The Indonesian politics has once again heated up with Pemilihan Presiden 2024 (the 2024 Presidential Election – Pilpres 2024) just on the horizon. Twitter has witnessed hashtags such as “Pilpres2024” trending alongside favorite candidates such as Ganjar Pranowo, Prabowo Subianto and Anies Baswedan recently.
The intense discourse on the subject will remain in place all the way until after the election next year as political contestation in the cyberspace amplifies, with supporters promoting their favored figure over others.
Unfortunately, such contestation had resulted in a severe national polarization that is founded on identity politics in the past. Pilpres 2019 emerged as the most divisive election the nation had witnessed, as each side promoted combative narratives that inspired supporters to spread disinformation, hate speech and even personal attacks against candidates they deemed as the “enemy”.
Needless to say, much of this negative discourse circulated in the cyberspace, particularly on social media. As the nation prepares for Pilpres 2024, it is imperative that all possible modalities be deployed to prevent a repeat of the socio-political divide that menacingly threatened Indonesia’s integrity four years ago.
One such actor is the youths, whose tech-savviness and access to the Internet may equip them with the necessary tools to combat disinformation in social media.
Youth and Social Media
Out of Indonesia’s large population, as many as 204.7 million citizens are internet users by January 2022. The most digitally active Indonesians were aged between 18 and 34 and they amounted to as many as 26.5% of Indonesia’s 277.7 million population. Indonesia also boasts a high rate of social media users, with 191.4 million users recorded in January 2022. This figure is expected to jump to 267.75 million users by 2028.
As with the previous Pilpres 2019, social media will be a battle ground for the next political contestation. This is where politicians, supporters and cybertroopers will engage in a narrative war to promote their respective figures, employing various strategies such as highlighting candidate’s strengths, attacking other candidates and deploying fake news. Bubbles or echo chambers would organically transpire from these campaigns, affecting the mindsets of anyone inhabiting the spheres, including youths.
Youths make a sizeable portion of voters in the next election so they would be especially targeted by campaigners seeking to influence their voting behavior. However, even though youths spend a lot of time on their phones (Indonesians generally spend 5.5 hours on their phones), are they necessarily and disproportionately exposed to the information war?
We should take precaution against portraying Indonesian youth as a monolithic entity. Various factors play a role in shaping youths’ worldview, including but not limited to family, social circle, religious views, exposure to information and education.
For example, there is a palpable digital divide between those in urban centers and rural areas. With Indonesia’s internet penetration rate found wanting (only 73.7% of total population enjoyed access in early 2022), rural youths may fall behind their urban peers in terms of access to quality internet connection and education system.
This is not to cast a fatalistic view on the rural youths. Rather, it highlights the nuances and depths that are frequently absent from when people speak about youths, as if they are all a single entity. It is factors such as these (i.e., education and internet access) that may play a substantial role not only in youths’ political choice, but also how they respond to various political campaigns launched at them as the nation inches closer to the election.
For the same reason that they are exposed to a mass of information (i.e., glued to their phones), youths are also best positioned to counter sprawling disinformation and fake news in the bubbles created by political campaigns. The question now is whether there has been substantial effort to elevate their consciousness of this role of theirs not only as a voter but also a citizen of the country.
Algorithm: A Challenge
Chartering the contours of these issues requires connecting a multidimensional phenomenon, such as the battle over political resources and the social impact of technological leapfrog. The development of latest technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), thus must be considered.
AI is a common computational resource that politically-linked interest groups have utilized to drive their agenda. It employs the Internet and computer algorithms to gather data and to emulate human cognition and understanding.
AI has been used to analyze voter data and predict voting patterns, such as what happened in 2019 whereby cybertroopers used data from social media to come up with sentiment analysis and result prediction. The issue of identity politics that was popular at that time was able to be amplified in social media to appeal to certain segments of voters.
On top of that, when it comes to generating fake news, algorithm and AI are inseparable. Algorithm can be used to automatically curate false information, which can then be spread widely on social media, while AI can create more sophisticated fake news by using natural language processing and machine learning algorithms to mimic human writing styles and patterns.
For example, following the fall of Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in the Jakarta 2017 Gubernatorial Election, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s camp – who at the time was campaigning for a re-election – became acutely aware of their susceptibility to the use of so-called “identity politics” by their opponents, particularly the exploitation of Islamic sentiments in social media to mobilize the country’s majority Muslim population against the president. Unfortunately, although major attempts had been done to prevent the spread of polarizing fake news, its circulation proved too strong to check during the campaign period. This was partly because fact-checking actions were not accompanied by the massive generation of authentic news.
Considering how detrimental fake news was in the last election, there is a certain degree of trepidation this time over the influence that AI-fueled fake news would have in the upcoming one.
Youths as a Political Actor
A survey by CSIS Indonesia reveals that close to 60% of voters are aged between 17-39 (Millennials and Gen Z). As such, the youth would likely play an important role in deciding the outcome of the next election. Politicians are already competing to capture the youth’s hearts and minds, whether through programmatic campaigns or disinformation.
To prevent polarization akin to 2019, efforts should have been in place to engage Indonesians especially youths. Unfortunately, there have been a lack of such efforts ostensibly due to the country having to deal with the post-pandemic recovery efforts, a sense of burden amplified recently by the perceived decline in Indonesia’s democratic indicators and major scandals involving the state’s bodies and institutions.
Although some surveys demonstrate that majority of youths are more apathetic towards politics, the impact of social media in generating news and transferring information must be taken into account. Information about politics, whether in the forms of news, campaigns, fake news or hate speech have the effect of instigating reaction from even the least concerned, designed specifically to alter audience’s political preference and eventually voting behaviour.
Tailored contents, whether truthful or misleading, could go wide and viral owing to the combined effects of algorithms, cybertroopers, politicians, media outlets and influencers that boost these contents out of desire to generate the engagement they desire, or simply to not be left out of public’s consciousness. It becomes dangerous if the contents contain elements that could disrupt the social fabric of the Indonesian society, as these would likely contribute to the unravelling of national unity and thus creates another polarization.
Ahok’s blasphemy case portrays a good case of this. His blasphemous remark, regardless of its content, first went viral online due to the video editing conducted by Buni Yani, who was subsequently jailed as well after being found spreading hate speech. Needless to say, Ahok’s detractors – and Jokowi’s to an extent – quickly lunged at this opportunity to dismantle the political careers of these two figures.
It is therefore vital for the youths to be aware of this process and the information industry that is actively seeking to shape their perception, especially with actors that are seeking to amplify negativity in social media in the name of political gain. Unfortunately, it seems that there have not been enough steps to rectify this problem, leaving open the possibility of the youths being affected by disinformation again ahead of Pemilu 2024.
Each generation faces its own challenges. In this context, today’s youths play a critical role to ameliorate this problem that centres on social media. The privilege they enjoy in terms of easier access to information and education system, especially if compared to previous generations, creates a new civic responsibility ahead of Pilpres 2024.
The youths have responsibilities in two dimensions: the digital space and the physical realm. The environment they operate in matters because the substance of public discourses will be profoundly impacted by the evolving civic structure of the digital era.
In the digital space, youths can educate themselves on the dangers and vectors of disinformation by participating in awareness programs and campaigns. Webinars conducted by universities, think tanks or other entities would go a long way in enhancing youths’ awareness.
It is hoped that the awareness created could become a catharsis that stimulates the formulation of civic responsibility in digital space, such as by engaging online discourse critically in a way that contributes towards positive intellectual experience.
To combat disinformation, they can employ virtual tools and resources such as CekFakta to fact-check information they receive and share. They must be equipped with the ability to evaluate sources of information or report instances of disinformation to platform administrators. Youths can also promote media literacy by sharing educational resources and advocate for the importance of critical thinking, which will be instrumental in making informed political choices and navigate complex political issues.
In physical realm, youths can organize events, campaigns and strikes to raise awareness on social and political issues. However, this must be complemented with engagements in political advocacy and activism, such as writing letters to politicians, attending town hall meetings, reporting practice of money politics and participating in political rallies.
In addition, youths can participate in volunteer and community service programs to build their interpersonal relationship skill, increase civic engagement and ground their perspectives on the reality. Youths can also collaborate with local organizations and community groups to amplify their cause, reach a wider audience and inspire their counterparts in other regions ahead of Pilpres 2024.
More Programmatic Campaign, Please
Lastly, considering recent developments and events that have impacted the lives of Indonesian youths, there is a possibility that this largest voting bloc would demand for more programmatic campaign, one that directly touches on real issues instead of the exploitation of tension points in Indonesian society.
Issues such as post-pandemic recovery, digital economy, rising cost of living, healthcare, climate change, employment and the abuse of power by as well as the lack of reform within the state institutions (such as the police, custom and tax offices) have created a new sense of urgency that youths might consider as a priority. In the next one year, it would be interesting to see whether these issues would be co-opted into the youths’ political demand and if politicians could sufficiently shape their campaign around them. Programmatic campaigns that centre on such issues could divert away from the possibility of descending into another polarization, as they are not necessarily aligned with identity politics that have threatened to untangle the social fabric in Indonesia.