What are buzzers? Meet the social media puppeteers shaping election narratives

With the chance to make an extra $10,000 a month, Robert has no issue pushing the agendas of presidential candidates on social media or slipping money to journalists to publish stories in their favour. 

“It’s pure business,” he told the ABC.

“Even if we don’t like a specific candidate, as long as it’s a business opportunity for us, we’re doing it.”

Robert — who chose not to use his real name — was once a journalist himself, blogging for a prominent Indonesian news outlet.

Now, whenever elections roll around, he dips into the business of “buzzing”.

A woman in a headscarf stands with two other women, as she looks down in concentration at her phone

Indonesia is among the world’s biggest users of social media.(ABC News)

Buzzing is a fast-growing industry in Indonesia and across South-East Asia, which involves individuals and groups being paid to create and share political propaganda online.

Over the past decade, armies of buzzers have been promoting candidates and party issues, or creating hoaxes and disinformation.

But Robert, who has been moonlighting as a buzzer since Indonesia’s 2014 elections, says this year the industry has become much slicker and professional.

There are big bucks to be made, and the tactics he’s shared show how difficult it can be to spot buzzer content. 

And with Indonesia’s social media usage among the highest in the world, there are concerns buzzers are threatening democracy and could impact the February 14 presidential election.

Prospective leaders running in Indonesia's election attend a debate.

Fake news has been circulating online about all three presidential candidates, Ganjar Pranowo (left), Prabowo Subianto (centre), and Anies Baswedan (right). (Reuters: Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana)

What’s behind the buzz? 

Buzzers may operate using fake accounts, for instance posing as an Indonesian housewife who shares lifestyle tips, then talks about how a party’s policies have improved her life as a young mother. 

This account existed under the name “Janda” on Twitter during the 2019 presidential election.

The real person behind the account — a middle-aged man — told Reuters at the time that the content his team created backing President Joko Widodo’s re-election campaign was reaching at least a million people per week.

Posts are liked and shared by a network of buzzers, and hashtags are commonly used to further amplify messages and help content go viral.

“When we think about buzzers, I like to use the word amplifiers,” Ika Idris, an associate professor of public policy at Indonesia’s Monash University, told the ABC.

“Usually they amplify posts using certain hashtags, or they can create their own posts that carry the same message.

“Their main job is to shape public opinions.”

Buzzers have also been known to use hashtags to start Twitter wars on an issue and provoke curiosity among netizens to get involved.

Hands of a man who sit on a chair

Robert has been working as a buzzer since the 2014 elections and says the industry is becoming more professional.(ABC News: Yusuf Priambodo)

‘Black campaigns’ fuel candidate hoaxes 

Robert describes his role as an “operator” who decides on themes, manages teams of graphic designers and video editors to create content, then finds the best distribution channels. 

“Buzzing is a job that’s about collaborating with others, we can’t do it individually,” he said. 

Robert has learned how to best leverage buzzing as a business and has a bank of content ready to go to suit various client needs. 

Past clients have included volunteer groups working on behalf of ministers in the Widodo government, he said.

Often marketing agencies will act as a mediator between political players and buzzers, and private companies can also be involved. 

However, campaign teams and candidates have repeatedly denied using buzzers or spreading fake news.

A graphic showing a puppeteer controlling icons of Facebook, TikTok and Instagram.

Experts say buzzers are entrepreneurs who have learned they can make good money by shaping public opinion.(ABC News: Graphic by Jarrod Fankhauser)

Robert says he’s only involved in positive campaigning, creating content that improves a candidate’s image. 

But buzzers are also known to spread hate speech and create polarisation by engaging in what he called “black campaigns”.

Professor Idris has described this as “disinformation or misleading content shared with the intention of confusing the public, shaping opinions and tarnishing reputations”.

Fake news and hate speech were so rampant in the 2019 election that the government started holding weekly briefings to debunk online hoaxes.

Social media was awash with hoax stories about President Widodo, including images that claimed to prove he was a devil-worshipping punk in his youth.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Communication said hoaxes were increasing.

It had handled more than 200 hoaxes spread across nearly 3,000 posts on Facebook, X, Instagram and TikTok, warning all three presidential candidates were being targeted. 

It found a fake TikTok account using Ganjar Pranowo’s name, saying that users who interacted with the account would be given a million rupiah ($98) prize.

The ministry also flagged there were claims circulating that Anies Baswedan had failed a health check, and that retired general Prabowo Subianto was ineligible to run because he is over 70 years old.

It said it was working with Meta, the company that manages Facebook and Instagram, to take down hundreds of pieces of fake election content.

A presidential candidate holds up his phone posing for a selfie with a crowd of supporters.

Presidential candidates Ganjar Pranowo takes a selfie with his supporters.(AP: Tatan Syuflana)

Influencers and journalists join the buzz 

As the world’s third-largest democracy decides who will succeed President Widodo, Robert has been upping the prices on buzzing services.

And he hopes no candidate will win a majority which will lead to a run-off election, so “the battle would be longer” and he can charge more for his work.

Robert said in 2019, a group affiliated with a presidential candidate offered him more than 100 million rupiah ($9,750) a month to post content across all major social media platforms using his established network. 

“It was big,” he said.

“The KPIs were how many people saw the content and how many people shared it.”

Rates are based on the time of day posts are sent, and cost about 70 million rupiah ($6,830) if they end up on morning trending lists, Robert said.

While Robert is quite high up in the game, many buzzers are known to be young graduates who work for less money doing basic posting.

Also known as a “cyber trooper” or “cyber soldier”, one junior told Reuters in 2019 that they were being paid 1 million to 50 million rupiah ($4,800) per project depending on the reach of their social media accounts.

A woman wearing hijab and glasses smiling to the side when walking on a side walk.

Ika Idris said using paid labour to spread propaganda on social media has sadly become a big business in Indonesia during the campaign season.(ABC News: Benaya Ryamizard Harobu)

Packages which include influencers sharing content can cost up to a billion rupiah ($97,000), Robert said.

Professor Idris said it can be easy to spot if an influencer has been paid. 

“Many non-political accounts suddenly turn into supporting the politic narratives,” she said.

“They usually tweet about soccer, they tweet about food, or travel, but when it comes to the election their posts are now different.”

However, generally buzzers are getting harder to spot as they adapt tactics to keep up with social media algorithms.

“This year is different to 2019 … you cannot just amplify messages by re-sharing 20 posts in a day, they [social media platforms] want you to also create content and actively engage,” Professor Idris said.

Hands holding a ballot paper with the images of the Indonesian presidential candidates.

Professor Idris says buzzers are helping to shape more positive narratives of candidates and masking information on past bad behaviour. (Reuters: Willy Kurniawan)

Robert said buzzers were also infiltrating mainstream media.

He rattled off the names of several news outlets in Indonesia, and alleged they had approached journalists directly and paid them to publish pre-written stories.

Professor Idris was shocked to hear Robert’s claims and that “journalism is no longer the answer”. 

“Maybe I was being naive, but I still believed that journalism would help to fight the disinformation and misinformation and these buzzers,” she said.

“But it’s more of a mutualism symbiosis … It’s like they support each other.”

Can buzzers be beaten?

Given many buzzers will work as “cheap labour” and there’s a large supply and demand for buzzers in Indonesia, Professor Idris says she’s worried.

“It’s a promising business, sadly,” she said.

“Buzzers are entrepreneurs who have learned they can make good money from this and so they are starting their own businesses.”

Even in a non-election year, the state employs “buzzer Istana” (or Palace buzzers) to promote the government and negate criticism online, Ross Tapsell, an expert on politics and media at Australia National University, said.

“The Jokowi government has really managed to reduce opposition forces online,” he said.

The back of a younng Indonesian person's head, wearing headphones while browsing Facebook.

Social media platforms are under pressure to do more to curb fake news and misinformation. (AP: Tatan Syuflana)

Analysts say there has been growing public resistance and awareness of “dirty politics” on social media with netizens frequently criticising buzzers, referring to them as a “virus”.

Digital literacy has been flagged as one way to spot buzzers and misinformation, but Professor Tapsell says the responsibility shouldn’t be falling on citizens.

“The problem is the elites who are paying for these buzzers and the Silicon Valley companies who are not doing enough to crack down on this kind of content on their platforms,” he said.

The teams for presidential candidates Ganjar and Anies told the ABC that they do not use these kind of digital campaigning services and depend on content being naturally shared by their supporters and party members.  

Prabowo’s team was also contacted by the ABC for comment. 

The General Election Supervisory Agency (BAWASLU) recently announced efforts to curb the role of buzzers, including imposing prison sentences on people found to post content attacking religious, racial, and societal groups.

A spokesperson from TikTok Indonesia’s Trust & Safety team has also told local media that the platform — which boasts about 125 million users — was working with the BAWASLU to tackle the surge of fake news.

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