Max Melit – "There is no such thing as a buzzer in politics," insisted Dede Budiyarto, former head coordinator of President Joko Widowo campaign's social media, now an external consultant for Jokowo's team.
Calmly smoking on a humid Jakarta day, Budiyarto aimed to dispel widely believed rumors that Indonesia's political communication makes heavy use of buzzers, a person who is paid by a campaign to spread social media content for its benefit.
"The Jokowi campaign center team in Jakarta consists of approximately 735 people," Budiyarto explained. "There they create content that will be disseminated via WhatsApp to other teams in various regions."
Budiyarto's huge content creation operation mainly consists of volunteers. It reaches every corner of Indonesia, from rural areas in Sumatra to the urban sprawl of Java, and from social media users with little to no formal education to highly educated digital circles. The volunteers receive instructions from the central office on what type of content to post. They then create and share it through their own social media channels.
"The Jokowi campaign team really does like the president and aren't forced or paid to post," Budiyarto said. "One of the keys to social media success is to spread positivity and make democracy clean from black campaigns."
Budiyarto's convictions that Indonesia's political sphere is free of buzzers are not shared by Indonesian journalists and academics. Merlyna Lim, a research chair at Carleton University in Canada, is one of those who disagrees.
"Although volunteers for all of the campaigns claimed they focused on positive messages, in practice this was not the case," Lim wrote in a research report about social media use during the 2017 gubernatorial elections. "Further, while none of the candidates publicly admitted to doing so, all three employed paid buzzers."
Indonesian political leaders have embraced every available tool in bolstering their brand, Lim said. From armies of volunteers to professional buzzers and celebrities, Indonesian politics is a battle to control the 'buzz'. They saturate "the public sphere with emotional messages designed to cultivate trust in their political brand," Lim said.
In common with any war, the rules of engagement can be bent or broken to gain advantage.
The often anonymous nature of political buzzers and volunteers has been a contributing factor that has led to the extensive circulation of misinformation, disinformation and hoaxes during Indonesian election campaigns in recent years.
"A lot of fake information circulates in Indonesian social media, from the simple to complicated, from health issues to political issues," said Abdul Manan, chairperson of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI). AJI is a non-profit organization partnering with Google which offers training in debunking hoaxes and misinformation. They have been on the frontlines of combatting the growing influence that buzzers can have in spreading misleading or untrue political content.
"People mainly gain information from television or newspaper, so they will simply believe whatever comes to them directly, even if they do not really know if it's true or not," Manan explained. "I think a lot of political information is very complicated, and it's easy for people to believe the things that are just suited to their beliefs."
The problem is worse in rural areas, where education levels are lower and there is less diversity of sources of quality information.
It's not just those with limited access to education that fall for hoaxes. "Some people who we think are very educated, like a lecturer in a university, they also share the hoaxes, even they don't know for sure whether the information is true or not," Manan explained.
Not all buzzers are 'bad actors', but many of Indonesia's political hoaxes are shared through buzzer accounts, social media specialist Hanif Ahmad Fauzi. "Every buzzer has their own style of writing and buzzing," Hanif said.
Hanif manages multiple social media accounts with modest followings, some political but others not. "There are some buzzers who are really extreme while others are just using small bits of sarcasm to hit the opposing side. Some spread hoaxes while others make them. I call these 'black buzzers'."
While he's been accused of 'buzzing' through memes in the past, Fauzi denies these allegations, especially around the spread of misinformation and hoaxes. "I always write based on the facts. If the politicians are wrong, I will post about the mistakes and vice versa," Fauzi claimed. "I don't get paid, and only post based on my own interests. There are so many buzzers I know, though, who do get paid."
There is no concrete price tag on a buzzer's post, varying massively depending on the size of their following, number of posts, and nature of the content. Those with a smaller reach, what Fauzi calls 'micro-buzzers' "usually get paid around Rp100,000-RP200,000 per-post." For large accounts though, 'macro-buzzers', a post can run between "Rp700,000-Rp2,000,000 per-post on Twitter or Facebook."
It's difficult to evaluate the exact return on investment from paid posts. But undoubtedly influencers, celebrities, and buzzers who post sponsored political messages have a strong influence in Indonesian social spheres.Budiyarto affirmed the power of having celebrities onside politically. "They are very important," he said. "For example, a YouTuber named Ria Ricis [a lifestyle blogger with 17.7 million subscribers] never officially declared her support for Jokowi but one day she made a video in which she met and chatted with him. It triggered many of her subscribers to support him. It was a simple video, but it was made, published and shared during the campaign period. It affected her followers' perception of Jokowi."Budiyarto was also adamant that important celebrities and influencers were volunteers. "They simply adored Jokowi and were willing to share campaign material. We even had a specific WhatsApp group for them."
For Indonesian journalist AgustinusBeo Da Costa, the roots of why buzzers and celebrities are effective at shaping opinion can be traced deep in Indonesian history.
"Before buzzers, traditional Islamic societies in Indonesia have given special positions for clerics, or kiyai," Da Costa explained. "Indonesian agrarian, religious and communal societies depend on religious and customary leaders to decide their political stance. In areas like West Java with strong Islamic influence, people tend to believe whatever the kiyai or clerics say in most of the aspects of their lives, including politics."
For Da Costa, buzzers are most effective with "poor urban Jakartans with strong cleric influences."
These unique cultural and religious factors are amplified by a general lack of critical thinking among Indonesians in relation to media overall, Da Costa argued.
Even those with high levels of wealth and education are vulnerable to falling into an environment ripe for dishonest and effective buzzing.
[Interview, research, and translation by Ahmad Faisal, Shirley Abigail, Siti Asyifa Cahyaningrum. Max Melit traveled to Indonesia with the support of the Australian Government's New Colombo Plan mobility program.]