It could ruin your life.
When Indonesia’s answer to Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker Mario Teguh, was hit with scandalous accusations that he disowned his son from his first marriage, a mysterious Instagram account broke the news first.
The story quickly took on a life of its own as people cracked jokes, spread memes, and generally insulted the man online. Here was a man known nationwide as a smart, savvy businessman who was always eager to offer his advice on life, love, and money. And then, suddenly, his career was over. All thanks to Lambe Turah—an insanely popular and totally anonymous Instagram account that has millions of followers and zero accountability.
“It’s a bit terrifying because they have all the power without being held responsible,” said Enda Nasution, a social media expert. “This is a challenge for people in traditional media. Such power has been distributed [to social media], it doesn’t just belong to one specific media [outlet anymore].”
The accounts owner (or owners) are unknown. But its work is known nationally. The Instagram account, which has the tagline “gossip are early facts,” trades in the kinds of sensational celebrity gossip and news that would be at home in British tabloids or on US sites like Perez Hilton.
But it does gossip with a twist. There is a built-in narrative to Lambe Turah’s posts, one where one party is always the victim and the other the villain. And each side has its own set of fans. The fans of the good guy or victim call themselves “Bala Nemo,” after the fish in Finding Nemo. Fans of the villain call themselves “Bala Jaer,” after a popular dangdut song. The two sides then square off online, posting memes and new allegations that spread the story far beyond the Lambe Turah’s fanbase.
It’s how the Mario Teguh scandal went from Instagram chatter to a police investigation in less than a month. But the account, and its fans, often dig deeper into the lives of celebrities, and their friends, families, and lovers, to find new dirt to share online. It’s like a game of paintball where the targets just spread, and spread, and spread until one day some shoots your grandmother in the back at her 88th birthday party.
And, so far, no one can shut Lambe Turah down. The account was sued for defamation, a criminal offense in Indonesia, but the account’s admins were never brought to court because no one has any idea who the hell they are. After a brief hiatus, the site was back with a vengeance, tearing into new celebrities with gossip that was too good not to share.
“We can’t get rid of them entirely,” Enda said. “Do [Lambe Turah] have a social responsibility? Of course. [Accounts like] this are actually how freedom of expression is hijacked online. On one hand, we have the freedom to express anything we want, but that freedom is also used by particular people for their own benefit.”
So how did an anonymous Instagram account gain so much clout in Indonesia?
“It start off as something fun because we had enough of the gossip shows on TV,” said one of the account’s secret admins, a person who goes by the name “Minceu,”in an interview with OZ Radio Jakarta. “So some people joined together and created an account. We looked for the content ourselves and it got a positive responses from our followers.”
Lambe Turah posts more than celebrity gossip. It also posts unverified stories about politics and throws its support behind popular causes like the ongoing farmers’ protest against a cement factory in Central Java. But their biggest scoops often come from fans who DM tips and gossip to the account with surprising frequency.
“There are things that we hunted down ourselves, that we found for ourselves,” Minceu told OZ Radio Jakarta. “And some people slid in [gossip] through our DM. Others sent us emails.”
Celebrity news is big business in Indonesia. Gossip shows are consistently among the highest-rated shows on local television. And an account like Lambe Turah could make some serious cash on sponsored content and promoted posts. It’s starting to offer other IG accounts and brands promotion. But therein lies the rub. The more advertising money the account brings in, the more of a risk that someone will out its admins.
The country has been obsessed with anonymous social media accounts before. Look at the notorious run of the muckraking Twitter account @TrioMacan2000. The admins behind that account grabbed national headlines with sensational allegations of widespread corruption and maleficence in the central government.
They also accused Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, then a candidate for deputy governor of Jakarta, of receiving the backing of a shady cabal of Chinese businessmen.
Then the account’s admins were later caught in a blackmail scandal that left them behind bars.
So you’re safe when you’re anonymous. Until you aren’t.