Reflecting on the changing use of social media in political campaigns: Lessons from Indonesia’s 2024 election | Melbourne Asia Review

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Despite regular elections, many nations in Asia are experiencing democratic setbacks. In at least some of the cases, such as the Philippines, India, and Indonesia, new populist leaders have benefited tremendously from using social media before and during election campaigns. This means that despite not having a stronghold over the ownership of more traditional news media political elites can influence many voters through social media.

In the case of the Philippines and Indonesia, there has also been a reconfiguration of political dynasties. In the Philippines, Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ R. Marcos Jr. was sworn in as president in June 2022 together with his vice-presidential running mate and daughter of Duterte, Sara. The Duterte family itself hails from an established local political dynasty in Mindanao, while Bongbong is of course the son of Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., the long-time Cold War era dictator. Likewise, Prabowo Subianto, former son in law of Indonesia’s longest reining and authoritarian President Suharto, and Gibran R. Raka, incumbent Joko Widodo’s son, were declared winners of the 2024 presidential election with 58 per cent of the votes. Both victories saw the prominent use of social media. What lessons can we draw specifically from the deployment of social media for political campaigning in Indonesia’s most recent elections?

The changing use of social media in Indonesian election campaigns

Social media was used effectively by the 2012 campaign of Joko Widodo to become governor of Jakarta and then president in 2014 and 2019. It was also used effectively by Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahja Purnama in his campaign to become governor of Jakarta in 2017. Social media has taken on new significance in elections in Indonesia. Studies have noted that their experimental use of social media, integrated with their on-the-ground (blusukan) campaign and the involvement of volunteer groups, were a key part of their successful political marketing strategies.

Since at least 2014, the extensive use of social media in campaigning has transformed and remained a primary element of political campaigning. Perhaps the most significant change has been the increased dissemination of fake news, misinformation, and hate speech. In at least the three elections—the victory of Anies Baswedan in the 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial Elections and Jokowi in the Presidential Elections of 2014 and 2019—social media was no longer simply mobilised to garner voter support but was also instrumental in creating a politics of hatred, political polarisation, and ethnic nationalism. Electoral actors, from incumbents to oppositions, capitalise on religious and ethnic identity politics to garner votes, attack opposing sides, and sway public opinion. These issues are fabricated, framed, and amplified across various social media platforms through the support of political consulting industries, political celebrities (social media influencers with huge followings, typically popular for their political commentary), and buzzers (individuals who are paid to spread certain content on social media platforms).

Two presidential candidates of the 2024 presidential elections—Prabowo Subianto and Anies Baswedan—had used social media in relation to identity politics in previous elections. Prabowo, often depicted as a populist figure with authoritarian tendencies, successfully garnered support from Muslim groups in the 2019 presidential and general elections by portraying himself as a president chosen through the consensus of religious scholars. Anies Baswedan, previously known as a Muslim-liberal intellectual, won the 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial Elections over his Christian, Chinese rival Ahok by benefiting from the widespread hatred that was directed towards Ahok by hard-line Islamists. Studies note that in his victory speech, Anies doubled down on the religious identity rhetoric that bolstered his campaign and propelled him to win the Jakarta governorship.

But the pattern of social media campaigns in the 2024 elections has been most characterised by the strategy of ‘politainment’, taking inspiration from the campaigns of President Bongbong Marcos and Vice President Sara Duterte in 2022. Bongbong and Sara extensively utilised social media for joyful personal and political rebranding to influence first-time voters. Bongbong Marcos used especially TikTok to reframe his father’s regime’s history as a period of political stability and economic growth. He benefited from coordinated disinformation campaigns suggesting the Marcos family’s wealth came from legitimate sources and portraying Ferdinand Marcos as an exceptionally effective leader. As a result, Bongbong Marcos and Sara Duterte, representing political dynasties and dictatorship in the Philippines, won with significant voter support.

During the 2024 elections, the campaign teams of Prabowo and his vice-presidential running mate Gibran portrayed Prabowo as the ‘fun/cuddly uncle’ (paman gemoy) and Gibran as the ‘young leader’ (pemimpin muda). Prabowo, a General from the ‘New Order’ era, was allegedly involved in human rights abuses in East TimorPapua and Jakarta through a large part of the Soeharto presidency. Prabowo’s alliance with Gibran, Jokowi’s eldest son, was made possible when the latter was allowed to run in the election after a late change was made to the Article within Indonesia’s General Elections Law, which had stipulated that President and Vice President must be at least 40 years old. The change was seen by pro-democratic proponents to be laden with nepotism and dynastic politics.

The images of the candidates were presented very differently by their political campaigns on various social media platforms, especially TikTok, which manufactured ‘politainment’. They used AI technology to create child-like versions of Prabowo-Gibran, and to showcase various videos featuring ‘fun dances’ mimicking the dance Prabowo once demonstrated during the drawing of lots at the KPU (General Elections Commission). They created the hashtag #gemoychallenge (fun uncle challenge) to invite their supporters to join in. They also mobilised support from celebrities and micro-influencers through various means, ranging from specific content expressing support for the Prabowo-Gibran ticket, music concerts, and mass campaigns. They also involved celebrities in the entourage of their ‘success team’ during the multiple televised presidential and vice-presidential debates. All of this content was disseminated and framed under the narrative of ‘joyful’ politics (politik riang gembira).

Their rivals, Anies Baswedan and Muhaiman Iskandar, also deployed political gimmicks in their campaign. Anies once posted a photo of himself watching One Piece, an anime that is very popular among first-time Indonesian young voters. He also mimicked the ‘sasageyo’ salute when closing the first presidential debate, adopted from the anime series Attack on Titan, which was intended to convey that Anies-Muhaimin brings the spirit of liberation. Meanwhile, the other pairing of Ganjar Pranowo and Mahfud M.D. used a three-finger salute used in the Hunger Games movies and book series by protagonist Katnis Everdeen, symbolising the people’s rebellion against the leader. Like Prabowo’s fun dance challenge, Ganjar also created an Instagram account that featured videos made to look as if he was breakdancing.

However, compared to Prabowo-Gibran’s social media campaign, which fully relied on gimmicks and politainment, the campaigns of Anies-Muhaimin and Ganjar-Mahfud on social media were coloured with substance and more interactive engagement between the candidates and their targeted voters. Anies and Muhaimin popularised live formats for public engagement as part of their political campaign, which leveraged governance strategies that involved interactions with citizens. ‘Push Anies’ (Desak Anies) and ‘Nudge Imin’ (Slepet Imin) was organised through public events and made accessible through multiple digital platforms, and showcased direct dialogues between the candidates and the public discussing public issues. To attract zillennial voters (roughly those born between 1995 to the 2007) on the TikTok platform, Anies also frequently conducted TikTok live chats casually to respond to greetings and questions from viewers. Although this was only done for a few months, the strategy proved successful in garnering sympathy from voters and creating a new voter niche among zillennials and K-Poppers (Korean Pop fans). They dubbed Anies their ‘Online Dad’ (Abah Online) and created a fanbase called ‘Aniesbubble’ to gather K-pop fans who supported Anies Baswedan. They also had unique nicknames, such as ‘Owl Ahjussi’ (Abah Owl), and even produced Korean sounding names for Anies and Muhaimin, respectively ‘Park Ahn Nice’ and ‘Cha I Min’. The live dialogue approach conducted by Anies on TikTok was able to bind K-Popper voters and translate into material support, such as fundraising to create campaign merchandise, videotron ads, and food trucks providing campaign-themed food, drinks, and merchandise such as photocards, stickers, light sticks, and standing banners featuring Anies Baswedan.

Anies’ dialogic campaign model was eventually imitated by the Ganjar-Mahfud camp, which introduced programs such as ‘Roll Out the Mat’ (Gelar Tikar) and ‘Knock It Prof’ (Tabrak Prof) – the latter being a reference to Mahfud’s academic status. Just like Anies, Mahfud also used the platform TikTok for casual chats with his followers. This TikTok live strategy was carried out by Mahfud to give the impression of being relaxed, not stiff, and able to keep up with the times.

Old story, new audience?

Indonesia’s 167 million active social media users, comprising 60.4 percent of the population, are a prime target for electoral candidates. Over 60 percent of those under 22 and between 22 and 30 spend significant time on social media daily, including for election information. The diversity of platforms has led to different strategies for targeting culturally distinctive voter groups. Social media is increasingly used to win support from millennials and zillennials, the majority of voters in the 2024 election. While Indonesian youth are more skeptical towards national politics and seek a transformative election, the success of Prabowo and Gibran can be attributed to their ability to garner support from more highly educated millennial and zillennial voters.

The diversity of social media platforms has forced electoral actors to create different strategies to target culturally distinct voter groups. Facebook and Twitter (now X), for example, are no longer the only social media platforms favoured by young voters. A survey by the  Katadata Insight Center shows that young voters increasingly find political information on Instagram and TikTok. The Research and Development Survey by Kompas also found that more than 60 percent of under 22 year olds and those aged between 22 and 30 tend to spend a lot of time on social media every day. Approximately 55 percent of voters in the 2024 elections were aged between 17 and 44, so the use of diverse social media platforms by political campaign teams was crucial.

So how did Prabowo, who was dishonourably discharged from his military post in 1998 and has a track record of human rights violations, win the presidential elections? And why did Prabowo and Gibran garner support from individuals with higher education levels, as well as millennial and zillennial voters?

A survey by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies August 2022 found that the majority of young people, especially those facing economic uncertainty are concerned about economic issues: especially social welfare (44 percent) and employment opportunities (21 percent). Young people who exercise their democratic rights are critical of candidates’ campaigns, and question issues such as corruption, dynastic politics, and mental health. However, this group is small, based in urban areas and, while digitally-savvy, do not have a huge following in rural areas and among precarious, working and lower-middle class millennials and zillennials. Notably, a section of these working and lower-middle class millennials in urban cities are working in casual and precarious jobs below their education levels. Meanwhile Prabowo-Gibran’s campaign purposely targeted TikTok audiences who are exposed by algorithms to bite-sized ‘politainment’ and political gimmicks in between their work breaks or after a long day’s work. Hence, alleged the human rights violations of Prabowo are not the primary priority in their decision-making process; much less so than promises of employment stability. A survey from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies revealed that 44 percent of young people, particularly those facing job uncertainty, are more concerned about economic issues such as social welfare and work opportunities compared to, for instance, climate change and human rights. Prabowo’s social media rebranding has positioned him as a ‘friendly’ leader who can help young people who have been failed by promises of economic improvement and increased welfare (kesejahteraan) that should have been brought by neoliberal economic developments.

After all, before his rebranding, Prabowo had portrayed himself as a strong leader during the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections, repeating patriotic narratives of him leading Indonesia as a commanding and decisive leader. This strong persona was built over decades with social media campaigning. In 2024, it was combined with a ‘cute’ persona through Artificial Intelligence avatars and TikTok dances: a strong leader willing to soften himself to a generation of young voters lacking the kind of secure employment options available to their parents. Both personas co-exist alongside promises of a USD 29 million free school lunch plan. His pairing with Gibran also affirmed that his government would be a continuation of Jokowi’s, promising stability despite leadership change. 

Prabowo may have successfully captured the support of the majority of young voters who long for continuity in a rapidly changing world. But absent in these narratives are the consequences of, based on historical precedence, the possible further narrowing of political spaces for young people to have a say in what kind of future they want to build from themselves.

The widening of social space for political expression has been a central achievement of democratisation in Indonesia and the re-strengthening of political dynasties is indeed a set-back. Yet, alliances between political dynasties may not be internally strong. Intra-elite ruptures develop where interests compete, as we have seen  in the case of the Marcos-Duterte alliance, which all but collapsed after just two years. And in these events, their political backers and supporters will again mobilise public opinion to create more intense political pressure on their rivals in the hope that the changing tides of politics go their way.

Social media narratives are useful for us to get a picture of the alignment of the elite’s policy priorities and the values of their supposed publics. They also provide insights on available democratic discourses  about social media as a catalyst for meaningful change that could hopefully be swayed in favour of the collective interest of young people rather than a handful of powerful families.

Authors: Dr Hurriyah and Dr Inaya Rakhmani.

Image: People on a train in Jakarta. Credit: Imam Hartoyo/Flickr.

This article was edited very slightly after publication.


election Gibran Indonesia oligarchs politainment Prabowo social media