This is the second in a three part series investigating the rise of fake news and hoaxes in the run-up to Indonesia's 2019 presidential election. This story has been published and produced within the context of a grant received for the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (seapa.org) Fellowship program for 2018-2019 from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of OHCHR.
Ibang Tokek wants me to know that there's a line he won't cross. This freelance cyber team coordinator, who asked us to use a pseudonym here, is fine with some of the darker sides of working on political campaigns in Indonesia. He's overseen a small army of paid internet trolls, buzzers, and commenters to try to control opinion online. He's worked on so-called "black campaigns" as well, using a popular Indonesian term for a smear campaign.
But outright lies? That's where Ibang draws a line.
“I’ve never spread a hoax.” he tells me. “But if a client asks us to do a black campaign, we could do it.”
Ibang is a vital part of Indonesia's new campaign infrastructure. He works as a go-between for political campaign coordinators and teams of otherwise disconnected "cyber armies" that offer their services to anyone who can afford to pay the price.
Indonesia is, in many ways, a perfect petri dish for this kind of murky campaigning. The country is one of the biggest, and youngest, democracies on Earth. It has the fourth-largest population on Facebook and more than 100 million users on WhatsApp—Indonesia's most-popular chat app.
And in a time when polarizing identity politics and fake news disinformation campaigns are testing democracies worldwide, Indonesia, a country with some of the most-active Twitter users in the world, is exactly the kind of place new forms of campaigning can germinate and take root.
Enter the cyber armies. These aren't cyber armies in the old sense where the term was used to describe a team of loosely affiliated hackers. These armies are pros at wielding influence and controlling narratives, not exploiting security holes.
But while there are definitely more of these armies online than ever before, there's still no clear chain of command or hierarchy in place, which makes plugged-in people like Ibang especially valuable.
“Most of them aren’t organized very well,” Ibang says. “They’re pretty fragmented. I’m tasked with organizing these factions together. I generate one main issue so that the factions in the cyber team can spread the same content at the same time.”
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The digital landscape was different during the 2014 presidential election, Ibang explains. Back then, the cyber troops were more centralized under a clear chain of command in each campaign team. Lately, cyber teams tend to be broken up into smaller factions that act independently. Despite having the same goal, the pattern of the circulation of disinformation and campaign content has become more chaotic, as each cyber team rolls out different issues to discredit opponents.
“There are a significant number of political investors,” Ibang says. “And they’re willing to sacrifice a ton of money for a social media army. That’s why there are so many different factions popping up. They all have the same goal, which is to lead their political candidate to victory.”
Still, despite how fragmented the system is, there's a method to all the chaos. Ibang tells me that he divides his victory strategy into three stages. In the first stage, his team spreads content glorifying his candidate’s achievements online. In the second stage, he rolls out negative content to amplify an opponent’s weaknesses. The third, final stage involves the use of a black campaign near election day, one that makes it impossible for a rival to recover, Ibang explains.
“We always have a trump card we’re willing to play towards the end of a campaign season,” Ibang says. “This is pure business, it’s all professional. It has nothing to do with idealism or personal politics.”
Ibang supervises a team of 20 for his digital campaigns, and members have specific tasks such as starting conversations or engaging in debates in comment sections. Those accounts, depending on the follower count, can be sold for millions of rupiah (hundreds of US dollars).
Ibang explains that the generation of viral content doesn’t need to come from an account with thousands of followers. Accounts with low follower counts that are fake and anonymous can do this too, says an analysis conducted by Drone Emprit, a machine learning application that performs social media analysis based on big data technology.
Ibang’s cyber team begins work long before the political season comes around, mapping out stakeholders, political parties, and influencers. His fake accounts systemically begin to follow real accounts of high-profile politicians. Once these interactions get moving, influencers and officials catch on to the content spread by fake accounts, making them go viral.
“The key is maintaining fake accounts so that they have a persona and character so that influencers and political party officials believe that those accounts came to be organically, even though they’re sham accounts,” Ibang says.
Ibang and his contracted cyber armies are only part of this story. There's also an entire infrastructure of social media accounts that aren't even real people. These algorithmically controlled accounts, or "bot accounts," can amplify a conversation online by relentlessly engaging with a thread or hashtag. And if you get enough bot accounts to tweet about the same topic, it can push a relatively unknown conversation to the front of the pack, making it trend on Twitter.
Drone Emprit used a hoax campaign targeting vice presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno as a case study on how these bot networks can manipulate the conversation online. Only a few days after the presidential campaign period started on September 23, two websites attacking Sandi, as he is popularly called, went viral on social media. The sites skandalsandiaga.com and sandiagaundercover.com floated around Twitter with the hashtag #SkandalSandiaga. A social network analysis conducted by Drone Emprit identified a network of bot accounts on Twitter to be behind this campaign. A bot account is a chatbot used in social media networks to automatically generate messages.
“Those bot accounts have things in common,” says the Drone Emprit study. “They have no followers, they were just made in September with random names and profile pictures of beautiful women. Their status shared things in common: spreading disinformation while mentioning supporters of Sandiaga completed with the hashtag #SkandalSandiaga.”
The campaign team for incumbent candidate Joko Widodo began the election season with a promise to not use bot accounts in their digital campaigns. But an analysis of trending topics and hashtags on Twitter found hundreds of bot accounts that make topics go viral and try to sway public opinion one way or another in the two candidates’ favor.
And some of these hoaxes grew big enough to grab national headlines and demand clarifications from the candidates themselves. When a flag believed to belong to Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), an Islamist organization that has been controversially banned by the Jokowi government was set on fire at a rally, it set off a firestorm of controversy online. That's because the flag, which did look like it belonged to HTI, also contained Arabic writing of the "tawhid," a central concept in Islam. The fact that members of the paramilitary wing of the biggest Muslim organization in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama's (NU), were the ones setting the flag alight did little to help the situation. In a matter of hours, the images and videos were everywhere on social media.
Then, because so many of the people mad about the flag burning were also supporters of rival presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto and his running mate Sandiaga Uno, a pair who keep close ties with fundamentalist groups, the hashtag #PrabowoBersamaHTI (Prabowo with HTI) started trending on Twitter. Within a matter of moments, the hashtag had more than 10,000 tweets behind it. The Prabowo camp had to deny the allegations, dismissing them as fake news, while their supporters fired back with the hashtag #BapakHoaxNasional (Mr. National Hoax), which also went viral, capitalizing on what they called Jokowi's unfulfilled promises, including the production of a national "Esemka" car.
The thing is you don't even need a massive following to get a hashtag trending anymore, Ismail Fahmi, founder of Drone Emprit explains. Initiating a campaign through hashtags can easily be done with a few bot accounts with as few as 10 followers. Subsequently, he says, influencers with thousands of followers intervene to generate viral content and trending topics. Today’s viral hashtags today are rarely created organically by 'real’ Twitter users.
“This method (using bots and hashtags) is very effective and efficient,” Ismail says. “It’s enough to turn a conversation into a viral discussion on the national level. And depending on the topic, it might resonate easily on other social media platforms.”
Twitter regularly deletes millions of bot accounts all over the world. In May 2018, Twitter cut out 9.9 million bot accounts in a single week, up from 6.4 million a week in December 2017. But new ones keep getting created. Ibang himself has more than 50 anonymous accounts under his control. He declined to explain to me how he uses them.
Does this mean both the Prabowo and Jokowi camps are using bot networks? Not necessarily. Officials with both campaigns denied the claims outright, telling me that any hashtags that come out of their official campaigns trend on Twitter because people believe in them.
“I’m sure a hashtag is just a natural response to a phenomenon. It’s not a conspiracy.” says Taufik Hidayat, head of the Prabowo-Sandiaga digital volunteer team called Pride. “If it is, they wouldn’t go viral.”
Still, campaign teams in Indonesia are set up in a way to allow those officially employed by a candidate to maintain an air of plausible deniability throughout the election season. An official campaign team is structured and registered under guidelines provided by the Public Election Commission (KPU).
But behind this, the teams have dozens of social media influencers and coordinators who are contracted for specific time periods, as well as hundreds or more of digital volunteers. They work underground and are not registered with the KPU, making it difficult to track their networks. Volunteers and cyber teams act as shields when their candidate is attacked by rivals.
Taufik tells me that he has 12,000 volunteers across Indonesia. To support their campaign, Pride has created thousands of WhatsApp groups to “capture social and political issues on the ground level.”
“Our digital volunteers target the lower middle class,” Taufik says. “We want to understand the worries and insecurities that the lower class experiences.”
Pride is located in the same building as a digital marketing agency known as Menara Digital on Jalan Sisingamangaraja in a posh part of South Jakarta. Menara Digital, according to the description on their website, is “a digital marketing agency that offers goal-oriented and newest marketing concepts with a focus on search engine optimization (SEO), social media marketing, and social media management service."
An email I sent to one of the founders bounced back with a message saying it was invalid. But I was able to find one of the founders’ contact information on Twitter. Anthony Leong, according to his Twitter bio, is an Indonesian communications expert “skilled in developing online political communication."
Aside from being the founder of Menara Digital, Anthony acts as a volunteer team leader for Pride. However, he denies that his group has a political contract with Prabowo-Sandiaga supporters. Their partnership is purely voluntary and pro bono, he says. Anthony declined my request to visit his office and watch the Pride team work.
“We’d like to emphasize that we’ve never spread a hoax,” Anthony says over the phone. “It’s true we have hundreds or even thousands of WhatsApp groups. But we prioritize positivity in a campaign.”
Usman Kansong, of the Jokowi re-election campaign team, tells me that he thinks of WhatsApp groups as a form of aerial warfare—a closed clandestine operation that the public is technically free to join. He says that his team has never engaged in spreading hoaxes of fake news stories about their rivals, but admitted that, because of how fragmented these teams really are, that he is not in direct contact with everyone who is working on a campaign.
"We use WhatsApp group chats for internal purposes, like coordination and strategy discussion,” Usman says. “Each person on our team then joins multiple WhatsApp groups. Then they campaign for their candidate in their own ways."
Black campaigns. Bot accounts. Hoaxes. The language of Indonesian political campaigns have changed dramatically in recent years. But there's no indication that it's going to remain here. Some of the biggest names in Indonesia's hoax industry have already been the subject of crack downs following the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election—a race seen by many as a testing ground for new tactics to be used during the presidential election.
During that election, the circulation of hoaxes reached a new peak with the emergence of ‘"hoax factories" like Saracen and Muslim Cyber Army (MCA). Saracen is supposedly a well-structured organization that can be hired to produce and spread hoaxes. At that time, Saracen was thought to be in control of 2,000 fake Facebook accounts, and have 800,000 followers. It's a bit harder to define the MCA, which is more like an unstructured Facebook group filled with anti-Jokowi members.
Although MCA and Saracen’s networks have since been compromised, the hoaxes did not stop. Brief searches on Facebook reveal dozens of accounts stamped with the MCA emblem. One of their largest online gathering points is a closed Facebook group with 9,152 members, filled with posts that use black campaigning and hoaxes. However, an observation of five groups with the description "muslim cyber army" appears to show that social media users’ engagement with hoaxes has generally lessened or stopped altogether.
But as fake news mutated from the last presidential election to this one, voters, especially Millennials, started to change as well. Millennials—who make up 49.52 percent of internet users—have become more aware of internet hoaxes, explains Muhammad Khairil Haesy, of the fact-checking organization the Anti-Slander Society, or Mafindo.
Then there's Facebook itself, which now works with third-party checkers and mainstream media to crack down on hoaxes posted to its platforms. Khairil now believes that, as the stuff you read online became less and less trustworthy, Indonesian consumers became less trusting as well. And this, more than anything, might eventually spell the end of fake news.
“Millennials are good at filtering the news they read,” Khairil says. ”And they’re not really interested in spreading hoaxes either… They tend to only share information from established news media."