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Dance moves and deepfakes: Indonesia presidential candidates duke it out on TikTok

JAKARTA — At an Indonesian presidential campaign event, 22-year-old voter Irene Putri Aisyah was busy uploading everything she saw — from cute dances to cooking demonstrations — to short video app TikTok.

To court young voters like Irene, all three candidates in the Feb 14 race to lead Indonesia have gravitated toward TikTok, which has 125 million users in the country, second only to the US.

But experts say the platform is also flooded with problematic content that attempts to manipulate young voters, who make up over half of about 205 million registered voters in the country.

In this new online battleground, Prabowo Subianto, a once-feared military man, has rebranded himself as a cuddly statesman. Videos of his awkward dance moves, reminiscent of local martial arts, have got millions of views, inspiring others to mimic him.

When the frontrunner faced stinging barbs from rivals in a televised debate, women supporters shared videos of themselves crying for Prabowo.

Rivals Anies Baswedan and Ganjar Pranowo have also ramped up their presence on the app, answering questions in real-time during livestreamed sessions or sharing videos of heartfelt encounters with voters.

"TikTok is the most appealing app for first-time voters, so it does have a big influence as a platform to campaign and propagate election-related information," said Anita Wahid, a researcher who has worked with TikTok on issues related to online trust and safety.

Enduring popularity

During the campaign period, TikTok became Indonesians' second-most used source of information on politics, after television, according to a January survey by pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia.

"We can easily find information about Prabowo on TikTok," voter Irene said.