'I felt disgusted': inside Indonesia's fake Twitter account factories
Indonesia 'I felt disgusted': inside Indonesia's fake Twitter account factories
âBuzzer teamsâ are a growing part of politics, helping to churn up religious and racial divides
To pass them off as real, Alex would enliven his fake accounts with dashes of humanity. Mixed up among the stream of political post s, his avatars â" mostly pretty young Indonesian women â" would bemoan their broken hearts and post pictures of their breakfasts.
But these fake accounts were not for fun; Alex and his team were told it was âwarâ.
âWhen youâre at war you use anything available to attack the opponent,â says Alex from a cafe in central Jakarta, âbut sometimes I felt disgusted with myself.âMuslim Cyber Army: a 'fake news' operation designed to derail Indonesia's leader Read more
For several months in 2017 Alex, whose name has been changed, alleges he was one of more than 20 people inside a secretive cyber army that pumped out messages from fake social media accounts to support then Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as âAhokâ, as he fought for re-election.
âThey told us you should have five Facebook accounts, five Twitter accounts and one Instagram,â he told the Guardian. âAnd they told us to keep it secr et. They said it was âwar timeâ and we had to guard the battleground and not tell anyone about where we worked.â
The Jakarta election â" which saw the incumbent Ahok, a Chinese Christian, compete against the former presidentâs son Agus Yudhoyono, and the former education minister, Anies Baswedan â" churned up ugly religious and racial divisions. It culminated in mass Islamic rallies and allegations that religion was being used for political gain. Demonstrators called for Ahok to be jailed on contentious blasphemy charges.
The rallies were heavily promoted by an opaque online movement known as the Muslim Cyber Army, or the MCA, which employed hundreds of fake and anonymous accounts to spread racist and hardline Islamic content designed to turn Muslim voters against Ahok.
Alex says his team was employed to counter the deluge of anti-Ahok sentiment, including hashtags that critiqued opposition candidates, or ridiculed their Islamic allies.
Alexâ s team, comprising Ahok supporters and university students lured by the lucrative pay of about $280 (Â£212) a month, was allegedly employed in a âluxury houseâ in Menteng, central Jakarta. They were each told to post 60 to 120 times a day on their fake Twitter accounts, and a few times each day on Facebook.
In Indonesia â" which ranks among the top five users of Twitter and Facebook globallyâ" they are what are known as a âbuzzer teamsâ â" groups which amplify messages and creates a âbuzzâ on social networks. While not all buzzer teams use fake accounts, some do.
Alex says his team of 20 people, each with 11 social media accounts, would generate up to 2,400 posts on Twitter a day.
The operation is said to have been coordinated through a WhatsApp group called Pasukan Khusus, meaning âspecial forcesâ in Indonesian, which Alex estimates consisted of about 80 members. The team was fed content and daily hashtags to promote.
âThey didnât want the accounts to be anonymous so they asked us to take photos for the profiles, so we took them from Google, or sometimes we used pictures from our friends, or photos from Facebook or WhatsApp groups,â says Alex. âThey also encouraged us to use accounts of beautiful women to draw attention to the material; many accounts were like that.âJakarta governor Ahok sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy Read more
On Facebook they even made a few accounts using profile pictures of famous foreign actresses, who inexplicably appeared to be die-hard Ahok fans.
The cyber team was allegedly told it was âonly safeâ to post from the Menteng residence, where they operated from several rooms.
âThe first room was for the positive content, where they spread positive content about Ahok. The second room was for negative content, spreading negative content and hate speech about the opposition,â says Alex, who says he chose the positive room.
Many of the accounts had just a few hundred followers, but by getting their hashtags trending, often on a daily basis, they artificially increased their visibility on the platform. By manipulating Twitter they influenced real users and the Indonesian media, which often refers to trending hashtags as barometers of the national mood.
Pradipa Rasidi, who at the time worked for the youth wing of Transparency International in Indonesia, noticed the phenomenon when he was researching social media during the election.
âAt first glance they appear normal but then they mostly only tweet about politics,â he said.
Rasidi interviewed two different Ahok buzzers, who detailed using fake accounts in the same fashion as that described by Alex. Both declined to speak to the Guardian.
A social media strategist who worked one of Ahokâs opponents campaigns said buzzing was a big industry.
âSome people with influential accounts get paid about 20m rupiah ($1,400/Â£1,069) just for one tweet. Or if you want to get a topic trending for a few hours, that costs between 1-4m rupiah,â Andi, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, explained.
Based on its study of the buzzer industry in Indonesia, researchers from the Center for Innovation and Policy Research (CIPG) say all candidates in the 2017 Jakarta election used buzzer teams â" and at least one of Ahokâs opponents skilfully created âhundreds of botsâ connected to supporting web portals.
The Baswedan campa ign denied using fake accounts or bots. A Yudhoyono spokesman said they did not breach campaigning rules.
Slander, hatred and hoax
The authorities have made moves to crack down on fake news and the spread of hate speech online but buzzers, which operate in a grey area have largely slipped through the cracks.
Even the central government appears to employ such tactics. The Twitter account @IasMardiyah, for example, which Alex says was utilised by his pro-Ahok buzzer team, now posts a steady flow of government messages and propaganda for President Joko Widodo â" mostly retweets about Indonesiaâs infrastructure and diplomatic successes, or the need to protect national unity.
Featuring an avatar of a young woman wearing a headscarf and sunglasses, the account tweets almost exclusively pro-government content with accompanying hashtags.
Recently the account has posted about Indonesiaâs election to the United Nations security council, fighting ter rorism, boosting agricultural exports, a new airport in West Java, next monthâs Asian Games, but also on sensitive issues such as West Papua.Indonesia releases 42 people arrested at West Papua university Read more
A presidential spokesperson was asked for comment by the Guardian, but did not respond.
A spokesperson from Twitter declined to specify how many fake Indonesian accounts it had identified or removed from its platform in the past year. The company said it had âdeveloped new techniques and proprietary machine learning for identifying malicious automationâ.
Given that Ahok lost the election, and ended up in jail, Alex says he canât be sure how effective his team was.
Ulin Yusron, a spokesman for Ahokâs campaign team refused to comment on specific allegations but said the campaign was âvery toughâ.
âThe use of slander, hatred and hoax [fake news] was enormous,â he told the Guardian. âNaturally, the team fo rtified itself with support troops, including in social media. That is not something new in politics.â
Researcher Rasidi said buzzer teams operate in the same way as gossip.
âWhen everyone is talking about the same thing you might think that maybe itâs true, maybe there is some merit to it. That is where the impact lies.âTopics
- Asia Pacific
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