Tactics & Techniques: “A pro-government disinformation campaign on Indonesian Papua”

Today’s tactics and techniques assessment examines the article “A pro-government disinformation campaign on Indonesian Papua” by Dave McRae, Maria del Mar Quiroga, Daniel Russo-Batterham, and Kim Doyle on 19 Oct 2022 for Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.

It is the notion that these tweets are spontaneous posts by authentic Twitter users that is false, and which marks the campaign as disinformation.

Technique: Create Inauthentic Accounts (T0090)
Sub-Technique: Create Shell Accounts

In aggregate, the accounts […] are newer, have fewer followers, and are more likely to be effectively anonymous compared to the overall cohort of Twitter users tweeting about Papua. […] Very few of these accounts present themselves as indigenous Papuans, curiously at odds with the campaign’s focus on asserting that indigenous Papuans support special autonomy.

Technique: Flooding the Information Space (T0049)

To the extent that those conducting the campaign were concerned with its impact, it appears the main avenue of influence was to ensure that a significant proportion of Twitter posts on special autonomy were pro-government in the lead-up to the July 2021 decision on the policy’s future. In this sense, the campaign may be akin to “zone-flooding:” posting so much information on a contentious issue that only the most committed readers will come to a firm view on the truth of the matter (Illing, 2020).

These synchronous tweets on special autonomy share an additional characteristic: most are duplicates or near duplicates of each other. At face value, 22,479 of the 23,853 tweets in the vertical bands are original tweets about special autonomy, posted by 2,668 different authors. In reality, just 760 of these tweets are unique (3.4%) as measured by a Jaccard similarity test (Jaccard, 1912). The remainder are duplicates or near duplicates of just 1,329 distinct tweets.

The most duplicated tweet appears 286 times, posted by 246 distinct authors, and declares that special autonomy demonstrates the seriousness of the Indonesian government in improving welfare in Papua.

Sub-Technique: Bots Amplify via Automation (T0049.003)

A heavily disproportionate number of tweets in the dataset were posted in the minute starting 6:55 am, and then from mid-April 2021 onwards, in the minute starting 8:00 am Jakarta time. If we consider that nearly all these tweets mention special autonomy, and most received little or no engagement from other users, coordinated automated posting is the only plausible explanation.

These two minutes account for 1.9% of all tweets in our dataset, representing by far the highest concentration of tweets at any minute of the day. We would expect just 0.14% of tweets to be posted in any two minutes of the day in the somewhat artificial scenario of a random distribution. For tweets mentioning special autonomy, this concentration is even more stark. Remarkably, 8.2% of all tweets mentioning special autonomy were posted in just these two minutes, or in other words, 94.7% of tweets sent in these two minutes mention special autonomy.

Prior to 13 April 2021, almost all these tweets were posted in the minute starting 6:55 am. On 13 April, their timing abruptly shifts to the minute starting 8:00 am (Figure 2). This shift coincides with the beginning of the Islamic fasting month, Ramadan (Aida, 2021), and may thus reflect changed expectations about the time at which Indonesian social media users would be checking their Twitter feeds. We have not identified any time zone shift that coincides exactly with this change, which in any case is not an exact multiple of an hour. Although the accounts posting these tweets are ostensibly distinct, this pattern is highly suggestive that they are all being directed by a single entity.

Narrative Theme: Pro Government Messaging

We identified a coordinated, automated information campaign posting pro-government Indonesian-language material in support of special autonomy for Papua.

The content of tweets […] is closely aligned with contemporaneous Indonesian government messaging on the Papua conflict. Two-thirds of these tweets praise Indonesian government policy, including the staging for the first time of Indonesia’s National Games (PON) in Papua in 2021. A substantial proportion of tweets—around 17%—also either quote indigenous Papuans expressing pro-government positions or assert that indigenous Papuans support special autonomy.

In their taxonomy of disinformation, Kapantai et al. (2019) propose that the contents of “biased or one-sided” posts should be “mostly false” (as opposed to “mostly true” or just “false”). This definition does not capture what it is about these tweets that makes them disinformation, however. The contents of some of the tweets are demonstrably false, […] but many others are factual statements of elements of Indonesian government policy on Papua, albeit combined with a contested statement that these details show that special autonomy should continue. Instead, it is the notion that these tweets are spontaneous posts by authentic Twitter users that is false, and which marks the campaign as disinformation.

The above quote helps describe why this counts as disinformation; the campaign attempts to create the illusion that lots of people are positively discussing government policy. The intentional falsehood is “lots of people are positively discussing this thing”, not that the thing itself is true or false.

While we can’t tell how this operation was planned (or its objectives) it’s likely that the Tactic Plan Objectives (TA02) and the Technique Facilitate State Propaganda (T0002) also apply here (given that the content of the messaging is Pro Government).

The intention of this series is to make it easier to understand why the article has been tagged with particular tactics or techniques. Associating reporting of real-world attacks with DISARM tactics and techniques helps us get a better understanding of how they have practically been used, who’s used them, and who they’ve been used against. To do this a relevant quote from the article will be provided under the title of the associated technique. If the technique exists in DISARM, then its identifier will be included too.