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Jokowi: a social media influencer

Abby Wellington


Source: Reuters

In its advent, social media was celebrated as a tool that could empower democracy, encouraging participation in – and education of – current affairs and political processes. As we know today, however, misinformation permeates the platforms we once thought would assist the spread of critical information. Dubbed the ‘social media capital of the world’, concerns are mounting over the increased prevalence of social media misinformation schemes in Indonesia. Here, ‘buzzers’ and ‘bots’ have come to characterise the nation’s social media landscape. These anonymous accounts are paid for by those who want to push specific political narratives while also undermining their opponent’s. Essentially, they employ misinformation tactics to mislead voters.


Concerns over such activity rose to a peak during the nation’s 2019 presidential election, when armies of ‘buzzers’ were found to be behind misinformation schemes, supporting various candidates. As such, many have called for heavier regulation of the industry. The problem, however, is that one of the most frequent social media manipulators is the man who has the power to regulate the industry itself, Jokowi. While there are hopes that change may be on the horizon as his presidential term nears conclusion, significant damage to Indonesia’s democracy has already been inflicted.

A timeline of social media manipulation in Indonesia

A heavy focus on social media’s role in political campaigning in Indonesia emerged as early as the 2014 presidential election. Both candidates, Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, utilised sophisticated social media strategies to support their own campaign while simultaneously hurting their opponent’s. Early on volunteer groups such as the Jokowi-Ahok Social Media Volunteers and Jokowi Advanced Social Media Volunteers emerged. When the potential of what these groups could achieve was identified, these groups quickly developed into paid social media teams. Individuals in these teams became what’s known as ‘buzzers’.

The danger of ‘buzzers’ is that they appear as regular everyday social media users. Accordingly, truly regular social media users interpret these posts as such. They have no awareness that what they are reading is actually a paid advertisement. ‘Buzzers’ post anything from images to negative comments on the opposition candidates’ comments. In many cases pro-Jokowi ‘buzzers’ were found to have commented ‘hoax’ and ‘fake news’ on posts supporting Prabowo.

Major concerns, however, only arose after the 2019 Indonesian presidential election, when these strategies were utilised on a far larger scale. Following his election as President in 2014, Jokowi engaged even more ‘buzzers’ to fabricate popularity and ensure his re-election. In many cases he was reported to offer various coveted positions in state-owned companies, in return for support on social media. Accordingly, his opponents responded in an identical manner, acquiring their own buzzers to do the same. By 2019, ‘buzzing’ had become a commercialised industry with professionals such as journalists and copywriters seeking employment in the space. Influencers even engaged in paid work to promote politicians and their policies. After a second successful campaign for the President, Jokowi continued to take advantage of this industry. More specifically, Jokowi used ‘buzzers’ to push positive narratives about Indonesia’s continued rule of West Papua, as well as the development of the new capital Nusantara.

Compounding Jokowi’s unbridled information manipulation is the fact that he has virtually monopolistic power over the regulation of media in the nation. According to Law 1 of the 1946 Criminal Code, it is a criminal offence to spread ‘false’ information. Additionally, under the Election and Information Transaction Law, the government has the power to request the removal of ‘false’ information. What is deemed ‘false’ however is determined by the government themselves. In Jokowi’s case, he and his government are mostly removing information that opposes their policies, and at a rapid pace. Indonesia is currently one of the top 10 nations that has requested the removal of information on Google. What’s worse, they are arresting those who speak out against them.

Indonesian filmmaker Dandhy Dwi Laksono is one of many individuals who have been arrested under the 1946 Law 1 of the Criminal code. Laksono was arrested in 2019 for disseminating information about the violent nature of Indonesia’s occupation in West Papua. Jokowi’s government labelled the information as ‘false’ and pressed the narrative that their presence in Papua is very much welcome and necessary. Veronica Koman, an Indonesian Humans rights activist was arrested the same year for spreading ‘fake news’ after she reported Indonesian police violence towards anti-racism protesters in West Papua.

Although Jokowi will vacate his position as President in less than a year, the norm of information manipulation will likely remain. In fact it will worsen. In 2024, the Omnibus Laws will come into effect which criminalises ‘anyone who attacks the honour of the President or Vice President’. Furthermore, the laws also threaten up to six years in prison for anyone who disseminates information that is ‘uncertain’, ‘exaggerated’, or ‘incomplete’ – the judgement of which, again, is at the discretion of the government. Nonetheless, the new laws have led to condemnation from a variety of groups, including the US and other key trading partners. Accordingly, it is possible that with enough pressure, the next President will move to revoke the amendments.


The invisible consequences

It is not a given that the next President will seek to manipulate information in the way Jokowi has. However, damage has already been done in ways that cannot be fully seen or measured.


Firstly, it cannot be deduced how many individuals who seek to protest or oppose the government’s policies are currently remaining passive because of these laws, and will continue to do so. With potentially severe ramifications for speaking out against the President and the government, it is perhaps fair to assume that many are staying quiet out of fear. That said, this remains speculative as it is not something that can be measured.

Secondly, the increasing permeation of Indonesian social media communities by ‘buzzers’ and bots is blurring the accuracy of what is actually in public interest. As mentioned, Indonesia is one of the most digitally engaged nations, with much of the population participating in politics via digital platforms. If many of these users are bots and ‘buzzers’, it becomes difficult for politicians to accurately decipher what it is that the public wants. Just as concerning, it also becomes difficult for the public to make informed decisions about what they themselves want, when seemingly ‘regular’ participation online is motivated by more than just the desire to express personal opinions.


As the 2024 election nears, it is imperative that civil society groups and social media platforms themselves intervene and ensure that media is being regulated in a democratic way. Otherwise, the Indonesian democratic political process will continue to fall prey to those who wish to disrupt it.


 

Abby Wellington is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts and Journalism (International Relations and Economics) at The University of Queensland. An aspiring foreign affairs reporter, Abby is interested in the changing nature of international security in a globalised society.


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