should Indonesia’s government and its elected representatives not refrain from secretively hiring anonymous online mercenaries to sell its policies? We hope that this edition will foster debate about such issues.

Yatun Sastramidjaja (y.sastramidjaja@uva.nl) is Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and an Associate Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. Ward Berenschot (berenschot@kiltv.nl) 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. Wijayanto (wijayanto@live.undip.ac.id) is director of the LP3ES Center for Media and Democracy and lecturer in Government Science, Diponegoro University. Ismail Fahmi (ismail.fahmi@gmail.com) is an information scientist and lecturer at Universitas Islam Indonesia, Yogyakarta, as well as the founder of Drone Emprit.

Inside Indonesia 146: Oct-Dec 2021

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