This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
Amid the series of protests across Indonesia, social media platforms were filled with users who accused demonstrators of triggering riots. However, it did not take long for Twitter users to discover the people allegedly behind the accounts sharing these posts. According to them, it’s actually the Indonesian police and a group of paid pro-government social media users known as “buzzers” spreading the anti-demonstrator content.
The tweets blaming protesters for riots started appearing last week. The first one was about an ambulance loaded with rocks and gasoline that were said to be used by protesters during a demonstration. Another Twitter user posted screenshots of a students’ WhatsApp group that talked about their plans to join the protests for money. Both tweets were later proven to be hoaxes.
Indonesian social media users and journalists later alleged that the numbers on those WhatsApp groups all belonged to police personnel. The tweets blaming protesters quickly disappeared after people found out who could be behind them.
The Indonesian government has denied involvement in this. On Oct. 3, Indonesian presidential staff chief Moeldoko said it’s time to crack down on this hoax industry, perpetuated by “buzzers.”
Buzzers are pro-government social media users that exist to discredit the opposition by spreading propaganda. Moeldoko has acknowledged their existence, but refused the claim that they were organised by the presidential staff. He said all of the buzzers’ activities, during and after the 2019 presidential election, were done independently.
“These buzzers need to be stopped,” Moeldoko told CNN Indonesia. “They are President Joko Widodo’s fanatics who act independently, and will react [when their idol is attacked].”
He also denied being “kakak pembina” or the coordinator of social media buzzers, according to Vivanews. “What even is that? I’ve never heard of that term,” Moeldoko said.
The term “kakak pembina” and “government’s buzzer” first appeared on social media in 2014, after a pro-government media outlet confirmed the existence of groups that supported Widodo’s presidential campaign. The buzzers have a coordinator whom they call “Nick Fury,” and it is alleged that only Widodo and the coordinator know the rest of the team members.
Government critics believe that Widodo’s staff instruct social media influencers to say good things about the government.
The Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance (CIPG) has published a study exploring the history of buzzer in Indonesia. As reported by CNN Indonesia, the CIPG found that buzzers date back to 2009, when Twitter became popular. At the time, the platform was mainly used for promotional purposes. The buzzer industry entered Indonesian politics in 2012, when Widodo and his running mate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama used “cyber armies” to push their program during the Jakarta gubernatorial election.
“Buzzers can sometimes be positive. As we become more connected with each other, the need for buzzers will be higher. They’re not only beneficial to political parties, but also to the business sector,” said social media expert Pratama Persada, according to CNN Indonesia.
Persada believes buzzers play a big role in shaping public opinion because they make it easier for certain people to push their agenda. Misusing them could lead to more hoaxes.
Ismail Fahmi, founder of Media Kernel Indonesia, explained to Tirto.id that Twitter has become a “battleground” for buzzers in pushing major national issues.
A study by Oxford University found that the 70 countries they investigated had at least one political party or government agency that used social media to manipulate information from 2017-2018, shaping public opinion that year.
According to the study, the Indonesian government, political parties, and private companies all hire buzzers. Most buzzers are on temporary contracts and can be paid as much as Rp50 million (US$3,542) for each project.
Besides Twitter, Indonesian cyber armies also use Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Some also use bots to spread their message further.