Indonesia: Scramble for online followers

For as low as 40,000 rupiah (S$4.40), you can add 1,000 followers to your Twitter account. For the same number of Facebook fans or "likes", 50,000 rupiah will do the trick.

"In the past two weeks, I have got four calls from people claiming to be political consultants," said student Suarni, 20, in Sumatra, who began selling social media services last November.

While paying people to take part in demonstrations is a common practice in Indonesia, a new trend among politicians is paying social media users to "like" or "follow" them, to give the impression of having a wide reach.

Indeed, some politicians and observers are billing the April polls as the social media elections, and political parties have set aside at least a third of their campaign budgets for social media teams.

There are more than 6,600 candidates vying for 560 seats in the national Parliament, and more than 200,000 candidates contesting over 19,000 seats in the provincial as well as regency and city assemblies.

Indonesia has 20 million Twitter users and 65 million Facebook users as of last November, according to the Ministry of Communication and Information.

Of the estimated 187 million voters, about 12 per cent will be first-time voters aged 17 to 20, according to Central Statistics Agency data. They swell the total youth vote, or those aged below 30, to about 54 million, or a third of the electorate. At least six out of 10 of these young voters are plugged into social media, according to a Jakarta Post report.

A social media services seller based in South Sulawesi, who refused to give his name, claims to be able to guarantee up to four million views on YouTube for 1 million rupiah."Sometimes, when we ask who these politicians are, the person doing the transaction would say he is a friend of the candidate and doing it as a surprise for them," he said.

Observers say the latest tactics such as buy-a-Twitter-follower or buy-a-Facebook-fan are not a guarantee of a win at the polls.

"Some candidates think that a huge following means they are popular, and they hope that the herd mentality will attract more to follow them," Mr Yose Rizal, director of social media monitoring outfit Politicawave, told The Straits Times. "Not many candidates get how social media works."

Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and presidential aspirant Prabowo Subianto are cited as those who have successfully exploited social media.

Political parties encourage their candidates to tap social media.

Golkar's chief of communications, Mr Erwin Aksa, said the party has set up a 30-man Social Media Brigade to net the youth vote, with 20 more joining the team for the presidential election in July.

"We are aware that having a large number of Facebook 'likes' or Twitter 'followers' is not a guarantee that we can net a large number of votes, because that only works at getting attention and interest.

"We encourage cadres to take the next step, which is to involve the grassroots in their activities," he said.

Mr Prabowo's Gerindra party has a team of 30 people aged from 21, operating on three shifts covering the 24-hour day, to ensure all tweets and Facebook comments are replied to within 10 minutes.

Mr Noudhy Valdryno, the team's digital media strategist, said their research shows at least six out of 10 followers can translate into votes at the ballot box. "Social media is too important a tool to ignore. If used well, it can really engage people and correct misperceptions. For us, it is about creating a bridge between the party and the people," he said.

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