The Influence of TikTok on Public Opinion and Societal Behavior: TikTok in Prabowo’s Presidential Campaign

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On February 14th, millions of Indonesian citizens headed to the polls to vote for the next president of Indonesia. Despite Prabowo Subianto’s controversial past shadowed by allegations of heinous war crimes, the former special-forces commander secured over 55 percent of total votes (Aljazeera), making him the 8th president of Indonesia. How did Prabowo Subianto garner such widespread approval despite his contentious history? 

With a staggering 125 million monthly active users, Indonesia stands as the second-largest market for TikTok globally, emphasizing its heavy influence on daily life (CNBC). Prabowo curated a persona on TikTok as a friendly, cute, and “grandpa-esque” character (Economist), proudly wearing terms such as “gemoy,” meaning chubby and cute, and “joget,” meaning dance, steering the public narrative away from his controversial past towards a light-hearted image (myScience). With over half of the country’s 204 million voters falling among the youth generations (Economist), Prabowo’s utilization of TikTok and consequent virality on other social media platforms has proved instrumental in his presidential campaign, particularly for winning over younger voters who may be oblivious or ignorant to his history.

Prabowo’s success in the presidential election concerns not only the future of Indonesia and its role in large-scale events, but also its implications on the way that we think, behave, and interact with the world around us. In this article, I will shed light onto some of these implications, illustrating also how Prabowo managed to garner so much public support even without communicating political topics. 

The Mechanics Behind TikTok in Prabowo’s Campaign 

In order to understand why Prabowo’s campaign was so successful, it is important to understand the mechanics behind the app influencing over 2 billion people worldwide. 

The Snowball Effect, which Britannica describes as the process where “small actions… can cause bigger and bigger actions ultimately resulting in a huge change,” serves as an analogy for understanding the nature of the spreading of ideas on TikTok. Ultimately, the Snowball Effect allows for TikTok to become a collaborative space, where many users contribute to the amplification of an idea or video trend instead of relying on the contributions of a single user. 

A video posted by AlurNews, for instance, which has amassed 11.4 million views and 177.5k likes, pictures Prabowo dancing on a stage and throwing his shirt for his audience to catch. In contrast, on Prabowo’s official page, @prabowosubianto08, most videos receive less than 100k views. Although Prabowo and his campaign team strategically spearheaded his large TikTok presence, it is also his supporters’ videos which have allowed Prabowo to receive an unprecedented level of exposure on the platform, exemplifying the collaborative effort of shaping Prabowo’s image and also the decentralized nature of the platform. 

Furthermore, through the implementation of hashtags and the highly personalized “For Your Page” as well as a variety of collaborative tools like stitches and duets, TikTok ensures that users are staying engaged and updated on the latest trends. The hashtags “prabowo” and “prabowogemoy,” for instance, which amassed a combined 2.14 million posts, have enabled Prabowo supporters to find a community on TikTok and use their collective power to influence the opinions of others. 

By analyzing user engagement and interactions, the TikTok algorithm works quickly to propagate content into an expansive network of millions of users worldwide, enabling singular videos to amass millions and even billions of views. This process brings light to the rapidity with which information spreads, and consequently influences people, on the global platform. 

TikTok’s Influence on Public Opinion and Societal Behavior 

Prabowo’s victory in the presidential election is only the immediate effect of the success of using TikTok as a campaign strategy. TikTok and  similar platforms are changing the way we spend time and interact with the world, often with massive personal and societal costs. 

One consequence of the short-form nature of TikTok is shorter attention spans which affect the way that users interact with the world. While creators have the flexibility to choose the lengths of their videos from 3 seconds to 10 minutes, videos that are 15 to 60 seconds long, like many of the videos made about Prabowo,  garner the most traction because of their facilitation of “quick and easy consumption” (Flixier). The short-form content on Tik ok disengages users from interacting with lengthier, more intellectually stimulating activities by presenting users the illusion that “micro-dosing on TikTok for a couple of hours somehow seems less like procrastination than sitting down to watch a full-length film” (The Oxford Blue). This limitation compels creators to make complex topics digestible, and often lacking in substance, in order to capture the attention of the platform’s users. Although shorter videos are easier to digest, the degree of simplification that 15 to 60 second videos require often encourages patterns of thought that overlook nuances and diminishes the need for critical thinking. 

Additionally, in an effort to capture the attention of users, creators often have to rely on evoking strong emotions. The effectiveness of this method is exemplified by a trend that emerged in Indonesia during its election, where users shared videos of themselves crying due to the criticisms that Prabowo was receiving by his opponents (CNBC Indonesia). These videos, which garnered millions of views, assisted Prabowo in cultivating a soft and cute image, evoking sympathy for him and resentment towards his opponents. In this way, without even presenting any of his policy goals or political opinions, Prabowo was able to gain public sympathy through evoking emotions that are difficult to bring out with plain information. As a result of trends like this, issues which should be driven by information also become centered on emotion, resulting in heated debates and conversations lacking in substance or accuracy. 

Through feeding users content aligned with their preferences and based on knowledge of popular trends and video styles, TikTok limits the exploration of alternative perspectives and unpopular ideas, ultimately contributing to a lack of diversity where people are less motivated to challenge norms and critically think about the content that they consume. Given that lighthearted content garners the highest levels of engagement on the youth-dominated platform, serious topics such as those that are political are often approached with frivolity. This phenomenon is observed in the political campaigns of the aforementioned Indonesian election, where Prabowo Ganjar enticed younger viewers with his innocent image, and an opposing candidate, Anies Baswedan, did so through appealing to the large K-pop fanbase in Indonesia (ANU Reporter). A similar phenomenon can be observed in the United States as it nears its own presidential contest between President Biden and Donald Trump, where out-of-context clips of speeches are being repurposed as memes. Due to the dissemination of this type of unserious content, important political discourse is often being overshadowed by irrelevant trivialities. 


Prabowo Subianto’s success in the presidential election exemplifies the major influence of TikTok on public opinion in Indonesia as well as the global susceptibility of today’s generations to information spread online. The virality-driven nature of TikTok’s algorithm, intended to prioritize content with high engagement, such as that of Prabowo’s, amplifies certain voices while drowning out others with little concern for their implications on the larger scale. Furthermore, the algorithm’s tendency to cater to individual preferences exposes its results on strict polarization and unproductive discourse among its users due to a heavily biased exposure to political perspectives. 

In addition to these impacts, there exists also an increased desire for continuous new content on the platform. As cited in the same article, a study by the Technical University of Denmark referenced in The Oxford Blue found that “a 2013 hashtag stayed on top for 17.5 hours on average, but in 2016, a top hashtag only retained its spot for an average of 11.9 hours.” Although videos of Prabowo easily went viral during the campaigning period leading up to the election and the celebration period after it, it is likely that the user base in Indonesia has already moved on to newer, hotter trends to share on the platform. 

Evidently, the internet-users of today are a part of a generation of people becoming accustomed to instant gratification, quick consumption, and persistent craving. Thus, as social media continues to strengthen its hold on society, Prabowo’s TikTok campaign should serve as an unforgettable reminder of the importance of re-fostering a culture of critical thinking and responsible usage of technology. 


Irene Kim adalah mahasiswa S1 di Universitas Princeton yang sedang kuliah di Universitas Negeri Yogyakarta (UNY). Dia berasal dari Korea Selatan dan tinggal di Amerika Serikat. Ia memiliki minat kajian hubungan internasional dan hubungan masyarakat. Saat ini bekerja sebagai relawan di Combine Resource Institution.

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