By Kate Lamb, Fanny Potkin, Ananda Teresia
JAKARTA (Reuters) -Fika Juliana Putri, a 19-year-old shopkeeper in East Jakarta, plans to vote in Indonesia’s presidential election next week for a once-feared former special forces commander. She likes him, she says, because he’s cuddly.
A doe-eyed cartoon version of Gen. Prabowo Subianto – produced using generative AI – is emblazoned on billboards across Indonesia. It’s reproduced on sweatshirts and stickers, and featured prominently on #Prabowo-tagged posts that have some 19 billion views on TikTok.
Prabowo is Indonesia’s defence minister. But on social media, his chubby-cheeked AI avatar makes Korean-style finger hearts and cradles his beloved cat, Bobby, to the delight of Gen Z voters. About half of Indonesia’s 205 million voters are under 40.
The general elections on Feb. 14 in Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, offer a glimpse of how generative AI may transform large-scale political campaigning, experts say.
The AI-generated cartoon has been central to the electoral rebranding of Prabowo, who is far ahead in polls. Instead of portraying himself as a fiery nationalist, as he did in two prior failed presidential bids, the 72-year-old’s new catchphrase is “gemoy” – which is Indonesian slang for cute and cuddly.
“I’ll vote for him because he’s gemoy,” said Putri, a first-time voter. “That’s the main reason.”
Prabowo – and his doppelganger created using technology from U.S. firm Midjourney Inc – is leading hundreds of candidates in using generative AI tools to create campaign art, track social media sentiment, build interactive chatbots, and target voters.
The Prabowo campaign and Midjourney, whose guidelines bar its use for political campaigning, did not respond to requests for comment.
“This is the first election we’re seeing utilize these tools at scale,” said Katie Harbath, who was until 2021 the top election policy official at Meta and now writes a newsletter about technology and democracy.
Harbath, who expressed surprise that AI tools had been adopted by campaigns in Indonesia so quickly, said it was too early to judge the overall electoral impact of such “unprecedented and groundbreaking” use of technology.
Reuters interviewed 26 people to assess the use of AI technology in Indonesia’s campaign, including political advisors, lobbyists, tech executives, experts, and artists creating generative AI images for politicians. Some spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
They described vendors and campaigns pushing the boundaries of guidelines issued by providers like Midjourney and generative AI market leader, OpenAI. The Indonesian government has yet to formulate binding rules on the use of AI tools.
With countries home to one third of the world’s population heading to the polls this year, including the United States and India, the elections in Indonesia are a test for how OpenAI will police its policies, according to seven political lobbyists and experts.
Many of the AI tools used in Indonesia’s election are powered by OpenAI, nine senior campaign staffers told Reuters. That includes Prabowo’s platform, according to his digital team’s coordinator.
The ChatGPT owner, based in San Francisco, last month unveiled rules banning its use for political campaigning amid global fears of AI interfering with elections. These include prohibitions on creating images of actual people, including politicians.
OpenAI said that it was investigating political chatbots and tools identified by Reuters in Indonesia as using its technology. It said an initial review found “no evidence” of its tools being used in the election and it was committed to transparency and elevating accurate information.
Political consultant Yose Rizal said the Pemilu.AI app he developed uses OpenAI’s GPT-4 and 3.5 software to craft hyper-local campaign strategies and speeches.
The Indonesian consultant said he has sold the app’s services to 700 legislative candidates. Reuters was not able to independently confirm the sales.
Pemilu.AI pulls together demographic data and crawls social media and news websites, allowing it to generate speeches, slogans, and social media content tailored to a constituency.
Candidates list their political priorities and choose how they seek to be portrayed. The most desired characteristics among politicians using Pemilu.AI in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, are “humble” and “religious,” said Rizal.
Asked about OpenAI’s rules, Rizal said that Pemilu.AI does not engage “in the creation of political campaigns”. He described it instead as a communications tool to “support the decision-making process of candidates.”
NEXT STOP, INDIA
Next, Rizal plans to take the platform to India before its general election, expected by May. “Because Indonesia is before the U.S. and India … this election is a warm up,” he said.
He said Pemilu.AI has cooperated closely with Microsoft, which hosts the company on its cloud service Azure, to ensure its operations complied with regulations. Microsoft, which is a major investor in OpenAI, said it does not comment on customer engagements.
Rizal said he was trialing a version of Pemilu.AI on Google’s AI, after being approached by its sales team. Google confirmed that Pemilu.AI had done preliminary work using its AI and became a cloud service customer. Google said there are no restrictions on using its Bard chatbot for political campaigning, beyond a ban on misinformation.
The Indonesian elections are testing the limits of what some AI companies consider political campaigning.
OpenAI’s rules, updated on Jan. 10, prohibit using its technology for any political campaigning or lobbying, including generating campaign materials personalized or targeted to specific demographics.
The same month, OpenAI banned the developer of a bot for U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Dean Phillips, the first time it took action over such rules.
Supporters of the use of generative AI in Indonesia’s election say it has given legislative candidates access to custom campaigning tools that would otherwise be reserved for major contenders with larger budgets.
The continued adoption of AI is only natural, said Razi Thalib, who runs the digital team for another presidential contender, Anies Baswedan, a former governor of Jakarta. “Perhaps the results of the election will lead to lessons learnt that will increase the adoption rate” elsewhere, he said.
An advisor to Ganjar Pranowo, the candidate of the largest party in parliament, confirmed AI was also used for his “creative campaign.
Prabowo, with a 20-point lead in the polls and the implicit backing of Indonesia’s popular President Joko Widodo, has been the biggest beneficiary of generative AI this cycle, using it to bolster his support among Gen Z.
Millions of young voters were not alive when Prabowo was dismissed from Indonesia’s military in the late 1990s amid allegations of rights abuses, which he has always denied.
Supporters can use Prabowo’s campaign app to insert themselves into AI-generated scenes, such as a trek in the jungle alongside the safari-suited politician, which are then shared on social media.
“Some say AI is not good for politics, but AI gets people interested,” said 25-year-old artist Adriansyah, who with his wife, Lusi Yulistia, was commissioned to make Midjourney-generated art of Prabowo and his running mate, president Widodo’s 36-year-old son.
The voting age in Indonesia is 17 and a January survey by pollster Indikator Politik found that Prabowo had more than 60% of the Gen Z vote. He was also the most popular candidate among millennials, with 42% of their support.
The campaign’s volunteer arm launched the PrabowoGibran.ai generative AI platform in December to help its 15,000 “cyber troop” volunteers track online sentiment and share AI-generated art on social media.
National coordinator Anthony Leong told Reuters the platform uses OpenAI technology and in-house software.
In Indonesia, political campaigns have hired creators to use text-to-art tools such as Midjourney, Leonardo AI, Microsoft Bing and Pika Labs, five artists told Reuters.
A spokesperson for Microsoft Bing, which is powered by OpenAI’s DALL·E text-to-image model, said public figures can request to limit the creation of images associated with their names.
LeonardoAI and Pika Labs did not respond to requests for comment.
“It’s true the application has limitations regarding political content,” said Lusi, referring to Midjourney. “In essence, I only use the application to change the character of the original photo into a certain theme.”
Anies’s campaign launched in January an OpenAI-powered WhatsApp chatbot that answers questions about his policies.
That followed a similar tool from the Prabowo camp, which was taken down shortly after its December launch after it incorrectly attributed seven pillars to Indonesia’s state ideology when there are only five. It has not been reinstated.
Ganjar’s campaign has deployed a dashboard that uses OpenAI technology and crawls for data online to predict talking points and offer real time social-media alerts regarding the candidate, said advisor Andi Widjajanto.
One controversial instance of AI use arose in January, when the Golkar party, which backs Prabowo, released “deepfake” videos of the late strongman ruler Suharto urging voters to support its candidates. The clips containing campaign messages were marked as generated by AI.
The Advocacy Team on Elections Concerns (TAPP), a Jakarta-based nonprofit, said in a statement that the videos, which remains online, showed AI’s potential for voter manipulation.
Dara Nasution, a top Golkar digital official, called the videos “positive messages.”
Suharto’s image was created with Midjourney and imaging app Leonardo AI, while his voice was crafted using U.S. voice cloning startup ElevenLabs’s software combined with in-house technology, she said.
Leonardo AI and ElevenLabs did not answer requests for comment.
Three election watchers told Reuters they haven’t seen AI used to spread misinformation and disinformation at scale during the contest.
“Disinformation has been limited compared to the 2019 election,” said Aribowo Sasmito, co-founder of the Mafindo factchecking organisation.
(Reporting by Kate Lamb and Ananda Teresia in Jakarta and Fanny Potkin in Singapore; Additional reporting by Stanley Widianto; Editing by Katerina Ang)