weaponization algorithms to silence dissent

Distorting online discussion threatens media literacy.

A social media cyber war has raged throughout Indonesia’s last two presidential elections. Journalists are still feeling the effects years later – online discussions have been skewed to give the impression of a majority view, and those who disagree are being silenced.

Victims of what the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann dubbed the “spiral of silence” theory, citizens remain in the grip of fear and repress their participation in public debate.

Aalgorithms sorting out a user’s social media feed based on relevance and interest, dragging them into echo chambers where the discussion becomes increasingly polarized. In Indonesia, cyberwarriors became influential when they used algorithms to skew the popularity of topics.

In the past, mass media could influence public debate by pushing a particular agenda, but now algorithms go further, distorting public perception of mainstream opinion.

The research shed light on the tools used to connect like-minded users through algorithms. Cyber ​​warriors – sometimes better known as paid “buzzers”, no doubt managed by official campaign strategists – create very specific social media feeds that amplify and systematically shift talking points in mainstream political discourse. One of the goals is to silence the free press by orchestrating discourse on social media.

To take some recent examples, the hashtag #TurunkanJokowi (“Take down Jokowi”) peaked on April 7, 2022, while #MahasiswaBergerak (“Student Move”) and #SayaBersamaJokowi (“I’m with Jokowi”) appeared on April 9, 2022. April and reaches its peak on April 10. (‘Jokowi’ is how Indonesian President Joko Widodo is popularly known.)

Topics like #SayaBersamaJokowi were created by a cyber warrior and then discussed by social media users. When journalists attempt to cover the student movement (using the hashtag #MahasiswaBergerak), cyberwarriors focus on criticism of Jokowi. This creates a threatening environment for journalists as they offer a different narrative than #SayaBersamaJokowi in social media conversations.

Generation X and Baby Boomers rely heavily on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp for their political information. This may reduce the age-related digital divide, but it does not close the digital literacy gap. Previous generations’ lack of familiarity with how algorithms work means they are reluctant to voice their opinion if it appears to be a minority opinion. Thus, the spiral of silence threatens the ability of journalists to play their usual role in shaping public debate.

Indonesia is known for its active internet users. Like-minded people engage in “enclaved deliberations” to discuss politics among themselves on social media. However, this has not led to digital literacy, even in what is supposed to be a literate generation. The mocking terms “panastak” (which comes from PAsukan NASi koTAK: a (cyber) army paid as much as a lunch box costs) and “panasbung” (similar to panastak, but even cheaper) mutated and gave rise to new terms for supporters. Jokowi’s supporters were called “cebong“, and Prabowo’s supporters were called”kampret”. The algorithms mean that people “friendly” with Cebong mostly receive content that supports Jokowi, and vice versa.

Social media algorithms adjust the content and further strengthen the user’s perspective, and these aspects lead to the polarization of policy discussion. Echo chambers, assisted by algorithms, reinforce polarization by creating filter bubbles, and make opinions more extreme. Social media users have less complete and accurate information when drawing conclusions about what others are feeling and thinking.

The spiral of silence erodes trust in the news media and challenges journalists to maintain media integrity. Enclosed deliberation means that political supporters encounter little opposition to their opinions. If it’s a contest between cybertroopers and journalists, the algorithm is the judge – and it will always decide in favor of the cybertroopers.

Algorithms have reinforced polarization and changed the way people discuss politics with each other. The challenge for journalists is to deliver a more balanced narrative, while maintaining their integrity. Above all, media institutions have a duty to relentlessly expose government oppression. Digital media education in Indonesia also needs to improve, and it depends on the ability to assess the truth and see the big picture.

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Sharon D. Cole