Propaganda and Public Opinion Manipulation in Southeast Asia’s Cybersphere
Part 1Session 2
Wed 14:00-15:30 Room 3.05
Part 2Session 3
Wed 16:00-17:30 Room 3.05
- Ward Berenschot Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies
- Yatun Sastramidjaja University of Amsterdam
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Cybertrooping in the ecosystem of digital repression: Insights from Thailand
Janjira Sombatpoonsiri Institute of Asian Studies/Chulalongkorn University/Yusof Ishak Institute
In this presentation, I explore how state-sponsored cybertrooping interacts with other digital repression tactics in an autocratic context. My analysis is primarily drawn on the case of Thailand (2014-2020). In response to online criticisms of the monarchy and anti-establishment protests led by tech-savvy youngsters, the regime and its security apparatus have resorted to four main toolkits. These are; censoring and filtering dissenting online messages, penalising those posting them with harsh sentences, manipulating social media content, and deepening “digital surveillance”. Specifically, I show how state-sponsored social manipulation works in tandem with legal persecution in order to flush out and delegitimise dissenting voices. I argue that these tactics have not effectively consolidated the regime’s grip on the info-landscape, as the opposition has also pushed back against the repression. As a result, the push-and-pull dynamics create a vacuum in terms of hegemonic narratives, thereby perpetuating the information warfare between supporters of the pro- and anti-regime blocs.
How The Vietnamese State Uses Cyber Troops to Shape Online Discourse
Dien Luong Institute of Southeast Asian Studies/Yusof Ishak Institute
Since its official inception in 2017, Vietnam’s 10-000-strong military cyber unit, dubbed Force 47, has been subjected to widespread lampoon, criticism and backlash. Critics have pointed the finger at what is widely assumed as the main objective of the unit: target dissidents and activists and mass-report anti-state content in order to have their accounts suspended and “anti-state” posts removed. While there is some truth to this observation, zeroing in on such operations could risk glossing over the core duties laid out at the very outset for Force 47. In the view of the authorities, Force 47 has a legitimate raison d’être: These “well qualified and loyal” cyber-warriors work “every hour, every minute, every second” to scour and collect information on social media, participate in online debates to maintain “a healthy cyberspace” and counter any “wrongful opinions” about the regime and protect it and the public from “toxic information”.
Social Media Propaganda and Public Opinion Manipulation Across Southeast Asia: A Comparative Analysis
Yatun Sastramidjaja University of Amsterdam
From the recent elections in the Philippines in May 2022, to preliminary debates on the 2024 elections in Indonesia, from regime efforts to consolidate power in Vietnam, to heavy-handed repression of popular opposition in Indonesia and Thailand: political battles in Southeast Asia are increasingly fought out in digital arenas, particularly on social media where opposing camps attempt to win the hearts and minds of electorates and to influence political views and interpretations of political events. In the past decade, political actors – including state actors – across the region not only engage more frequently in online propaganda and public opinion manipulation; they do so in an increasingly organized and (semi-) institutionalized manner, allocating considerable resources to concerted cyber-campaigns and investing substantially in the cyber troops executing these campaigns. Despite the novelty of cyber troops, the limited literature on country-specific cases suggests that, in each country, they are deeply embedded in domestic political structures and cultures; hence, there is much variation in the cyber troop phenomenon across the region. Yet, a comparative analysis of these cases also demonstrates significant patterns in the role and position of cyber troops in Southeast Asia, indicating what is at stake in current renegotiations of state-civil society relations in the region.
The Infrastructure of Public Opinion Manipulation: Cyber troops and Oligarchy in Indonesia
Ward Berenschot Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies
Wija Wijayanto Universitas Diponegoro
Over the last decade, coordinated social media campaigns have become an increasingly important tool for Indonesia’s elites to sway public opinion in their favor. While computational analysis regularly shows that such manipulation is taking place, so far little is known about how social media campaigns are actually organized. Using rare combination of big data analysis of millions of conversation on the twitter and 78 interviews with various types of online mercenaries or ‘buzzers’, in this paper we provide an analysis of how ‘cyber troops’ work, who pays for them, and what interests they tend to serve. We first analyse four such campaigns on twitter– on the presidential campaign during election, on the reform of Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission KPK, on the normalization of new normal policy and on the controversial Omnibus Law. Subsequently we rely on our interviews to discuss how various types of buzzers coordinated and organized these campaigns. We show that a new industry of public opinion manipulators has emerged, as political and economic elites – ranging from government figures, business person to individual politicians as well as party leaders – are paying good salaries to various kinds of buzzers and influencers. These ‘cyber troops’ manipulate public opinion by pushing various narrative in a coordinated fashion, thereby easily overwhelming (and threatening) alternative and critical civil society voices. For this reason we conclude that social media is deepening the oligarchic character of Indonesia’s democracy, as these cyber troops have become an important tool for ruling elites to cement their dominance.
Understanding Virtual Territorialization and Computational Propaganda: The Case of Indonesia’s Cyberspace
Abid Abdurrahman Adonis University of Oxford
The predominant literature on Computational Propaganda and Public Opinion Manipulation on Cyberspace primarily highlights the importance of agential role and regulatory dimension. While this body of literature managed to shape the foundational understanding of the topic, it largely ignores the structural and spatial analysis that create the pre-existing condition and facilitating grounds on which actors render its malicious computational propaganda. Examining the structural and spatial analysis is also a necessity to understand better what perpetuates and hinders the computational propaganda and public opinion manipulation. This research examines the construction of virtual territory and how it relates to computational propaganda by using Indonesia as a case study. The analysis will discuss beyond the infrastructural and regulatory approach that profoundly shape the existing understand of virtual territory. Rather, this research aims to focus on sociological approach of virtual territorialization. This will be interlinked with the computational propaganda in Indonesia. This research intends to contribute both to the discussion of Computational Propaganda and Virtual Territoriality.
Social media are increasingly being used to hamper public debate and influence election outcomes. Yet while the media regularly reports on targeted ads and fake news, much less is known about an equally threatening, emerging phenomenon: the usage of automated bots and secretive teams of hired social media influencers – called ‘cyber troops’ made up of ‘buzzers’ (Indonesia), ‘keyboard warriors’ (Philippines), or ‘trolls’ (Thailand) – to spread political disinformation and propaganda. Since ruling elites are also increasingly using these tools to cement their grip on power, this kind of ‘digital authoritarianism’ has likely contributed to democratic backsliding. This threat is particularly pronounced in Southeast Asia: it is becoming increasingly clear that political and economic elites regularly set up such ‘cyber troops’ to manipulate public opinion, sell particular policies, and win elections. This panel aims to develop an understanding of this nascent and as yet ill-understood threat to democracy. By bringing together a range of studies on the production and consumption of propaganda from across Southeast Asia, this panel aims to foster comparative analysis of its character, its organisation and funding as well as its capacity to weaken public debate and undermine democracy. This panel will serve to prepare a special issue on the same topic.