Social media campaigns are exacerbating a lurch towards polarisation in Indonesia.
Fissures in Indonesian society brought about by large-scale ethnic and religious-fuelled rallies in 2016 are playing out with increasing toxicity online. Islamist groups promoting anti-government and racist narratives remain a feature on social media, but they are facing growing competition from pro-government groups emulating their hardline tactics: deploying disinformation, bot and influencer networks and on occasion doxxing. This battle of intolerance in a country where there are 160 million active social media users threatens to exacerbate burgeoning polarisation and encourage greater conflict offline.
Resilient Islamist hate
Emblematic of continuing Islamist influence online is the loosely-organised Muslim Cyber Army (MCA). Using a grassroots campaigning style that invests heavily in digital tools, the MCA targets its appeals to Muslims, spreading the perception that Islam is under threat in Indonesia and calling for support for hardline Islamist leaders and organisations.
The MCA found its digital feet during the campaign to unseat then-Jakarta Governor Ahok (Basuki Tjahaja Purnama) in late 2016. Islamist groups, which were long-opposed to Ahok’s leadership of the capital (citing religious arguments highlighting his identity as a Christian and ethnic Chinese Indonesian) seized on ill-advised comments he made regarding the Qur’an during election campaigning to call for his removal from office. Hundreds of thousands joined protests on the streets of Jakarta, while millions more shared their opposition to Ahok online. Several social media influencers identifying with the movement, seeded MCA, setting up branches in their hometowns. One prominent activist even conducted training sessions to help others become Islamist “cyber troops”.
This coalition of offline and online Islamist forces succeeded in bringing down Ahok and then turned their attention to his erstwhile ally, President Joko Widodo. Seeing Widodo as the architect of Ahok’s rise and a threat to Islamist politics, they called for his overthrow. Allying with then-presidential contender Prabowo Subianto, Islamist groups, the MCA and other online activists fuelled a divisive and heated 2019 election. The campaign culminated in violent clashes on the streets of Jakarta – with key orchestrators largely escaping accountability to this day – after initial results declared Widodo the victor, before fizzling out following successive court rulings that confirmed Prabowo’s defeat.
Despite their electoral defeat and the elite reconciliation between Prabowo and Widodo, MCA continued promoting hate online, indicating that the rift at the grassroots level remained. Post-election, the movement persisted, inflaming polarisation and political intolerance online, deeming religious, ethnic and political outgroups “cancelled” through hacking, account deletion warfare, disinformation and vigilantism.
Additionally, anti-China and anti-ethnic Chinese posts receive considerable online engagement among MCA-affiliated social media accounts and groups. A tweet calling the arrival of Chinese foreign workers in Batam as the harbinger of the end of the country, for example, received 1700 shares and 4600 likes. Anti-Christian and anti-Shia sentiments were also rife.
MCA continues to conduct digilantism (digital vigilantism): identifying alleged blasphemers online, calling for the deletion of the offending accounts and harassment of their owners. For example, screenshots of anti-Islam posts by a man recently made its rounds on several platforms before his arrest. A motorbike taxi driver who was filmed setting fire to a photo of Habib Rizieq, the chief of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), had also been taken into custody. While a far cry from its height in 2017, where victims found their Facebook accounts spoofed and themselves intimidated, physically abused and dragged to police stations, such acts of intolerance still take place.
Resurgent militant pluralism
But MCA and Islamists online no longer enjoy a monopoly on social media – and in many places they are under intense pressure. Horrified by the racist overtones of the campaign that brought down Ahok, pro-government and anti-Islamist forces rallied online and offline in the lead-up to the 2019 election, energising online networks and disseminating media promoting tolerance and pluralism. This led to a renaissance among mainstream groups, with activists aligned with Indonesia’s largest mainstream Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) revamping its web and social media presence. Online outlets with strong production values and quality content such as Islami.co proliferated and are seeing a steadily growing reach.
In some places, though, this resurgent pluralism has taken a darker, more militant turn, with some activists seeking to curb the influence of Islamists by employing their own nefarious tactics against them. As an example, an Islamist supporter charged in July with leaking the personal details and home address of prominent pro-Widodo commentator Denny Siregar found himself the target of a retaliatory doxxing attack by Widodo supporters.
Some are also using disinformation to discredit high-profile Widodo opponents. Recently, pro-government ‘opinion site’ Seword outrageously claimed that FPI leader Habib Rizieq – still in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia – masterminded a stabbing attack on popular moderate cleric Syekh Ali Jaber. Others on social media circulated a poorly-photoshopped image suggesting the attacker was linked to banned non-violent Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI). Police investigations show that both theories are complete fabrications, but these hoaxes serve to promote further suspicion and attacks on opposition groups.
What Next: Beyond Online Hate?
Social media groups and networks are online filter bubbles where influencers and supporters speak in echo chambers and continue bolstering in-group identity. In this environment, extreme views are further validated by those who think alike. Even when alternative viewpoints are raised to challenge such groupthink, they are disregarded and even attacked. The net result is an increasingly hostile online environment which further divides society.
Online rhetoric contributed to a febrile post-election environment, which prompted violent demonstrations in Jakarta last year. Militant pluralists too are increasingly flexing their muscles in the real world, shutting down Islamist study groups and driving them out of spaces they had previously dominated. As these separate bubbles – Islamists and militant pluralists – grow and increasingly harden online, they increase the risk of social media shouting matches triggering real-world conflict.