This is the final entry in a three part series investigating the rise of fake news and hoaxes in the run-up to Indonesia's 2019 presidential election. You can read part one, about the organizations fighting fake news, here, and part two, about the rise of the hoax industry, here.
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 was feeling flustered. He asked to meet me in a crowded Acehnese restaurant on the outskirts of South Jakarta, but I had arrived first and he was running late. So when Ibang finally showed up, he arrived with a string of apologies about making me wait.
He sat down, lit a Dji Sam Soe clove cigarette, and ordered a coffee. The restaurant around us just continued on unaware of his arrival. That's because, to them, he was just another hungry diner. But I knew the truth, that Ibang, the unassuming guy in a black sweater and a t-shirt that read "Truth" across the front, was one of the most-sought after men in Indonesian politics.
That's because Ibang, who asked that we don't use his real name here, is the general of an underground cyber army, one that plays an increasingly important, if not always obvious, role in this country’s political scene. Ibang and his team are among those who produce the kinds of polarizing political content that is saturating everyone's Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and WhatsApp right now.
Ibang, who is in his early 40s, doesn't have an actual office anymore. Instead, he uses three smartphones to coordinate with his team, mainly through WhatsApp groups. I knew it was a busy time of year for him because his phones buzzed constantly as we spoke.
"I always sleep late,” Ibang said. “When I wake up it's almost afternoon and my phones are always full of notifications that I have to deal with. That’s my life.”
Whispers of Ibang's real name—and his fame—first began to move through Indonesia's political circles back in late 2012, when he was employed by then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as part of his cyber advisory team. SBY was wrapping up his second term in office, the constitutional limit for a president in Indonesia, and he was relying on experts like Ibang to keep tabs on the conversations that were happening online. SBY, Indonesia's first directly elected president, wanted to end his final term with a sense of grace and dignity. And a big part of that was following the narrative online.
"The issues floating around social media had to do with government policy,” Ibang told me. “We would advise the president on an issue that the press was covering, whether it was negative or positive. If it was negative, then we had him give an explanation on one of his official internet platforms or speak to a reporter."
In 2014, SBY handed the reins to current President Joko Widodo, a man who walked into office with a volunteer network of his own and a team of internet savvy experts pushing his message online. Ibang left the political world and got a job as a communications consultant, specializing in social media strategy. His clients ranged from NGOs and big-name commercial brands to political parties.
Then, after two years, he broke out on his own and set out to tap his deep contact list of political operatives and brand-name recognition. His new job? Bolstering the "electability" of a candidate and stepping in when necessary to do damage control.
It was a skill set that was in high demand last June, when Indonesian voters went to the polls to vote in more than 170 individual races. He worked for campaign teams across Indonesia. In races in North Sumatra, West Java, and Central Java he promoted his candidates' platforms and attacked their opponents. His success if those elections is part of the reason he still finds work today. Or, at least it is if you believe him. The thing about talking to Ibang is that little of what he says is actually fact-checkable. He doesn't advertise his clients online and much of his work happens behind the scenes, hidden behind layers of Twitter accounts and armies of paid commenters.
"The world I operate in is one that I can’t really promote on social media,” Ibang explained. “I can’t offer my services on my social media account. Everything has to spread by word of mouth. My guarantee is built on trust and my reputation. That’s what I have to maintain. This is more of a silent operation, so we operate underground."
The trend of using an army of buzzers for political purposes, a service Ibang offers his clients, first emerged in Indonesia during the 2014 presidential election. The goal is simple: use social media to frame public opinion and amplify political issues during a candidate's campaign. On the surface, it's similar to what commercial brands do to push their advertisements into your feed. But in reality, when the buzzer world intersects with the world of politics, it gets more and more opaque.
That's because the relationships are set up to keep those officially employed by a candidates insulated from the people actually tweeting and driving these campaigns. There are enough levels between, say, the candidate running for mayor and the kid pushing a black campaign online that the candidate can honestly tell the press they don't know where any of these negative rumors came from.
And according to research conducted by Centre for Innovation Policy and Governance (CIPG), it's typically unclear in these kinds of political candidate-buzzer relationships who is responsible for the orders and where the money comes from.
“Our informants and sources usually called the money to hire buzzers 'ghost money,'” Rinaldi Camil, researcher at CIPG, told me, explaining that political buzzers rarely even meet face-to-face with their employers, since secrecy is a must to protect their identities.
Ibang explained to me how most of these relationships are typically structured. He directly runs a team of between 15 and 20 people, who then have their own teams and collections of anonymous accounts that number as high as 30. Each account then generates trollish content, passing it through social media and stirring debate in the comments section.
Because Ibang's work relies on secrecy, he doesn't use written contracts. The two parties need to trust each other, the candidate trusting that Ibang would out them as paying for his services and Ibang that the campaign team will actually pay his bill, which can climb as high as Rp 50 million ($3,500 USD) a month.
He has an innate sense of what will play online. His team, which oversees literally hundreds of accounts on social media, knows how to flood your feed with posts promoting a candidate's campaign promises while casting doubt on their rivals. But even with all these clout, Ibang told me that he has a rule against spreading hoaxes and fake news.
“It’s our principle to never spread hoaxes,” Ibang explained. “For me, the main thing in a political campaign is positive content over negative content, even though the clients sometimes ask us to generate negative content as an attack.”
Staying on top of the conversation means constantly monitoring the discussions that bubble to the surface in Indonesia. He has databases full of information about political parties, candidates' ties, and their track records on key issues. He also keeps a record of potential wedge issues that can be exploited during an election season to score some quick points for his employers.
And, of course, he has files on rival candidates' dirt as well, just in case he needs to go on the attack. It's just not possible to stay alive in Indonesian politics if you stay on the defensive forever, he told me.
But is the dirt always true? I asked Ibang if he had actual facts to back up a smear campaign or if it was all built on innuendo and rumor. Does he have actual proof to support what his team is saying online? Ibang nodded yes, but then didn't explain further.
"We clearly have the weapons to attack opponents,” Ibang explained instead. “Usually we bring these out within days before election day, when the opponent doesn’t have a chance to retort or retaliate.”
Ibang is aware that his work has helped make Indonesia even more polarized than it was in the 2014 election, a race where the same two people, Jokowi and Prabowo Subianto, faced off for the first time. Yet, he doesn't think he should take all the blame alone. The country was divided long before the invention of Twitter bots and cyber armies, he claimed.
"I’m just doing my job," Ibang said. "The polarization has always been there, even before the campaign started."
Does he even believe all the stuff his teams push out online? Of course not. But, according to Ibang, that's not really the point.
“I’m like a lawyer defending my political clients,” Ibang said. “A lawyer knows when his client is guilty, but he still defends him anyway. It sounds so much like my job.”