Dozens of “buzzers” are getting paid to spread propaganda to armies of followers as the political elite wage war in cyberspace in an attempt to maintain power. No, this is not the plot of the latest dystopian sci-fi out of Hollywood. It is Indonesian politics in 2018.
In a funky open-plan office in central Jakarta, the leaders of the PSI political party are holding a strategy meeting. They sprawl out on orange beanbags, or sit on bleacher-like benches with laptops at the ready. They are surrounded by notice boards adorned with coloured Post-it Notes.
They could be tech-wizards from a start-up company in Silicon Valley. But their brand of sorcery is online politics. Despite operating on a shoestring budget, the party is already the second biggest in Indonesia, in terms of social media presence, according to PSI director Michael Sianapar.
He is helping the PSI party convert the “noise” online, into action in the streets, just as occurred during the Arab Spring. “I think that’s why we started the party in the first place” he said.
“Social media is a tool [the political elite] have now mastered … to the detriment of the society. We just have to master it back again.”
He cites the example of popular former Jakarta governor, Basuki Purnama, aka Ahok, who was ousted and ultimately jailed for blasphemy after an edited segment of a speech he made went viral online. Mr Sianapar saw the whole thing unfold at close quarters. He was Ahok’s personal assistant at the time.
Since then, he said, political manipulation of the masses had only worsened, with dirty tricks online now a commercial operation. “We have this term … ‘buzzers’. They [are people who] have become celebrities in the social media world and if they support someone or oppose something, then they get paid,” he said.
Buzzers offered money for social media shares
No-one knows the exact numbers, but there are believed to be dozens of buzzers working for and against the Government, trying to sway opinions by sharing propaganda with their armies of followers. The ABC is aware of political parties offering buzzers $500 for sharing a single post.
Political commentator Denny Siregar said he had been offered $1,000 a month to become a professional buzzer — almost three times the Indonesian average wage. Mr Siregar has 625,000 followers on Facebook and more than 560,000 followers on Twitter.
As such, he is seen as a valuable commodity for politicians. But he insists he has never accepted cash for comment online. “The word buzzer is an insult,” Mr Siregar said. “It’s basically saying your opinion is for hire. No-one would ever admit that.”
Mr Siregar believes buzzers spreading misinformation online is dangerous for Indonesian democracy. “I closely watched what happened in Syria 2011/2012, when the war broke out,” he said.
“I see the same pattern that’s being built here in Indonesia. That’s why I call this war. Their propaganda against my propaganda.”
A golden opportunity for political tricksters
Indonesian is now the third biggest Facebook using nation on Earth, with 130 million accounts. But the most dangerous platform for and against politicians is the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp. Unlike Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, messages sent via WhatsApp are hidden.
The encryption software means even WhatsApp’s own engineers cannot view them. Most users set up dozens of closed groups that can contain up to 256 members. Popular posts are often copied from one group and shared throughout the others, spreading like silent, invisible wildfire.
According to social media analyst Ismail Fahmi, that presents a golden opportunity for political tricksters. “Fake news and propaganda are so much easier to create and distribute via WhatsApp groups because they’re closed groups,” he said.
“An issue often starts on Twitter, because news travels fast there. Then [it migrates to] Facebook, where memes and videos are created. In turn, they are put out on Instagram and WhatsApp groups.”
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has already felt the sting of the wrong end of a social media campaign. In April, the campaign #2019gantipresiden (#2019ChangePresident) went viral and continues to dent his re-election chances for next year’s presidential poll. Jokowi, as he is commonly known, remains the strongest contender, topping popularity polls with an approval rating of more than 50 per cent.