The world over, new technologies are transforming our societies and, in particular, the practice of politics. Politicians increasingly circumvent the mainstream media by building up their own mass audiences on social media, while citizens and activists express their views and political communities online.
These trends have become evident in Indonesia, a large developing country in southeast Asia with a population of 277 million. After the hosting of the G20 summit in Bali this November – in a context of a faltering post-COVID global recovery and growing conflict between the West and both Russia and China – now may be the perfect time to consider how technology and politics are interacting in the biggest democracy in the Islamic world. Indeed, promoting digital transformation is one of the country’s G20 priorities.
Indonesian politics goes digital
Indonesia’s rapid democratic transformation got underway with the fall of the nation’s military dictator, Suharto, in 1998. Indonesian politics has since featured regular elections and mostly peaceful handovers of power. Decentralization measures have empowered Indonesia’s provinces and municipalities under the leadership of directly elected local leaders.
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The dictatorship’s “court politics” centralized in the capital Jakarta, with everyone else as passive spectators, has thus been replaced by an astonishingly vibrant and diverse political landscape at all levels of society and across different territories. Indonesians are proud of their country and, with annual GDP growth commonly exceeding 5%, are confident their children will live better than they do. Corruption and maladministration however remain widespread challenges.
The digitalization of Indonesian politics has amplified the country’s democratic trends. Indeed, Internet penetration is high and there are now an estimated 191.4 million social media users in the country, over two thirds of the population. Social media use has risen dramatically across much of Asia, with Hootsuite estimating that Indonesians spend on average over three hours on social media per day.
Joko Widodo, the country’s president, who came to power as an outsider in 2014 and was reelected in 2019, maintains a strong social media presence with almost 50 million followers on Instagram and 19 million on Twitter. Local and regional political leaders have also been able to amass considerable social media audiences and the clout that goes with it.
For activists and ordinary citizens, political use of the Internet media is as diverse as Indonesian society. Progressives use social media to challenge the country’s traditional norms on LGBTQ issues. Environmental activists denounce deforestation and the dumping of plastics in the sea, and Islamic groups recruit new members via well-crafted online messaging.
Censorship in Indonesia: a varying social and political reality
However, there are limits to what can be said online in Indonesia. This is partly determined by social pressures and the uneven enforcement of censorship and blasphemy laws by national and local authorities and courts.
“You can go to jail or be forced to pay huge fines for criticizing how a hospital is run or a local public figure” said Patrick Ziegenhain, a professor of international relations at President University in Cikarang, West Java. “That’s why you have to be careful what you say, but enforcement is rather selective and a bit random.”
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The more religious elements of Indonesian society often take the lead in enforcing social norms. In one case, the popular bar chain Holywings got in trouble for a special promotion offering a free bottle of gin for men named “Muhammad.” This use of the name of the Prophet of Islam sparked outrage among many Muslims.
In 2019, President Joko Widodo chose as his vice-presidential running mate Ma’ruf Amin, a conservative cleric. Just this month, the country adopted a new criminal code which campaigners say poses a threat to women’s and LGBT rights. At the same time, the activities and expression of more radical Islamic groups can be harshly restricted, as are those of separatist movements in territories like the island of Papua and the province of Aceh.
As in the West, there is sometimes a conflict between liberal rights and democracy understood as majoritarianism. As the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Transformation Index entry for Indonesia has noted:
[T]he high levels of support for democracy [in Indonesia] seemingly collide with the simultaneously strong support for nondemocratic stances. For instance, in a September 2019 survey, 52% of Muslim respondents objected to the idea of a non-Muslim becoming governor. … Indeed, for many conservative Muslims, a stronger role for Islam in state organization is not only compatible with democracy – it is, for them, inherently required by democratic values, given that Muslims constitute the largest religious group in Indonesia.
Political use of social media
Use of social media by citizens for political purposes is often superficial. Many young people get most of their news from social media and can be overly trusting of what they encounter. Others may simply not want to express critical views online.
“There is sometimes not enough critical thinking among young people in Indonesia,” says Max, a recent university graduate in political science. “Critical thinking can be seen to be too defiant and so looked down upon. There is a strong conformist culture and not everyone has the courage or the self-confidence to stand up to that.”
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Social media “buzzers,” the local influencers, can acquire vast audiences and occasionally make political comments. Public figures may, rightly or wrongly, attract negative attention and get “mobbed” by hordes of critical commenters online.
So far, the digital transformation of Indonesia does not seem to have led to the intense social and political polarization that we see in many Western countries. As elsewhere however, Indonesian life will continue to be transformed by the adoption of new technologies in many fields.
This is especially so because Indonesia is a highly tech-friendly society. Earlier this month, Ridwan Kamil, governor of West Java, took to Twitter to highlight his province’s promotion of technology in agriculture: motorcycles are being used to plant rice and drones for spraying pesticides or liquid fertilizers.
Technologies empower us but are, arguably, morally neutral and can be used for good or ill. Across the world, how we use new technologies will determine whether these worsen our societal problems or whether we can shift to sustainable societies and maintain our social cohesion.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.