Did Prabowo Subianto’s TikTok makeover impact the Indonesian election results?

Prabowo Subianto shows off his 'gemoy' dance moves during a campaign e
Prabowo Subianto shows off his 'gemoy' dance moves during a campaign event.

The apparent victor of Indonesia’s election looked to TikTok to woo young voters. But did he manage to win hearts, minds and votes?

Anita Wahid

ANU School of Culture, History and Language

Prabowo Subianto, 72, Indonesia’s current defence minister and former military general won the quick count in last week’s election. While the official vote count takes months to finalise, he looks set to be the Southeast Asian nation’s next president.

There are many factors explaining his victory. But you shouldn’t overlook the power of Indonesia’s love of social media. So just how influential were social media celebrities in influencing young Indonesians to vote for the so-called ’chubby cute general’

With 66.8 million millennials and 45.8 million Gen Z voters, 56.5 per cent of Indonesia’s voters are considered young. They are also known for their high consumption of the internet and social media.

These young voters were the biggest target market for the social media campaigns of the three presidential candidates - Prabowo Subianto, Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo.

The saturated marketplace and political buzzers

For about a decade, political buzzers - a Southeast Asian industry where individuals and groups are paid to share political propaganda online - have been driving social media contestation during presidential elections.

Their influence stretches beyond elections, exploiting public fear of radicalism to push polarising narratives to support President Joko Widodo’s (also known as Jokowi) policies and rulemaking.

Jokowi appeared to support Prabowo as Jokowi’s 35 year old son, Gibran Rakabuming, was Prabowo’s running mate, while the ruling party nominated Ganjar. This meant the political buzzers that once supported Jokowi were divided between Prabowo’s and Ganjar’s camps. Adding in Anies’ own buzzers, social media was filled with a three-way battle for compelling narratives to support their candidates, while often smudging competitors with allegations of past sins.

The already saturated market of X (formerly known as Twitter) and Facebook are the main battlefield of political buzzers, with visual-based platforms such as YouTube and Instagram acting as propaganda tools.

Enter TikTok, the unspoiled voter marketplace

With over 113 million users - the majority of them below 30 - TikTok has become the platform with the biggest untouched target market. While many observers stated that TikTok was a key election battleground , the battle only heated up very recently.

TikTok is a stadium filled with an undecided audience hungry for election-related information. While the other two candidates were busy with selecting their running mates, Prabowo filled this stadium with his campaigns, propagating the image of a chubby and cute, lovable yet assertive, brave general ready to lead the nation into a golden era.

Social media celebrities with millions of followers known for their prank content or videos portraying their lavish lifestyles were deployed to influence their followers into supporting Prabowo.

Young TikTok users, who often express their impression that the buzzer-battleground of X is a scary place, readily relate to these fun-filled campaigns. These campaigns contrast with those in X that are often filled with hatred and anger, something that does not appeal to the young voters.

Gemoy (a word young people use to describe someone chubby, cute, and lovable) and joget (dancing) have become the sole propaganda taglines. Prabowo’s alleged human rights violations and Gibran’s problematic nomination pointing to the creation of a new political dynasty are left out of the conversation.

It is still unclear the impact this rebrand had on Prabowo’s apparent victory. A nationwide survey conducted by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute , a Singaporean think tank, suggested 54 per cent of those intending to vote for the defence minister liked him for his strongman image, with very few mentioning ’gemoy’ as a reason for their preference.

K-popping politics

But the landscape shifted dramatically after Anies went live on TikTok on 30 December 2023 , engaging with his young followers. This move incited his followers to flood TikTok with content to rally for him. The phenomenon of the " Aniesbubble ", a group of K-Poppers who support Anies through fandom-esque content, gained massive support.

This approach to ’k-popping’ politics and Anies’ followers’ claims of keeping political buzzers out of their sphere, compelled many other movements to come forward with their own campaigns on TikTok, including those who support Ganjar.

Anies’ and Ganjar’s teams started to build momentum once they understood the kind of content TikTok users respond to: clips of their candidates’ dialogues and debates with public, campaign interactions, and critical debates on democracy and election issues. This move has exposed young TikTok users with contents that are more substantial, where they can relate their own concerns with the candidates’ policies.

Claims of dirty tricks remain

Aside from the three candidates’ campaigns, the power of hashtags on all social media platforms featured during the election campaign, including TikTok. The hashtags #asalbukanprabowo (just not Prabowo)  and #asalbukan02 (just not 02 - referring to Prabowo’s number on the presidential ballot) acted as an invitation to vote for anyone other than Prabowo-Gibran. In the days before the vote, this movement filled up social media and commentary with content related to democratic processes and values, including the allegations of election fraud and a systemic effort to ensure a Prabowo-Gibran win.

The release of a documentary, Dirty vote , three days before the election revealed alleged violations of democratic processes, procedures and institutions infiltrated the conversation on every single social media platform. The director and featured constitutional experts have been reported to the Indonesian police due to the film’s release during the campaign cooling off period - where campaign activities are no longer allowed.  

With the growing influence of social media celebrities and fandom movements, the traditional battlegrounds of political buzzers have lost more and more of their influence. New debates, tactics and spaces spell a change to online political discourse, especially those vying for the attention and endorsement of young voters.