Social media teams paid to drive up buzz on Indonesian presidential rivals

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (L) shakes hands with Prabowo Subianto on February 17, 2019 after the second debate between presidential candidates ahead of the next general election in Jakarta, Indonesia.
PHOTO: Reuters

Almost every day, "Janda", a self-described Indonesian housewife with 2,000 Twitter followers, dispenses lifestyle tips, complains about city life, and praises how the government of President Joko Widodo has improved her life as a young mother.

But "Janda the housewife" does not exist. The account's real owner is an unmarried middle-aged man who offers political social media services backing Widodo's re-election campaign.

He is a leader of one of the many so called "buzzer" teams, named for the social media buzz they aim to create. Such groups have sprang up in Indonesia ahead of the presidential election next month.

"Our battleground is social media," said the owner of the Janda account, declining to be named because his work was in a legally grey area. "The content we are making for the election is reaching at least a million people per week."

Under Indonesia's broad internet defamation law, creating and spreading fake news is illegal, but holding social media accounts in false names is not, unless a real person is being impersonated.

In interviews, more than a dozen buzzer team members, social media consultants and cyber experts described an array of social media operations that they said were spreading propaganda on behalf of both Widodo and his challenger, retired general Prabowo Subianto.

According to the buzzers interviewed, a junior "cyber soldier" could be paid between 1 million to 50 million rupiah (US$70 to US$3,500) per project depending on the reach of the social media account.

"For a lot of us, the work is fun ... and the salaries are decent," said a buzzer who worked as a contractor for a social media agency used by both the Widodo and Prabowo campaigns.

He said his role was to create trending topics during key election moments, using hashtags and content provided by his agency in combination with his personal fake accounts.

"For me, there's no hoax or so-called negative content. The material just comes from the client," he said.

Pradipa Rasidi, a researcher at the University of Indonesia, said most buzzers were young graduates "because it's hard to find a job after university and the pay is higher".

But the legal risks are real - buzzer activities are punishable by jail time if they are judged to breach Indonesia's internet defamation law.

Ace Hasan Syadzily, a spokesman for Widodo's campaign team, denied knowledge of such groups, but said "the campaign had an obligation to counter false or negative narratives" against Widodo.

Anthony Leong, the Prabowo digital team's coordinator, denied they use buzzer teams, noting that the campaign required its "10,000 digital volunteers" to use real names and only allowed them to post "positive content".

Widodo enjoys a comfortable lead in most opinion polls over Prabowo. The two contested the previous election in 2014 as well, and Widodo won narrowly.

Fake news was spread in that election, although social media was less far-reaching than it is now.

Ross Tapsell, an expert on politics and media at Australia National University, said it has become normal for candidates in Southeast Asia to hire online campaign strategists, who in turn tap an army of people to spread content on social media.

The buzzer campaigns have far outstripped the efforts of Facebook and other social media companies to curtail creation of fake accounts and spread fake news, cyber experts said.

Misinformation spread by real accounts - which are often co-opted by buzzer teams - is rampant on Twitter and Facebook, as well as on its Instagram and WhatsApp affiliates. The companies have said they are working with the government and fighting back against fake content.

Representatives for Facebook and WhatsApp said fake accounts in Indonesia were regularly deleted, but they declined to share removal numbers. A Twitter spokesperson said it was working to remove networks of accounts engaged in misinformation and disinformation.

Facebook, which counts Indonesia as its third-largest market globally with an estimated 130 million accounts, said it trains election management bodies on how to flag fake news to the company, which is then evaluated by moderators and deleted if it breaks its community standards.ult