How deepfakes, softfakes, and an influential social media scene shaped the Indonesian presidential election

Indonesia's 2024 presidential election showcased the growing influence of AI-generated deepfakes and softfakes in swaying public opinion and shaping narratives.

Emily Kohlman

With more than half of the global population involved in over 50 elections this year, deciphering the truth has never been more critical. The ease of use and accessibility of Generative AI tools present challenges to pursuing factual information online, paving the way for harmful narratives created by misinformation and disinformation to take more compelling forms through content that is AI-generated or altered. This digitally manipulated content can take the form of deepfakes, deceitfully realistic content; and softfakes, obviously altered content, such as depicting people as cartoon characters. 

As this doctored content is shared online, narratives transpire. These narrative attacks can spread like wildfire, threatening democratic processes and election integrity. Blackbird.AI’s Constellation Narrative Intelligence Platform analyzed narratives from deepfakes and softfakes related to the Indonesian general election on February 14, 2024.

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One of the most critical dimensions of Blackbird.AI’s narrative intelligence and risk analysis is understanding how all entities, the authors, the hashtags, and the URLs that make up a narrative interact with each other. Our network graphs within our Constellation Platform allow us to map out all the relationships between these entities to quickly identify relative influence and pockets of potential risk. For example, here on this network graph, we are visualizing a geopolitical conflict unfolding online.

Indonesia—the world’s fourth-most populous nation and third-largest democracy—demonstrated the powerful influence of these AI tools during its first leadership change in ten years. Of the more than 204 million registered voters who elected a new president, vice president, and parliamentary and local representatives, around half were under 40. Societal welfare, job opportunities, and human rights were critical issues, and the desire for a fair and transparent election process sparked student protests at some of the country’s largest universities.

Touting an abundance of nickel, coal, oil, and gas reserves, the Southeast Asian country’s position along vital international maritime straits holds economic and political significance in a region where global powers have collided over human rights issues, Taiwan, US military deployments, and China’s aggression in disputed waters – in particular, the South China Sea. Popular yet term-limited outgoing President Jodo “Jokowi” Widodo trod carefully on this front, avoiding criticizing either the US or China by strengthening defense ties with the US while courting Chinese investment – including a multi-billion-dollar high-speed railway primarily funded by Beijing.

LEARN MORE: The Evolution of Misinformation and Disinformation Attacks and Their Organizational Risk

The February election took place 25 years after the resignation of Suharto, Indonesia’s second and longest-serving president who – like many Javanese – used only his given name without a surname. His three-decade-long presidency initially brought the country sustained economic growth, as he employed pro-Western, anti-communism foreign affairs policies, which led to Indonesia rejoining the United Nations and becoming a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). However, increasing political unrest, corruption, and violence undermined Suharto’s once-strong military backing, leading to his resignation in May 1998, shortly after his election to a seventh term.

Allegations of Fraud and Presidential Meddling

The victor of February’s presidential election, former defense minister Prabowo Subianto, has ties to Suharto – his former father-in-law – and Widodo. Subianto won the February election with Widodo’s 36-year-old son and Surakarta city mayor, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, as his running mate. Before the election, the age requirement to seek the presidency or vice presidency in Indonesia was 40. However, a court headed by Widodo’s brother-in-law as chief justice made an exception for those under the age of 40 if they have previously held elected regional office, permitting Gibran to participate.

Subianto’s electoral rivals – governing party candidate Ganjar Pranowo and capital city Jakarta’s former Governor Anies Baswedan – both launched cases seeking a rerun of the February election and disqualification of Subianto and his running mate due to presidential meddling. The Constitutional Court rejected these cases on April 22, ruling that there was no evidence of fraud or meddling. 

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This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI.

Blackbird.AI’s Constellation Narrative Intelligence Platform identified and analyzed online conversations around the election, uncovering manipulation attempts in deepfakes and softfakes. Indonesia’s elections exhibited just how critical online campaigning is for candidates, especially when vying for the votes of young people.

Saving Face with “Cute” Softfakes and Social Media Campaigns

President-elect Subianto was the oldest candidate at age 72. Yet, he and his running mate – and youngest candidate – Gibran were able to win over the country’s largest, youngest, and largely online voting bloc. Indonesia boasts the fourth highest social media usage in the world, behind only China, India, and the US. 

The internet is prime campaigning territory in a country with such prominent social media usage, and parties and candidates had to work to convince young voters. For Subianto, whose past as a former general under Suharto came with allegations of human rights abuses that banned him from entering multiple countries, including the US, that meant rebranding himself entirely for a younger generation already distanced from his bloody history. This also included his twice-failed presidential campaigns against Widodo in the past – the results of which he, too, challenged in court on allegations of cheating and rigging.

LEARN MORE: Misinformation and Disinformation Attack Readiness Assessment

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The former general leaned on AI to soften his public persona, deploying softfakes of himself as a “cute” cartoon character on video-based social media sites. Subianto also posted media of his cat, Bobby, incorporated dance videos into his online “rebranding” campaign, and even performed these dances at in-person campaign events. Narratives emerged across other social media platforms, referring to Subianto as “cute and cuddly,” Indonesia’s “cuddly grandpa,” and “gemoy”—Indonesian slang for “cute.” 

Furthering attempts to connect with younger voters, Subianto’s campaign held a lottery for free tickets to see the popular Korean pop (K-pop) band BLACKPINK. Entrants were asked to take a photo wearing BLACKPINK merchandise while standing in front of Subianto’s campaign billboard and post it on social media with relevant hashtags. Endorsing Subianto for president, the Golkar Party, the party of former President Suharto, publicized adopting “K-pop” as a slogan: “Kredible, Professional, Objective and Peduli” – “peduli” meaning “aware.”

Threatening the Future and Resurrecting the Past with Deepfakes

In October 2023, a few months before the election, a video emerged on social media purportedly showing Widodo delivering a speech in Mandarin. The Indonesian Ministry of Communication and Information Technology released a statement warning that the original video was of Widodo speaking in English in 2015 and had been doctored using AI tools. Under Widodo, foreign direct investment from China hit a record high in Indonesia, spurring anti-foreign conspiracy theories around illegal Chinese workers. By creating the narrative of Widodo speaking in Mandarin, this deepfake was possibly attempting to contribute to anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia ahead of the election.

LEARN MORE: How Compass by Blackbird.AI Uses Generative AI to Help Organizations Fight Narrative Attacks

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI.

Presidential candidate and former Jakarta Governor Baswedan also deployed deepfakes in order to boost his popularity. In November 2023, a short clip depicting him giving a speech in Arabic circulated on video-based social media platforms. The original video that had been altered was of him giving a speech in Indonesian at a rally in July. The deepfake emerged after Baswedan named the chairman of Indonesia’s largest Islamic party as his running mate to boost his popularity in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

LEARN MORE: The Evolution of Misinformation and Disinformation Attacks and Their Organizational Risk

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI.

Another deepfake circulating shortly before the election depicted Suharto, who died in 2008, encouraging Indonesians to vote. The deputy chairperson of the Golkar Party, which threw its support behind Subianto, shared the video on social media, likely to influence voters to vote for Subianto by implicitly highlighting his links to Indonesia’s influential former leader.

LEARN MORE: The Cyberattacks That Never Happened: Five Fake Breaches Devised By Cybercriminals

This claim was checked by Compass by Blackbird.AI.

The Way Forward

Elections in recent years have already been prime targets of online mis- and disinformation, as more and more candidates use social media to connect with voters. The popularity and accessibility of Generative AI tools present additional challenges when sorting fact from fiction. The election in Indonesia illustrated just how crucial it is to be prepared for the potential fallout. Generative AI tools can be used to modify and create deepfakes, influencing and obscuring reality for many unsuspecting voters on social media. Even when AI is involved in producing something that is more clearly fake – like a cartoon character version of a candidate – voters can be influenced in less overtly harmful ways.

The campaign trail incorporates social media more now than ever before, resulting in fast-spreading narratives that are difficult to context-check. Blackbird.AI’s tools are here to protect you or your organization against these narrative attacks. Blackbird.AI’s Constellation Narrative Intelligence Platform identifies and analyzes harmful narratives as they emerge, and Compass by Blackbird.AI provides crucial context as these narratives threaten the pursuit of factual information and the distortion of reality.

‍To learn more about how Blackbird.AI can help you in these situations, contact us here.

About Blackbird.AI

BLACKBIRD.AI protects organizations from narrative attacks created by misinformation and disinformation that cause financial and reputational harm. Our AI-driven Narrative Intelligence Platform – identifies key narratives that impact your organization/industry, the influence behind them, the networks they touch, the anomalous behavior that scales them, and the cohorts and communities that connect them. This information enables organizations to proactively understand narrative threats as they scale and become harmful for better strategic decision-making. A diverse team of AI experts, threat intelligence analysts, and national security professionals founded Blackbird.AI to defend information integrity and fight a new class of narrative threats. Learn more at Blackbird.AI.

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