Webinar on “Digital Disruption: How Cyber Troops Manipulate Political Opinion in Southeast Asia”

In this webinar, Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja and Dr Wijayanto examined the prevalence of cyber troop activities in Southeast Asia, and their impact on cybersecurity and democracy.


Thursday, 10 December 2020 – Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja (ISEAS) and Dr Wijayanto (LP3ES and Diponegoro University) spoke on “Digital Disruption: How Cyber Troops Manipulate Political Opinion in Southeast Asia” at an ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute webinar. The event was moderated by ISEAS Visiting Fellow, Mr Dien Nguyen An Luong. 

As part of a research project on “Cyber troops and public opinion manipulation: social media propaganda in Indonesia” that is conducted in collaboration with researchers from the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, Drone Emprit, and Diponegoro University, Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja said that the project aims to create a better understanding of online political manipulation in Indonesia and more broadly in Southeast Asia. A combination of computational data analysis, in-depth interviews, digital ethnography will elucidate how cyber troops are organised online and offline, their narratives and motivations, and devise new responses to online political manipulation.

Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja
Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja argued that cyber troop activity is a symptom of failing democracy. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Yatun said that social media manipulation has intensified globally in the form of state-sponsored actions to support the ruling elites. These types of digital disruptions have been typically dealt with by a cybersecurity approach through increased internet regulations and controls. In a region where internet freedom was deemed generally low, a preliminary examination of cyber troop operations and their political contexts in Southeast Asia indicate no clear correlation between shrinking civic space and the rise of cyber troops. However, she said that there has been increasing evidence of reliance on and professionalisation of online political campaigns with organised cyber troops, as seen in the 2016 presidential elections in Philippines and 2019 general elections in Indonesia.

Dr Yatun argued that cyber troop activity is a symptom of failing democracy. Long term efforts to address the prevalence of cyber troops include the prioritisation of digital literacy, support for press freedom and establishment of democratic institutions. She also argued that the project’s investigation into cyber troop activities can yield important insights into policies and measures that can achieve a balance between cyber security and democracy.

Dr Wijayanto shared preliminary results of their project which highlight how public opinion on social media had been manipulated to justify two problematic policies in Indonesia, namely the bill on the revision of law on corruption eradication commission (KPK) in 2019 and the omnibus law in 2020. Social media network analysis of the two cases found a sudden emergence of social media conversations with the narrative of supporting the bills, mostly promoted by cyber troops comprised of robots, anonymous Twitter accounts and influencers affiliated to the government. He said that this had in turn successfully amplified media reports and influenced public opinion despite ongoing protests, with 44.9% of Indonesians supporting the KPK revision bill in a Kompas survey on 16 September 2019.

Cyber troop activity was similarly present in shaping public opinion to support the Omnibus law in 2020. Online conversations of photos, memes, and videos were mobilized around related hashtags espousing narratives of the Omnibus law is beneficial in eradicating corruption (#OmnibusLawBasmiKorupsi) and providing job opportunities (#RakyatButuhUUCiptaKerja). Notably, Dr Wijayanto observed that the online public manipulation campaign had continued even after the law was passed, countering existing research that cyber troops in Indonesia only operate during elections.

Dr Wijayanto
Dr Wijayanto explained that in this digital landscape controlled by cyber troops, the digital public sphere is no longer a free public space which empowers civil society. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In both cases, there have been resistance towards public opinion manipulation by civil society activists who shared narratives about the danger of both bills. However, Dr Wijayanto said that they have been outnumbered and outlasted by cyber troops, resulting in declining protests amid growing public acceptance of the bills over time. He argued that in this digital landscape controlled by cyber troops that promote the agenda of the ruling powers, the digital public sphere is no longer a free public space which empowers civil society.

The webinar concluded with a question-and-answer session that covered issues ranging from the implications of future trends of computational propaganda on the responses to cyber troop threats, whether social media platforms are well-equipped to detect and curb cyber troop activity and mobilization, the labour organization and demographics of cyber troops, and motivations of private corporations that act as a middleman between the government and online cyber troops.

70 participants attended the webinar. The session was moderated by Mr Dien Nguyen An Luong. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)