Indonesia, digital literacy and elections

Indonesia’s 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections were influenced by social media. The question is whether that is good or bad.

Indonesia, digital literacy and elections AFP PHOTO/ DONAL HUSNI / NURPHOTO

Today’s challenge is more than just a man with his pen. Following the growth in internet use in the early 1990s, social media adds to the complexity of studies regarding the impacts that have been or may be generated by the use of digital media on the public. Social media is now a new public sphere. Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher, through his social theory, once said that the public sphere is a form of democratic freedom that allows all people to express their opinions and participation, including in political matters (Calhoun, 2011).

Social media embodies its ideals to become a new media based on technology that provides “new room” or space for the community to express their thoughts, especially on political matters. The massive growth of the internet accelerated the development of social media as a place to communicate, disseminate information, share knowledge and preferences, and even espouse hate and false information. Data has shown that 45 percent of our global population, or 3.5 billion people, are social media users. In Indonesia, there are 150 million active users – more than half the country’s population of 260 million people. The data also shows that in a single minute around 3.3 million bits of information are uploaded onto Facebook and 29 million bits of information spread on WhatsApp.

This tremendous amount of information goes hand in hand with the social, economic and political effects on users. The more interesting fact is that now social media tools have become commonplace in political campaigns around the world, including in Indonesia (Xenos et al, 2015). Digital technology has become an identity of culture, work and life among Indonesians ( Jurriens and Tapsell, 2017), and also a personal expression (Tully, 2014). Thus, it is no longer surprising if political affairs are discussed over social media accounts in Indonesia, and government must be ready for this habit.

In Indonesia, social media was first put forward as the official media for political campaigns during the 2019 presidential and general elections. Prior to 2019, it had not been legalized. The General Elections
Commission (KPU) specifically regulated this issue in 2018. This KPU regulation helps implement Law No 7/2017 on national elections, and specifically discusses election campaigns.

This year’s Indonesian elections were, according to the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, “the most complicated single-day ballot in global history,” and it is interesting to examine the use of social media as a means of campaigning. The national government has said that in this year’s elections, referred to as the “2.0 elections,” social media as a medium for shaping public opinion was a focus for candidates and political parties (Kominfo, 2019). But did the KPU regulation clearly regulate the use of social media in this election cycle? Did it help create a level playing field for candidates and voters? The critical point is whether social media is an open medium for everyone and if users, both voters and candidates, have equal rights on this platform. Did the elections commission clearly regulate the rights of voters during a political campaign? This matters because both voters and candidates have the same right to use social media.

Despite the massive effects of social media, the KPU had not passed clear regulations regarding the use of social media by political campaigns for Indonesia’s previous election cycle, in 2014. Although Indonesian candidates and political parties started to use social media as a campaign medium in 2014, the level of use was nowhere near the level seen in 2019. With the use of Twitter hashtags, photos, videos and infographics (Firmansyah et al, 2017), social media has developed into a super-powered medium. It has also become a fruitful medium to spread fake news (Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017).

Every day during election season, active social media users will see a number of campaigns ads. What may have seemed very strange five or 10 years ago is the new normal today. Creating mass movements and shaping opinions are necessary for political parties to win elections (Chadwick and Stromer, 2016). So, when they succeed in raising issues online that attract the attention of potential voters, their chances for election increase. This also means, with the rise of new technology, that the public attention that was previously focused offline is now online through social media (Aldrich et al, 2015).

Social media, politics and elections

Social media was created as a place for expression. This expression, the sharing of things that are very personal, including political views, allows social media users to influence the lives, decisions and thinking of other users (Oginni and Moitui, 2015).

What happens on social media has not been able to fully predict what is happening in real life. This creates opportunities for anyone to win sympathy and support in election campaigns through social media platforms. One such case was Barack Obama’s victorious presidential election campaign in 2008. This is an example of how a political campaign can use social media to attract the attention of voters. In Asia, similar examples have been seen in South Korea, China, Hong Kong, India, Singapore and Indonesia. From this we can see how social media acts as an important player, not only as a medium of communication but also a representation of the policies and thoughts of its users, including political actors and their followers (Nulty et al, 2016). Thus, clear regulations are needed to create a conducive environment during campaign cycles.

It is interesting to study social media within the phenomenon of political campaigns that are heavily utilizing technology. Communities, anyone, even those very far from cities and the centers of power, are able to show their support for candidates (Oginni and Moitui, 2015). Just upload some photos or expressions of support, click once and hundreds or even thousands of people will see the message of support. Usually this will often occur ahead of an election.

But is it as free as a community or social media users expressing themselves through social media? There have been examples of political insults and harassment expressed through social media, only for the social media users in question to find themselves dealing with the law. One such case involved Indonesian musician Ahmad Dhani in 2017 and some political comments he made during the last gubernatorial election in Jakarta. We also saw Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the former governor of Jakarta, dragged through the courts and eventually imprisoned for blasphemy due to viral content on social media.

One thing that distinguishes social media from conventional media is information production. There are at least two important things that occurred following the rise of social media. This first thing is unstoppable fake news, and the second is the ease with which anyone can produce news without the need for a legal medium (Supovitz, 2017). But social media freedom is in line with the filter bubble effect that occurs for social media users. The algorithm system that regulates social media will reduce the diversity of information that arises for social media users (Haim et al, 2017). Unfortunately, previous research has shown that this algorithm system has the potential to harm users because it limits the information they should get through social media platforms (Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017).

Public policy in the digital era

The issue of public policy and social media became a hot topic after the case of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, as well as Russia's interference in several elections around the world since 2016 (Weissmann, 2019). Social media turned out to not be as simple as a “socializing medium,” but morphed into a medium for collecting data and opinions (Oginni and Moitui, 2015).

Returning to the function of social media as a 21st century public space, and the “Election 2.0” electoral system, has the Indonesian government been able to answer this challenge? Facebook has reported that the algorithm system is not based on social media, so there will be around 1,500 to up to 15,000 feeds obtained by each user (Roese, 2018). Some European countries as well as countries in the Asia Pacific have begun to think about how the government should regulate social media algorithms: would the government then become powerless and users would have selfgovernance (Team, 2019).

Social media use during Indonesia’s 2019 campaigns

Indonesia’s House of Representatives and the elections commission are required to work together to provide a legal umbrella for each election. One of the new regulations introduced for this year’s election cycle discusses the procedures for campaigning via social media. Both the election law and the KPU regulation contain provisions regarding the use of social media during the campaign period. This regulation also discusses in detail technical issues, but it does not thoroughly discuss the impacts that might arise from the use of social media as a campaign tool.

This new regulation outlines a new method of campaigning through social media. In the Indonesian context, votes for candidates are reasonable if they are associated with efforts to shape political communication through social media and direct that opinion to win over voters (Chadwick and Stromer-Galley, 2016). As a democratic country, Indonesia must ensure the space and freedom to use social media as a political tool without trying to limit it (Shirky, 2011).

Social media, whether it is Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, provides an overview of how social media users view election campaigns. During the seven months of the 2019 campaign, there were around two million posts on Twitter, 300,000 posts on Facebook and more than 37,000 posts on Instagram. This is a form of participation by social media users in responding to election issues and campaigns. That said, according to data from the Directorate of Control, part of the Directorate General of Informatics Applications at the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, there were 8,903 reports of negative content by the public originating from the Facebook and Instagram platforms. There were 4,985 such reports for Twitter in 2018 (Kominfo, 2018). This is an illustration of how much unpleasant information circulates on social media.

Meanwhile, entering the end of the 2019 campaign period, sentiment toward the elections commission became increasingly negative, especially with claims of electoral fraud. Information about this actually circulated more on social media than through the campaign platforms of candidates. Entering the end of the campaign period and on voting day, there were 519,231 negative tweets about the KPU, 393,493 positive ones and 359,058 neutral tweets. So, we can see the negative sentiment among social media users toward the KPU at the end of the campaign period.


The use of social media as a campaign tool in Indonesia did not originate with the elections in 2019. It dates back to the 2014 elections. Through the elections law and KPU regulations on election campaigns, an overview of the procedures and technical arrangements of campaigns is available. One of the issues is the use of social media.

Unfortunately, there is little mention of the consequences and protections for social media users during election campaigns, in particular from exposure to hoaxes and filter bubble effect systems that degrade information obtained by social media users. There was a tendency toward negative sentiment and emotions during the 2019 elections campaign in Indonesia. Negative sentiment was also
found in issues related to the KPU, as the election organizer.

The issues and hashtags that emerged during the campaign period this election cycle were dominated by blasphemy claims and strident rhetoric against China and the defunct and banned Indonesian Communist Party. Then there were the claims during the campaign that the incumbent president, Joko Widodo, who was re-elected with 55 percent of the vote, was a communist. (During the 2014 presidential election, he was falsely accused of being ethnic Chinese with a Singaporean father, as
well as being a communist). The emotions of Indonesian social media users are a sign that the country’s social media space has not been able to allow fair political campaigns without government intervention.

More comprehensive regulations are needed regarding social media, in particular during election cycles. The purpose of campaigns is to introduce presidential and legislative candidates. They must have the opportunity to themselves use social media to present their visions and missions, and for voters to get enough information to make decisions on Election Day.

Ida Ayu Prasasti Dewi is a master’s degree student at the School of Government and Public Policy-Indonesia. She is interested in public policy and inclusive and sustainable development.

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