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Indonesia taps influencers to convince people to move to its new, under-construction capital

Rest of World - April 19, 2024

Michelle Anindya, Denpasar, Indonesia – Four years after Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced that he would move the nation's capital from the main island of Java to Borneo, he led a tour of dozens of influencers through Nusantara, the new capital under construction.

The influencers, wearing hard hats, stood in front of a giant glass-and-chrome building in the shape of a bird – the mythological garuda or golden eagle – which will be the new presidential palace. They listened intently as Jokowi, as the outgoing president is popularly known, gestured at swaths of eucalyptus trees and said, "Remember, this is an industrial forest. It's chopped down every six years. It is not a natural forest. Don't get it wrong."

The gathered influencers took note. On TikTok, Jerhemy Owen told his 3 million followers: "Nusantara will be the smartest and most eco-friendly city in the world! It will be 65% forest and 25% urban area."

As Indonesia prepares to move its capital away from the overcrowded and rapidly sinking city of Jakarta, authorities are relying on influencers to sell Nusantara as a liveable and desirable city. Briefings have been held across the country with influencers, who are regarded as "strategic partners." In last September's tour of the future capital, dozens of influencers listened to the president lay out his vision for Nusantara. Jokowi even joked with them and posed for selfies.

"We hope influencers can participate in disseminating information [to the public] about Nusantara," Usman Kansong, director-general of communications at the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, said in a separate briefing in the city of Bandung. "The goal is to increase the public's knowledge, as well as to create a positive attitude towards moving to the capital city."

Building a capital city from scratch is rare, but not unheard of. Brazil moved its capital from Rio de Janeiro to the newly built city of Brasilia in 1960. Egypt is building an administrative capital about 30 miles from Cairo, despite concerns about the enormous expense as the country goes through an economic downturn.

Nusantara, too, is rife with controversy. Just over half of Indonesians support the new capital, according to the latest survey by research firm Indikator Politik Indonesia. But many are also fighting for the millions of dollars promised as compensation for the land they gave up. Private investment in the capital has been slow to come. Environmentalists and activists have criticized the clearing of mangroves and forests, and the forced displacement of local residents and Indigenous communities.

"Deforestation is a real issue," Arga Pribadi Imawan, a professor in the department of politics and government at Gadjah Mada University, told Rest of World. With thousands of acres of trees flattened to the ground, the city is at risk of frequent flooding and water contamination, he said. "I'm very doubtful of the concept of a 'smart forest city.' Governments typically cut down the forest, build the city, then rebuild the forest somewhere else. But research shows that rebuilding the forest can take over a century."

This is where the influencers come in. After their visit to Nusantara – an old Javanese word once used to describe the Indonesian archipelago – they posted gushing videos on their YouTube channels, Instagram reels, and TikTok.

A nearly 16-minute video posted by actor and social media influencer Baim Wong on his YouTube channel has more than 730,000 views. Many of his 21 million subscribers praised Jokowi with comments such as: "The greatest president with a proven track record!" and "Amazing work, President Jokowi, the government, and the influencers."

But while the posts by influencers have drawn praise for the president, and the influencers themselves, not many commenters seem keen to move to the new capital.

"For Gen Z, there are fears that the city lacks entertainment options or places for 'healing' [Indonesian slang for taking a long break]," Arga, who has researched Nusantara, told Rest of World. "So it is good to use influencers, especially as the first stage will involve young civil servants. Influencers can change their mindset so that young people from Java or Jakarta are willing to move to Nusantara."

With more than half of Indonesia's population of 270 million between the ages of 18 and 39 years, the country is among the biggest markets in the world for social media platforms including Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok. Influencers – including virtual ones – have massive followings, and government officials have increasingly been leaning on them to get their message out. "Buzzers," or those who accept payments for promotions, were a key feature of Indonesia's presidential election this year, boosting candidates and spreading misinformation about their rivals.

But there is a risk that it might not work in the case of Nusantara, because young social media users may not be convinced if they think the influencers are not sincere. Arga said their posts on Nusantara "don't feel like an impression that emerges out of pure admiration towards the new capital. It feels scripted."

The influencers posting on Nusantara say they were not paid by the government. But some Indonesians have called them out for not questioning the official line. After Aurelie Moeremans, a singer and environmentalist with nearly 3 million followers on Instagram, shared her video of meeting Jokowi in Nusantara, there were several comments on the damage to the environment, and the high cost of the project.

"You're the brand ambassador of WWF-Indonesia. How come you support Nusantara?" said one user. "It's great and all, but how are we going to pay the debt? Who is responsible?" commented another.

Meanwhile, in East Kalimantan, local influencers are facing difficulty accessing the site. Dian Rana in Sepaku, the district where Nusantara is located, has a following of about 250,000 on YouTube, and was among those invited to meet Jokowi last September. While the government says the new capital will host Indonesia's Independence Day celebration in August, Dian said it just doesn't look ready. He said it has become increasingly hard to get permission to shoot videos to show the progress of construction in Nusantara, and that he has been asked to take down several videos.

"This isn't someone's private residence. It's a capital city," said Dian. "It should be public knowledge."

[Michelle Anindya is a freelance journalist based in Bali, Indonesia. She covers consumer technology, business, and politics.]

Source: https://restofworld.org/2024/indonesia-capital-change-influencers