Social Media Becoming a Force of Change in Indonesia

By Pitan Daslani 10 October 2012

Free expression — in mass media and social media — influences almost every aspect of people’s lives in contemporary Indonesia, and its influence on government policy is growing.

In recent times, the public has made use of the freedom protected by democracy to speak out on big issues; corruption, human rights, justice, social equity, and good governance have been topics of fierce debate on Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs, websites and citizen journalism accounts.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s order on Monday night for police to halt their involvement in a procurement probe in which a senior officer was implicated was a sign of the power of social media given the strong views on the topic that had previously been expressed online.

For several days, social media and its print and broadcast counterparts had featured heavy criticism of Yudhoyono’s silence on the matter, in which the police were in an undeclared war with the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).

Tens of thousands of people used a “Save KPK” tag line on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, while newspapers and television covered the outpouring of support for the antigraft watchdog.

In his address to the nation on Monday, the president said explicitly that he had been following on social media the growing public interest in the conflict between the police and the KPK.

The trend signals growing political awareness among citizens, said Syahganda Nainggolan, managing director of political and economic research agency Sabang Merauke Circle.

But Nainggolan warned that public policy formulation should not be motivated by social media pressure because such pressure is usually emotional and cannot always be considered objective.

“There has never been scientific evidence that gives a clear picture of the correlation between opinion forming through the social media and the truth of every issue being discussed on it,” Nainggolan said.

But he says that people tend to use social media due to a lack of credible public outlets through which they can express an opinion. Indonesia is the world’s third largest user of Facebook, with more than 43 million people having accounts, and the third largest user of Twitter.

Nainggolan said that if purging the bureaucracy of corruption was desired, the KPK must be given more authority and have its budget increased.

Komaruddin Hidayat, rector of the State Islamic University, said the KPK was facing a big challenge in cleaning the bureaucracy because “many state institutions have been ruined by their own elite leaders.”

He said the National Police had misread the public mood, given its recent actions against the KPK came at a time when public expressions of support for the antigraft agency was growing.

“The bureaucrats have not learned that voices in the media and social media are the true voices of the public. They keep ignoring it until they pit themselves against the public,” he said.

Rector of Paramadina University Anies Baswedan said that Indonesia’s progression to a clean democratic society was struggling because “the fight against corruption is being waged by people who are corrupters themselves.”

“Our country is managed by leaders without integrity, but people are becoming smarter and know who is right and who is wrong,” he said.

Nainggolan said that the mass media must channel public opinions, including petitions toward official institutions, and not allow social media to act as a breeding ground for anarchy through publications of extreme and radical ideas that cannot be censored.

Komaruddin warned that the mass media should not “become the spokesman for terrorists or criminals” and that some media organizations are publishing “content that is not smart enough for an increasingly smart Indonesia.”