Digital technology has played a vital role in empowering political participation and shaping political discourse in Indonesia, but more must be done to curb divisive rhetoric and disinformation — and to safeguard democracy.
Digital technology has been a constant feature of democratic life in Indonesia — from the role of the internet in late-1990s reformasi to the rise of disinformation in the current social media age. As Indonesia prepares for its 2024 presidential election, it is fitting to reflect on how social media has reshaped Indonesia’s democracy, and to consider how Indonesia can prevent its “digitalised” democracy from backsliding.
Digital technology has played a vital role in empowering political participation and shaping political discourse in Indonesia, especially among the youth. In the context of elections, President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, is among the first political leaders who successfully benefited from social media campaigning. The 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial election, coincided with the skyrocketing number of social media users, including Facebook, Twitter (now, X) and YouTube. Jokowi’s win catapulted him to national prominence.
While social media has enabled non-elites like Jokowi to rise to power, and augmented citizens’ capacity to organise various social, political and economic activities, it has also presented significant challenges.
The availability of social media, coupled with fierce electoral competition, has expanded beyond positive or negative campaigning which, respectively, portrays the candidate’s winsome attributes or attacks the opponent’s weaknesses. Since the 2012 election, disinformation has grown exponentially, flooding social media spheres with discrediting narratives about politicians’ professional and personal lives, much of which are untrue.
Lawmakers must strike a delicate balance of encouraging civic engagement, protecting freedom of expression, and curbing disinformation.
Three important ramifications demand critical attention.
First, the rampant use of divisive issues of religion and race — or abuse of the “freedom to hate“—has poisoned Indonesia’s democracy by stifling mutual trust and social cohesion. Disinformation also intensifies polarisation through “selective belief” as partisans readily believe information that discredits opponents or disbelieve information that tarnishes their preferred candidates.
Second, the work of political “buzzers”, or influencers’ fake anonymous accounts, continues into the post-election stage, especially to sanitise unpopular policies of the ruling government. For example, the self-proclaimed buzzer Istana (or the Palace’s buzzers) supported the government’s controversial embrace of narratives that Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) had been infiltrated by radicals. This legitimised the government’s formation of a committee to select new leadership, which led to the appointment of an active police general as KPK chairman, in clear violation of conflict-of-interest principles.
Third, disinformation justifies the enactment of several laws to control online information, including stronger defamation provisions under the new Criminal Code 2022, with mixed implications. The government has established a set of mechanisms to address disinformation and launched a website for citizens to report and check suspected disinformation. Although the laws and other government initiatives to fight disinformation fill an important gap, they could be misused as “tools of oppression” of the ruling government by targeting critics then labelling and criminalising their criticisms as “fake news”.
Hence, lawmakers must strike a delicate balance of encouraging civic engagement, protecting freedom of expression, and curbing disinformation.
What will it take to build a healthy democracy in digitalised Indonesia?
There is no simple answer. But we can learn some lessons from Maria Ressa, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and her fight against disinformation and digital repression.
First, a healthy democracy in the digital era requires education. So, improving Indonesia’s educational quality is key. Second, we need legislation and policy to restore the rule of law in the digital sphere. Third, stakeholders, from government and media — including social media platforms — to civil society organizations and business groups, must build trust and collaborate.
In the lead up to the 2024 presidential election, Indonesians could organise #FactsFirst pyramids, as Ressa proposed. Fact-checking, by a coalition of newsrooms and fact-checkers, sets the pyramids’ foundation. Next, each fact-check could be widely shared and reposted through media collaboration with civil society (including human rights groups and NGOs) and business groups. Importantly, research and empirical work could be done simultaneously to quantify the extent to which specific disinformation has manipulated the public sphere. The last step is to organise a group of lawyers and legal groups dedicated to maintaining the rule of law and holding political operators accountable for their actions.
Positive initiatives have already emerged in Indonesia and could be continued. Various stakeholders have put in place fact-checking platforms such as cekfakta.com and MAFINDO, public awareness campaigns, and stricter content moderation policies.
There are, however, gaps and weaknesses. For example, a study shows that digital fact-checking still lacks public attention because it is still dominated by text instead of visual image fact-checks. Moreover, the integration of fact-check content into chat messaging could be further developed since online disinformation spreads fast through chat messaging while most fact-checking is still done using social media, websites and search engines.
Other creative solutions to prevent Indonesia’s democracy from backsliding, for example, Bijak Memilih, a non-partisan initiative aiming to provide political education for young people as concerned citizens and voters, could also be empowered and nurtured.
Importantly, all stakeholders could help the government find alternative solutions to curb disinformation without infringing on freedom of expression, especially by moving away from legal actions and “de-securitising” disinformation, since not all disinformation is a threat to national security. Meanwhile, the government could earn higher public trust in its legitimate efforts to address disinformation through better public communication.
Indonesia’s democratic journey faces perils, but there are grounds for hope that the country can be a case study of harnessing the power of social media while safeguarding the integrity and quality of its democratic process.
Yanuar Nugroho is Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He was the former Deputy Chief of Staff to the President of Indonesia 2015-2019.
Maria Monica Wihardja is an Economist and a Visiting Fellow in the Media, Technology and Society Programme, the Regional Economic Studies Programme and the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.