Sat, Mar 16, 2019 - Page 9 News List

In Indonesia, ‘buzzer’ tactics on social media as elections loom

By Fanny Potkin and Agustinus Beo Da Costa  /  Reuters, JAKARTA

Almost every day, “Janda,” a self-described Indonesian housewife with 2,000 Twitter followers, dispenses lifestyle tips, complains about city life and praises how the government of Indonesian President Joko Widodo has improved her life as a young mother.

However, Janda the housewife does not exist. The Twitter account’s real owner is an unmarried middle-aged man who offers political social media services backing Widodo’s re-election campaign.

He is a leader of one of the many so-called “buzzer” teams, named for the social media buzz such groups aim to create, that have sprung up in Indonesia ahead of the presidential election next month in the world’s third-largest democracy.

“Our battleground is social media. The content we are making for the election is reaching at least a million people per week,” the owner of the Janda account said, declining to be named because his work is legally in a gray area.

In interviews, more than a dozen buzzer team members, social media consultants and cyberexperts described an array of social media operations that they said were spreading propaganda on behalf of Widodo and his challenger, retired general Prabowo Subianto.

Widodo enjoys a comfortable lead in most opinion polls over Prabowo, as the challenger is widely known. The two contested the previous election in 2014 as well, and Widodo won narrowly.

Fake news was spread in that election as well, although social media was less far-reaching than it is now.

Under Indonesia’s broad Internet defamation law, creating and spreading fake news is illegal, but holding social media accounts in false names is not, unless a real person is being impersonated. However, social media companies mostly bar holding accounts under false names.

Three buzzers directly involved in the campaign described how they operate hundreds of personalized social media accounts each on behalf of the candidates. One denied propagating fake news, while two said they did not care about the accuracy of the content.

Both campaign teams deny using buzzers or spreading fake news.

Ross Tapsell, an expert on politics and media at the Australian National University, said that it has become normal for candidates in Southeast Asia to hire online campaign strategists, who in turn tap an army of people to spread content on social media.

“So there is no direct link at all to the candidate,” he said.

The buzzer campaigns have far outstripped the efforts of Facebook and other social media companies to curtail creation of fake accounts and spread fake news, cyberexperts say.

Reporters found that while robot accounts were occasionally deleted, personalized fake accounts such as “Janda” are widespread on Twitter and Facebook, despite violating the companies’ rules.

Misinformation spread by real accounts — which are often co-opted by buzzer teams — is rampant on Facebook as well as on its Instagram and WhatsApp affiliates, and rival service Twitter. The companies say they are working with the government and fighting back against false content.

Representatives for Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp said they regularly delete fake accounts in Indonesia, but declined to share removal numbers.

A Twitter spokeswoman said it is working to remove networks of accounts engaged in misinformation and disinformation.

Facebook, which counts Indonesia as its third-largest market globally with an estimated 130 million accounts, said it trains election management bodies how to flag fake news to the company, which is then evaluated by moderators and deleted if it breaks its community standards.

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