About six hours before Ravio Patra disappeared on the evening of April 22, he posted an urgent message on Twitter. “Hi all. I’m having trouble with my WhatsApp,” he wrote. “Please DO NOT contact me on WhatsApp and if you are in a group where I am also a member, please remove me or if you can’t, exit the group immediately. Thanks.”

Through his Twitter account, Ravio, a public policy researcher with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a U.K.-based civil society organization, was a frequent critic of the Indonesian government. The previous night, he had confronted a member of the Indonesian president’s special staff, Billy Mambrasar, on WhatsApp and Twitter. Ravio had alleged that Mambrasar’s work with the government created a conflict of interest because the advisor’s firm, Papua Muda Inspiratif, worked on public projects.

High on adrenaline, Ravio had been unable to sleep afterward, and in the early hours of the morning, he stepped out of his rented room in Menteng, Jakarta, to feed the stray cats that gather in his neighborhood. He remembers feeling then that he was being watched, that cars were following him everywhere.

When he woke up after midday, he found that he couldn’t get into his WhatsApp account. There was a text message containing three OTP codes at 12:11, 12:13, and 12:16, respectively. Between 13:19 and 14:05, he received a number of calls from unknown phone numbers. He contacted a friend who connected him to a WhatsApp executive in Singapore, who confirmed that his account had been compromised. 

Around 18:40, WhatsApp managed to recover Ravio’s account. Ravio always suspected this was no ordinary scam. There were dozens of angry messages from unknown numbers, one of which included a screenshot of a message purportedly sent from Ravio’s number. “CRISIS HAS ALREADY BURNED! LET’S UNITE AND BURN ON 30 APRIL FOR MASS LOOTING NATIONALLY, ALL STORES ARE FOR US TO LOOT,” the message read. It was a setup.

At 19:00, he contacted the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, a human rights organization. They instructed him to turn off his phone and find a safe house. He didn’t move quickly enough. Before he arrived at the meeting point, where someone sent by the foundation was waiting to look after him, a group of men — policemen, it later emerged — ambushed him on the street and forced him into a car. He spent 33 hours in detention but was never charged with a crime.

“It sends shivers to my bones,” Ravio tells Rest of World. “I didn’t know what would happen [later that day], and it never crossed my mind that it would escalate as fast as it did.”

Ravio’s arrest fits into a concerning trend line in Indonesia, which was once a rare bright spot in a region where digital freedoms are being persistently undermined. Over the past few years, the Indonesian authorities have used anti-misinformation legislation, bandwidth throttling, internet shutdowns, and naked intimidation to prevent opponents from organizing. Police have been accused by civil society organizations of creating fake WhatsApp groups to smear opponents. Influencers have been paid by the government and their supporters to amplify the regime’s narrative. Unknown parties have hacked and impersonated critics. The rapid escalation of these attacks on free expression has led the digital rights watchdog SAFEnet to warn that Indonesia is in “stage one of digital authoritarianism.”

“That egalitarian space for having [free] conversation has been destroyed,” SAFEnet executive director Damar Juniarto says. “If left unchecked, we could be one of those countries in the region that only appears democratic, but is actually imprisoned.”

President Joko Widodo of Indonesia waves to supporters in Bali, shortly before winning reelection in May.
Bryan Denton/Redux

There is a cruel irony to the current administration’s crackdown on online freedom: It was, after all, the democratizing power of the internet and social media that propelled the current president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, into office. 

In the 1990s, as opposition grew to the authoritarian “new order” regime under then-President Suharto, a secret network of journalists referred to as Blok M collaborated with internet service provider Nusanet and the American academic John MacDougall to dodge harsh censorship to distribute news. The journalists would send a manuscript to MacDougall, who would then distribute it via apakabar@clark.net. Apakabar was one of several mailing lists at the time hosting social and political discussions. When the newspaper Tempo was banned alongside two others in 1994, its staff launched a digital version, allowing it to evade the censors. 

Credited with undermining the Suharto regime, these digital platforms were instrumental in spreading information during the political upheavals that ultimately led to the president’s resignation in May 1998.

In the years that followed, millions of young Indonesians came online. Today around 199 million people in the country of 270 million use the internet, 160 million of whom have social media accounts, according to data from internet research company Hootsuite.

President Joko Widodo — known as Jokowi — harnessed the organizing power of social media in 2014, running as an outsider candidate without ties to any of the country’s political dynasties. Unusually for Indonesian politicians, he entered the fray with a social media team and hosts of grassroots cyber volunteers. He and his supporters urged direct citizen involvement, mediated through technology.

Juniarto and his colleagues had launched SAFEnet to monitor digital freedom across the region in 2013. Its founders were far more concerned with the obvious threats emerging in Vietnam, Myanmar, and Singapore than with those in their own backyard. Enthused by the Widodo campaign’s message, Juniarto joined two dozen other internet activists in declaring support for the candidate, hoping to maintain the momentum and eventually achieve what the community called “digital democracy” — direct political participation in political decision-making by citizens using digital tools.

It was an endorsement they have come to regret. 

Over the next few years, the environment degraded as Kominfo, the government’s ministry of communication and information technology, tried to tighten its control over online spaces. The government’s supporters and opponents took advantage of the 2008 Electronic Information and Transactions law, which allows them to investigate political rivals on charges that include defamation and “inciting hostility,” a broad and ill-defined term. Last June, Ahmad Dhani, an opposition-supporting musician, was charged after calling rival activists “idiots” in a vlog, and sentenced to a year in prison.

Since 2018, the most vulnerable groups on the internet have shifted from general citizens to “vocal groups” like journalists, activists, and academics, according to Ika Ningtyas, the head of SAFEnet’s freedom of speech division. “Looking at the trend, we know digital [tools] are indeed being used to silence critics,” Ika says.

Over the past 18 months, the pressure has intensified. In May 2019, Jokowi won a second term, but his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, initially refused to concede defeat. Eight people were killed in the rioting that followed, after calls to protest were disseminated through social media. In response, the government ordered mobile networks to reduce their capacity, a process known as “bandwidth throttling,” to limit protesters’ ability to mobilize and outside observers’ ability to monitor the situation. The Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Wiranto said that the measure was necessary to “avoid incitement and [prevent] false news” from circulating. The authorities repeated the tactic in August during unrest incited by viral videos of Indonesian police calling Papuan students “monkeys” and “dogs.” That month, amid anti-racist demonstrations in Papua and West Papua, in the east of the Indonesian archipelago, the government shut down the internet in the entire province. 

Arif Susanto, a political analyst at consultancy Exposit Strategic, said that the use of the shutdowns shows the government’s inability to manage dissent. Rather than “tackling hoaxes,” as the government claimed, all they do is control information flow. “[An] internet shutdown is the next step of a censorship regime,” he says.

A demonstration protesting the Ministry of Communication and Information Technologys in Jakarta, after internet access was restricted in eastern Papua in 2019.
Andrew Gal/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Shutting or slowing down the internet is a blunt instrument, but the government has also deployed more sophisticated — and more insidious — tactics.

Since 2017, the government has spent $6 million (90 billion rupiah) on 40 different procurement tenders containing the keywords “influencers” or “key opinion leaders,” according to Indonesia Corruption Watch, a public accountability watchdog.

This includes hiring people like Pepih Nugraha. A former journalist who built a popular citizen journalism platform, Kompasiana Pepih has since established himself as a broker of online influence. During the 2019 presidential election, he coordinated a team of 15–20 writers and influencers to promote Jokowi’s campaign, producing narrative articles, memes, comics, slideshows, and videos portraying the candidate as a family man and a courageous and decisive politician.

Pepih doesn’t see an issue in the government communicating its policies through influencers. He believes that the narrative of skewing public perception is just what traditional media want the people to believe. “In the past, only mainstream magazines were able to do that,” he said.

Pepih argues that hiring influencers is just a cheaper and more effective form of advertising than paying for space in traditional media and that their work is similar — simply disseminating information on behalf of the government. He suggests that opponents use the same strategy and “hire better influencers” to counter the government’s narrative. 

However, the ICW warned that social media does not have a fact-filtering mechanism, like the more conventional mass media, and that public policies that are socialized by the government are often “problematic, sensitive, controversial, and polemical.”

In September 2019, Kominfo backed an influencer campaign in support of the palm oil sector, which was facing a backlash as forest fires — some linked to the industry — burned across Sumatra and Kalimantan, causing nearly 900,000 cases of severe respiratory infection. In August this year, a government supporters’ network, calling itself Jaringan Bonus Demografi, hired influencers to promote the “omnibus bill,” a wide-ranging, controversial piece of legislation that the government says will create jobs but which opponents say will undermine labor rights and damage the environment. Both campaigns sparked a social media backlash.

Although Pepih insists that he works only with influencers — real people with public personalities — the use of so-called “buzzers” is also commonplace in Indonesia. Buzzer accounts, which can be people or bots, are employed to artificially inflate traffic and make sure that topics or stories trend. 

In 2017, more than 20 people, each with at least five fake twitter accounts and one Instagram account, were reportedly employed to propagate support for Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as “Ahok,” in the reelection. Meanwhile, anti-Ahok sentiment was propelled by the Muslim Cyber Army, or the MCA, which used hundreds of fake and anonymous accounts. 

When attempts to spin its own narratives fail, there are more sinister methods employed — if not by the government itself, then by its supporters.

In September 2019, when students took to the streets to protest against a new criminal code that would limit criticism of the president, online activists alleged that the national police had created a WhatsApp group in which they posed as students and talked about being paid to demonstrate in an attempt to discredit the movement. 

Jokowi-supporting accounts, including that of influencers Eko Kuntadhi and Denny Siregar, popularized the false reports, which were quickly debunked by journalists. Eko has over 62,000 followers on Twitter and 130,000 followers on his Facebook page and is one of the government’s most popular influencers, along with Denny, who has 875,800 followers on Twitter and 918,000 on Facebook. Neither was reprimanded by the authorities for spreading misinformation. Meanwhile, a blogger from Makassar was arrested after posting a Twitter thread criticizing the omnibus bill, which the police claimed was “spreading false information.” The blogger was later released due to lack of evidence.

Ravio was ambushed by the police and held for 33 hours without charge.
Facebook/Ravio Patra

Since his own release, Ravio has been living a disconnected life. He has no SIM card, and all of his devices — two smartphones and two laptops — were taken by the police and have yet to be returned. Twelve years of his personal data has gone with them.

“Can you imagine losing all your data overnight?” he says. “In this internet age, I feel like I’m reborn but not in a good way. I have to restart my life in that sense.”

After Ravio’s detention in April, opposition to Indonesia’s government has increased, due to a perceived mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and continued anger over the omnibus bill. In response, cyberattacks on activists and critics have also accelerated.

In August, the Twitter account of Pandu Riono, a prominent epidemiologist known for criticizing the government’s handling of Covid-19, was hijacked. On the same day, there were cyberattacks against news website Tirto.id, while news website Tempo.co was hacked two days later, on Friday, August 21.

“There were people who tried to delete news that was considered detrimental to them. You may have heard the term ‘the right to be forgotten,’ [here we have] people who illegally try to be forgotten,” Tempo’s editor in chief Arif Zulkifli says.

In early October, several high-profile demonstrators participating in a three-day protest against the Omnibus Law, including a chairwoman of a workers union and student organization leaders, reported facing cyberattacks on their WhatsApp accounts.

At the same time, the national police were trying to build public opinion against the demonstrations. On October 5, a document was leaked on Twitter showing that the national police were instructing regional police departments to conduct “cyber patrol” and “media management” on social media to propagate negative sentiment against the student-labor strikes and build “counter narratives” against issues that discredit the government. As protests continued throughout the month, the police arrested seven administrators of Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram accounts used to organize demonstrations for allegedly “inciting riots.”

Arif, the political analyst, says that the escalation marks a dangerous moment for Indonesian democracy. After the contested election, the Jokowi government absorbed its political opponents, offering some of them important roles in the administration. As it gets bigger, and more disconnected from the people on the street, the state has to resort to more aggressive tactics to stay in control, he says.

“All this intimidation does not stand alone, but it’s part of the aggressive, reckless efforts by the political and economic elites to hijack the direction of the state,” Arif says. “The future of Indonesian democracy is at stake, unless the power of the masses is able to suppress Jokowi as much as when they supported him during the election.”