Transformative Working-Class Labor in Indonesia's Political Influence Operations

A sketch on a background image, mostly in turqoise color and with various shapes
The “buzzer” industry in Indonesia–an industry of influence operators working behind the scenes–has been increasingly visible and economically important in Indonesia beyond only their work on digital campaigns. Becoming involved with a buzzer agency allows young marginalized people an opportunity to leave the workforce of physical labor and establish themselves in the increasingly digitized professional landscape. The industry will be critical in the upcoming 2024 elections and beyond. Pradipa P. Rasidi, a digital anthropologist, gives us an insider’s perspective into the buzzers’ post-Covid business model, highlighting how the industry is transforming working-class youth into politically influential groups.

As I was talking to Irfan, an Indonesian influence operation actor or ‘political buzzer’, about an upcoming political disinformation project, we were interrupted by Herman—another buzzer—who delivered the news: the recipients of a data science scholarship had been announced. The dimly-lit ‘operatives’ room, pulsating with upbeat K-Pop music, was seized by an electrifying surge as the young buzzers all scrambled to hear the announcement. Confirmation soon arrived: Herman was the new scholar among us. His colleagues burst into unified cheer and applause.

Following my previous work with buzzers, in this article I define “buzzer” as someone involved in “the propagation of message that endorses a certain opinion about a certain issue, idea, or brand, in an attempt to make the opinion appear as natural as possible.” While buzzers can work for corporate campaigns, in this article I am investigating political buzzers: a buzzer involved in electoral campaigns, or contentious governmental and corporate policies that could have a significant impact on the public.

This scholarship, as Herman later explained, was more than an accolade: it was a chance to refine his self-taught skills and legitimise his status as an actual tech professional. Although influence operations are an underground industry in Indonesia, Herman sees himself as part of the current Indonesian digital economy. Hailing from a working-class family and having forgone university due to the expensive tuition costs, Herman views the influence industry as a means to a “brain work” profession (kerja otak) but also a newfound sense of dignity.

Herman’s story is just one thread in the tapestry of influence operations that have flourished in the wake of Indonesia’s post-pandemic economy. President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s administration has been driving the country’s digitalization with his “transformasi digital” program since his first term in 2014; but the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated this progress, leading to an internet-savvy Indonesia with 212.9 million users and a 77 percent penetration rate as of 2023 — the largest user-base in Southeast Asia.

Buzzers play a large role in this landscape. Government institutions, political parties, businesses, and affluent individuals have all raced to deploy them for a range of interests, spanning from seeking fame and retribution to securing profit and political influence. As the 2024 general and presidential elections draw near, buzzers are set to play another role. Politicians, political backers, and business magnates vested in the election’s outcome will once more finance these campaigns.

Image showing the buzzer economy with influential figures linked to the buzzers then the buzzers sharing informationThe buzzers often act as amplifiers for either the highest bidder or an entity with which the buzzers are ideologically aligned.

In this article, I will explore what this underground economy means to the individuals involved, in particular how it has transformed the lives of the often-marginalized young, urban working-class as well as the effect of generative AI on these operations. To this end, I build upon my past research experience with buzzers, which I have been developing since 2016. I carried out ethnographic fieldwork and conducted interviews at a buzzer firm where Herman is a staff member. I selected the firm, pseudonymized as PT. Gugus Nusantara Informatika (PT. GNI),1 for its workforce composition: young individuals in their early to late 20s, including the 27-year-old owner. The firm’s staff predominantly come from a working-class background, in contrast to the middle-class buzzing landscape observed in 2016. My research spans from April to May 2023, supplemented by brief field visits and additional interviews in June 2023. Besides PT. GNI, I also interviewed a buzzing coordinator from a separate organization.

PT. GNI in a Changing Buzzing Landscape

Buzzers were first noticed in Indonesia around 2009, initially serving to enhance marketing strategies for brands. Their main focus was on ‘positive’ campaigns—spurring positive public opinions on certain brands with hashtag campaigns and engagement boosts—in addition to digital ads placement. Their first known foray into politics occurred during the 2012 Jakarta Election, when Jokowi, then a gubernatorial candidate, employed a campaign team, to coordinate volunteer operators of sock-puppet accounts—anonymous ‘fake’ accounts to boost engagement—as well as ‘real name’ influencers. This work carried into the 2014 Presidential election, which saw the emergence of ‘negative’ and ‘black’ buzzing campaigns involving the spread of disinformation, rumor-mongering, and online harassment. Buzzers diversified around this period, with groups sprouting from Jokowi’s volunteers, political consultancies, pollsters, advertising firms, independent marketers, community organizations, bloggers, and small teams within political parties. While there are attempts to chart this landscape, capturing a complete picture remains a challenge. My previous research identified those teams as loose networks of subcontracted individuals.

Since their first foray into politics, buzzers have been deployed in varied influence operations, from normalizing government policies to serving the interests of big businesses. Actors from both ruling and opposition parties have harnessed them. While some of these buzzers peddle influence to the highest bidder—be it in the form of money or ‘connections’—others ground themselves within what anthropologists call a moral economy: a shared set of ethics, norms, and values guiding economic behavior. Such buzzers labor for those they deem to be champions of a ‘good cause’—be it moral integrity of individual politicians, the propagation of Islamic or patriotic ideals, and others. The pandemic has been regarded as the first instance of buzzers’ unified mobilization in support of the Jokowi administration’s Covid-19 denialism.

Pyramid showing the hierarchy of marketing accounts associated with buzzing industryFigure 1. A typical structure of a buzzing project or campaign. Political buzzers are often responsible not only to manipulate opinion but also to tactically harass opponents. See 10Rasidi (2023) see footnote 10 and Wijayanto & Berenschot (2021) see footnote 4.

The Covid-19 pandemic, indeed, heralded a significant change. After the 2019 Presidential election, Jokowi’s primary political rival, Prabowo Subianto, was integrated into the government as the Minister of Defense. This move sparked a fervent reaction from both politicians’ supporters, many of whom were players in influence operations.

This developed into what buzzer leads I spoke to termed the ‘industrialization’ of buzzer groups. Political loyalties and economic interests fractured these groups into splinter factions, intensifying the pre-existing tensions among them. The year 2023 has intensified this friction. With Jokowi unable to run after two terms, other elites jostle for the mantle of succession. Yesterday’s adversaries become today’s allies and vice versa—compelling the buzzers to navigate through these ever-shifting loyalties. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic led to a surge in demand for digital campaigning techniques, paving the way for a new generation of buzzing professionals. As one buzzer manager put it, the pandemic has ignited an increase in demand for their services, rocketing by up to 500 percent.

PT. GNI is an emblem of such transformative times. The firm is helmed by a 27-year-old man, here referred to as Karim. He claimed that he used to work with a buzzing group supporting a notable Islamic opposition. Following Jokowi’s crackdown against Islamists and the political tides after the 2019 election, however, he swiftly transitioned to exclusively backing groups supporting incumbent Jokowi’s coalition.

As one buzzer manager put it, the pandemic has ignited an increase in demand for their services, rocketing by up to 500 percent.

Karim’s buzzer operation had long rested on his trusted group of ‘lieutenants’, whereby each lieutenant may recruit and coordinate his or her own ad-hoc team—similar to the operations of other known buzzing groups. Political buzzing groups, in general, are woven into political-economic patronage networks and kin/friendship ‘connections’ with individuals connected to figures in businesses, government, and political parties. For some time, however, Karim had felt his 'connections’ were unable to provide a steady income. Compared to those enmeshed within the key circles of political volunteers in previous elections, Karim is a relative outsider—having less access to the more lucrative projects.

Eventually, in 2022, Karim decided to expand. He ‘professionalized’ his operation and registered his buzzing operation as a small firm. PT. GNI’s salaried firm model marks a departure from the usual ad-hoc network model identified in previous research on buzzing operations. On the surface, PT. GNI portrays itself as an “IT Consultancy and Digital Marketing” agency, maintaining a registered address within the Sudirman Central Business District in South Jakarta. In reality, their headquarters is a two-story house with no business sign, situated in a lower-middle-class neighborhood bordering the town of Tangerang. Their clients include celebrity and media personalities, tech firms, heavy industry and real estate companies, politicians, and the military.

Pyramid showing the hierarchy of marketing accounts associated with buzzing industryFigure 2. PT. GNI's website landing page. The copy underscores their brand's pulse—“millennials and gen Z” fueling their venture. To maintain confidentiality, I have edited parts of the text.

As of June 2023, PT. GNI comprises around 28 individuals, supplemented by a workforce recruited as needed. A few key employees manage the logistics of buzzing campaigns—such as maintaining faux-news sites and their corresponding social media accounts, generating and nurturing sock-puppets (known as ternak akun, literally account farming, or rawat akun, account grooming), procuring SIM cards with false identities, and researching and crafting content for buzzing ventures, as well as coordinating projects and communicating with clients.

Generative AI, fake videos, and Wikipedia manipulation

While there have been numerous anxieties regarding the ascent of generative AI tools and their potential role in creating and spreading disinformation, their transformative influence on the buzzing industry so far remains to be seen. Although a deepfake video of presidential candidate Anies Baswedan was circulated widely by pro-Jokowi buzzers in 2022, such video disinformation does not necessitate generative AI. False narratives can already be crafted from selectively edited videos, as was the case in 2016 involving then-governor Basuki Purnama, or Ahok, which led to his blasphemy charges the following year.

Generative AI’s potential might lie not simply in the creation of overt disinformation, but instead in the subtle manipulation of credible sources, like Wikipedia. According to a buzzing coordinator from a separate group I interviewed, during Ahok’s controversial eviction of the Ciliwung’s urban poor community in 2016, Wikipedia was a target for mass edits; but the targeting was limited due to Wikipedia’s strict standards.

Generative AI’s potential might lie not simply in the creation of overt disinformation, but instead in the subtle manipulation of credible sources, like Wikipedia.

AI advancements now make it possible for a wider array of people to craft narratives that adhere to Wikipedia’s standards. Buzzer organizations previously relied on former journalists or professional copywriters to write fluently, especially on faux-news sites. With generative AI like ChatGPT, less experienced staff can generate compelling text, not only for faux-news sites but also for content adhering to Wikipedia’s standards. PT. GNI is already experimenting with this capability in projects for business clients and media personalities, using carefully chosen legitimate news sources to keep their clients’ Wikipedia profiles clean.

Frontiers for the Technological Working-Class

The real transformative power of generative AI, and by extension, buzzing operations as a whole, is for the PT. GNI operatives themselves. Save for a handful, the majority of PT. GNI’s staff are youth who previously earned their keep in the trenches of blue-collar work: machine operators, assembly line workers, truck drivers, delivery couriers, motorcycle taxi (ojek) and ride-hailing drivers, internet cafe attendants (penjaga warnet), cleaners, and parking lot attendants. The bulk of these jobs condemn them to the uncertainty of short-term contracts and informal employment status, with a meager average monthly income of Rp1.5 million (approx. $100 USD). Their lack of higher education degrees—which come with years of expensive tuition—limits their work prospects in the bustling job market of Jakarta.

Even factory work, which adheres to a minimum wage of Rp4.8 million (approx. $320 USD), carries its own burdens: the hours are punishing, peppered with frequent bouts of overtime; the ladder to promotion is slippery; and corruption lurks in every corner. One buzzer, Dito, who used to work as machine operator at the industrial area of Cikarang, explained,

You need some serious cash to get into Cikarang. No less than 5 million [rupiah]. They tell you it’s only 150k [rupiah] for the admin, but once you sign, they ask you to transfer 5 million. That’s how you get into Cikarang. That’s how the employment agencies (yayasan) work. They work hand in glove with the bigwigs in the companies, they get their share. ... That viral story [about a woman employee reporting the factory manager who asked her to sleep with him]? It’s always been like that. It’s just now people are speaking up. It’s a public secret among us the boys, everyone knows that.

Youth are often celebrated as Indonesia's ‘demographic bonus’. But youth like Dito frequently remain unrepresented, eclipsed by mainstream media portrayals of young people as highly-educated urbanites thriving in the country’s burgeoning tech industry—encapsulated by the term ‘millennials’ and ‘Gen Z’. The overlooked working-class youth are habitually marginalized in popular discourse, disparaged as ‘lazy’ and ‘lacking initiative’. Categories such as ‘unskilled workers’ perpetuated by economic development institutions compound this marginalization, diminishing their status compared to the more affluent creative and knowledge workers among the middle class. When these blue-collars raise their voices in protest for their rights, they face classist scrutiny in the media. Their ability to manage money—and, thus, their deservedness of a higher minimum wage, for example—comes under question based on the brands of motorbikes and clothing they use during demonstrations.

In President Jokowi’s techno-nationalist vision of Indonesia’s “transformasi digital”, these blue-collar laborers seem to have been left in the digital dust. It would be a mistake, however, to assume they are technologically inferior compared to their middle-class peers. Irfan, a key operative in PT. GNI’s buzzing activities, is a self-taught web developer; he honed his skills through YouTube videos and interactions on various Discord servers. He is an advocate for the use of generative AI tools like ChatGPT to streamline their operations. Likewise, Herman, a tech enthusiast, often experiments with custom Android ROMs.

When their roles were limited to manual labor—referred to as “body work” (kerja badan) or “muscle work” (kerja otot) —these technological pursuits remained hobbies, tucked into spare moments. Their work as buzzers recognizes their skills more formally, transitioning their efforts from muscle to mind—a “work of the brain” (kerja otak). For individuals like Herman, their involvement in buzzing operations carries a greater sense of prestige, allowing them to distance themselves from the stigma attached to ‘hard labor’.

Image showing an illuminated computer screen with an anonymous employee workingFigure 3. At his station, a PT. GNI operative steels himself. His screen flickers with seven browser windows, each one primed to launch a barrage of comments upon an Instagram page.

Politicians have always denied buzzers’ involvement in their campaigns, and the word ‘buzzer’ has gained infamy as it is derided for undermining democracy and spreading disinformation; but titles PT. GNI staff use, such as ‘digital marketer’ or ‘tech lead’, by contrast, are regarded as the cogs and gears of digital—and political—Indonesia. With PT. GNI as their front—sitting among countless other digital marketing firms in Jakarta—they fashion themselves not as ‘buzzers’, but as ‘digital campaigners’; not ‘social media manipulation’ but ‘campaign strategy’ and ‘IT solutions’. As PT. GNI staff would argue, they, too, are the ‘millennials’ and ‘Gen Z’ of the popular imagination.

The transformation becomes particularly profound for operatives like Dito who have limited experience with technology. Despite his ambivalence towards his buzzing operations role, and his lack of concern about the ‘hard laborer’ stigma, he perceives his employment at PT. GNI as a doorway to knowledge and intellectual growth. This sense of advancement is especially pronounced to him, not in the use of technology specifically, but when he participates in offensive buzzing operations that necessitate the crafting of strategic debates and manipulating conversations to emerge victorious.

While starting rates for sock-puppet operators at PT. GNI are only marginally above the average for blue-collar occupations, Dito values the flexibility in working hours and the potential for promotion—benefits that contrast starkly with his corruption-ridden factory work experience. Sporting the title of ‘social media specialist’ at PT. GNI provides Dito another advantage when the time comes to move on. In Indonesia’s grueling job market, entry-level positions may demand years of experience, and many endure hours of unpaid internships to build portfolios that grant them the right to work. For young aspirants like Dito, PT. GNI offers a respite against a system that binds many to exploitation.

Karim, the boss of PT. GNI himself, is a university dropout from a working-class family. He proudly champions his self-taught experiences, encouraging his staff to embark on similar self-learning journeys. Assuming the role of a ‘tough love’ mentor, he presents himself as a tenacious self-starter able to ascend from his family’s checkered past and gain upward mobility through his buzzing venture. In Indonesia, especially among the working-class, the hallmark of success is often defined through attaining the profession of civil servants and the military. The path to promotion within these careers is often seen as fraught with corruption, intense office politicking, bribery, or reliance on kinship ‘connections’. Despite developing a business dependent also on patronage, Karim views buzzing as an enterprise where merit is proven first to establish ‘connections’. To him, ‘connections’ are earned as a result of achievement, not a prerequisite for it. As he told me in one of our casual conversations,

We’re no longer living in an era where folks gauge you by your title—whether you’re a soldier, or something else. That time has passed. We’re in an era where your worth is determined by what you can create. So, say you’re a soldier. And? You flash around in your uniform, and so what? The public’s interest? Zero. No one gives a damn. ... You know my wife, right? A midwife (bidan). Now, midwives always go for soldiers, don't they? But I managed to win her over, because I’ve built a business—a digital business. What do these soldiers have to show for themselves?

Karim sees his venture as a vehicle that can disrupt traditional hierarchies in Indonesia. While status-bearers such as soldiers have traditionally been seen as an authoritative body, particularly among the lower-middle-class, Karim believes this is an age where an individual’s worth is gauged by merit within buzzing operations—his skills, knowledge, and diligence. Whereas upward mobility has traditionally been a challenging hurdle for the working-class in Indonesia, buzzing operations have carved a makeshift path—and a potentially harmful one—allowing these young workers to align themselves with Indonesia’s broader ambitions towards a digital economy. Most importantly, buzzing work affords them dignity—perhaps a currency of the highest value for the marginalized, although one that might be earned at the expense of others.

Working-Class, the 2024 Elections, and Beyond

For all the transformation that generative AI and buzzing operations have brought to the staff of PT. GNI, they have not been able to transform the existing political order within which they operate. Their aspirations to assert control over their lives by transforming themselves into creative workers have mostly been channeled into serving those in power. PT. GNI is not the only one. I have met other political buzzers from similar working-class backgrounds who endeavor to serve the interests of the powerful while scraping together what they can to gain socioeconomic footing.

Demands to track funds used in buzzing operations keep surfacing, but regulations have not been able to provide adequate solution. Although the Election Commission Regulations 2018 No. 23 and 33 are being revised to address political ads on social media, regulations pertaining to buzzer operation remains “within a dark room” — even after a decade since buzzers’ first foray into politics. Previous buzzing campaigns suggest that the primary funding for these influence operations­ originates from the pockets of politicians, political backers, and business magnates, eluding formal campaign finance tracking. Official funds will seemingly continue to support “legitimate” social media campaigns in elections, but money designated for buzzer operations is likely to circulate through such less visible, unregistered channels.

The overall trust toward mainstream media have stagnated at only 39% in 2021-2023 and content creators have increasingly become alternative news sources.

One capability that such operations wield is the authority of influencer accounts in their campaign. As research I co-authored suggested, influencers’ role in discussing political information play a major factor in their enduring appeal. This is despite the fact that buzzing campaigns continue to sway influence going beyond elections. The overall trust toward mainstream media have stagnated at only 39% in 2021-2023 and content creators have increasingly become alternative news sources. Most importantly, buzzing campaigns are woven into the many facets of Indonesia's political-economic lives. These campaigns have been harnessed to champion harmful government and corporate policies—ranging from mismanagement during the Covid-19 crisis, to human rights violations against minorities, and ecologically-damaging real estate and extractive industries. These influence operations reinforce Indonesia’s predatory political machinery, of which elections are merely a facet. As I have argued elsewhere, their role is an extension of conventional gangsters and militias mobilized by the political-economic elites in the Global South to safeguard their interests and ensure unobstructed extraction. Much like buzzers, they are poorly regulated, and the funds utilized to mobilize them often flow through murky channels.

Perhaps the persistent involvement of such militias can shed light on the sluggish enactment of robust regulations to oversee the flow of buzzing funds: their shadowy, unregistered character is integral to the conduct of Indonesia’s political-economic elites. While the demand for accountability remains significant, the path to illuminating this shadowy industry might be less straightforward.

As a multi-faceted issue, it is thus crucial that we not only unravel the structure sustaining them, but also probe the heart of the drivers of these operations. How does a public life that disenfranchises young people exacerbate this issue? What truly fuels the passion of those involved, beyond the potential for financial gain?

Through this examination of PT. GNI’s interplay of labor, power, and identity, this article hopes to join a growing field of research seeking to peel back not only the layers of political complexities that enable these operations, but also the contextual factors that contribute to the development of the local political buzzer network. It is only with this understanding that we can begin to lay the foundation for the next monumental task: the subversion and harnessing of this latent potential, based on progressive principles, transforming it into a force capable of reshaping political order.

Further Reading

Investigating the Companies Behind our Political Opinions: a case study by the Influence Industry Project

WhatsApp: The Widespread Use of WhatsApp in Political Campaigning in the Global South: a deep-dive report into how WhatsApp, an early tool of buzzers and influencers, can be used for political influence

About the Author:

Pradipa P. Rasidi is a digital anthropologist. He has conducted research on influence operations and algorithmic relations, with a particular interest in the forms of imagination and belongings that emerge when individuals inhabit the “in-betweens.” His research on buzzers has been published in academic journals such as HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory; Communication, Culture and Critique; and ISEAS Perspectives; as well as mentioned in news outlets such as The Guardian, Reuters, and Channel News Asia. Currently, he serves as the Digital Rights and Research Project Coordinator (Indonesia) for EngageMedia, a non-profit dedicated to digital rights, open technology, and video documentaries in the Asia-Pacific region. Pradipa can be reached via LinkedIn @pradipapr or X, formerly known as Twitter, @PradipaPR.

If you want to find out more about the firms that support political parties engage with Google advertising, head over to The Influence Industry Explorer.

The influence industry is led since 2016 by Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics team addressing the pervasive data-driven technologies used by political groups within elections and political campaigns.

First published: October 31, 2023.

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