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Do You Hear the People Tweet?: The Role of Social Media in Indonesia’s Foreign Policy

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Prior to reformasi – the country’s democratization that began in the late 1990s – Indonesia’s foreign policy was shaped by strong leaders such as presidents Sukarno and Suharto. But instead of an elite pursuit among Jakarta’s educated classes, foreign policy has now been democratized by social media, writes Aristyo Rizka Darmawan of the University of Indonesia. Will that bring policy decisions closer to the people’s wishes, or are Indonesia’s diplomats in danger of being influenced by those who shout loudest on Twitter and Facebook?

Do You Hear the People Tweet?: The Role of Social Media in Indonesia’s Foreign Policy

Sovereignty under stress: Prompted by public calls for a robust response to Chinese activities in the South China Sea, Indonesian President Joko Widodo convened a cabinet meeting on board a warship off the Natuna Islands (Credit: Presidential Secretariat Press Bureau)

Social media has become embedded in Indonesian society. A morning trawl through Instagram, Twitter and TikTok is as integral to the day’s start as breakfast. Commuters are glued to their phones and are at the ready over lunch. A scroll through the latest news and opinions is almost mandatory before bedtime. Indeed, Indonesia is the third-largest consumer of social media worldwide. It is ranked sixth in the number of Twitter users, fourth among Instagram devotees, and number three for Facebook fans, after only India and the United States.

Many world leaders are aware of the importance of social media: From India’s Narendra Modi (70 million Twitter followers) to Canada’s Justin Trudeau (5.6 million Twitter followers), the platform is an essential communication and policy tool. BCW, a global communications agency, has ranked world leaders’ engagement in social media through its @twitplomacy account. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is one of the most followed and most effective users, with more than 40 million Instagram fans. That exceeds Donald Trump’s suspended account, which has 23.9M followers. Jokowi’s personal assistant has revealed that the president checks his social media accounts regularly and even reads some direct messages himself.

Indonesians look at their newsfeeds to find out nearly everything, whether it is football results, the latest on with their favorite celebrities, cat videos, or domestic politics. The social media phenomenon has created a generation more connected to each other and the world than ever before. This has prompted Indonesians to become more and more interested in their country’s international relations. Traditionally, foreign policy has been perceived as a matter for elite discourse of little concern to ordinary people.

Online in Magelang, Central Java: Indonesians log on to social media platforms to check their newsfeeds and give their two sen anytime, anywhere (Credit: A Dharma Prasetya / Shutterstock.com)

Online in Magelang, Central Java: Indonesians log on to social media platforms to check their newsfeeds and give their two sen anytime, anywhere (Credit: A Dharma Prasetya / Shutterstock.com)

That has changed since reformasi, the democratization process that began in the late 1990s as the Internet era took hold. Indonesia’s activities on the regional and world stage have become more visible to citizens, particularly younger ones, and as a result, they are becoming more aware of many complex issues that older people had previously ignored or were simply not reading or hearing about.

The latest example was when Indonesia voted against a United Nations General Assembly resolution to include the “responsibility to protect” (referred to as R2P, a norm in international relations adopted by the UN in 2005 regarding the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity) on the body’s annual agenda and to request the secretary-general to report on its status every year. Indonesia was the lone ASEAN member state to reject the resolution (six others abstained and three voted for it).

Shortly after the vote, UN Watch, a lobby group, tweeted a “list of shame” consisting of the 15 countries that voted “no”, which also included North Korea, Cuba, Syria and Belarus. This provoked a reaction from Indonesian netizens, with many criticizing Jakarta’s position and condemning the nation’s ambassador to the UN. The storm raged even before the Indonesian government could explain its position – a no vote on arcane procedural grounds.

Another example of the Twittersphere erupting over a foreign policy issue was the reaction to Indonesia’s response to the escalation of the maritime dispute with China in the North Natuna Sea, a southerly zone of the South China Sea between Sumatra and Borneo. In early 2020, there was a standoff between Indonesian law enforcement and the Chinese Coast Guard. Soon after the incident, angry Indonesians flooded social and mass media, demanding a more robust response to what they regarded as provocation by Beijing. This prompted President Jokowi to conduct a cabinet meeting on board a navy warship in the contested waters. His government was forced to signal that it had taken the incident – and the subsequent public reaction – seriously.

In the early years after Indonesia's independence in 1945, then president Sukarno was very much the steward of country’s foreign policy. His own world view set the course of Jakarta’s international relations – from closer ties with Communist countries including the Soviet Union and China to its violent konfrontasi or confrontation with Malaysia from 1963 to 1966. With the low level of education and the difficult economy of those days, the Indonesian public had neither much interest nor a major voice in foreign policy.

During the three decades of authoritarian rule under Suharto, elites continued to drive foreign policy. As historian and political scientist Leo Suryadinata observed, in the New Order (Orde Baru, or Orba), the president, the foreign ministry and the military were the chief managers of Indonesian foreign policy. During this period until the fall of Suharto in 1998, Indonesia had a series of foreign ministers with strong personalities and sharp intellects who were well regarded internationally from Canberra to Washington: Adam Malik, Ali Alatas and Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, who died in June 2021.

Since the start of the reformasi, Indonesia has become a democracy, and foreign policy discourse is no longer restricted to the conventional elites. Public concern over foreign policy issues has grown over the time. And the government has made efforts to have consultations with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other stakeholders, which has become a common feature of modern foreign policymaking in many countries. Under Hassan Wirajuda, who served as the country’s chief diplomat from 2001 to 2009 under presidents Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the foreign ministry became known for its engagement with NGOs, academia, think tanks, religious leaders, and the media, to get input and suggestions and to learn what were the key concerns of the public.

But this was before social media platforms took off. At that time, public engagement was undertaken through seminars, focus group discussions and meetings. Today, conditions have changed dramatically. The public at large can voice their concerns not only at formal discussions but also through digital channels.

The minister is not the only one in the mix. Indonesian ambassadors and other diplomats have taken social media engagement seriously. Through its Social Media Awards, the ministry recognized heads of mission who have distinguished themselves in their use of online channels. Kemlu itself received recognition for its efforts at the Government Social Media Summit in 2020.

Veteran diplomat Dino Patti Djalal, who served as Indonesia’s envoy to the US from 2010 to 2013, has spearheaded efforts to corral citizens into foreign policy debates. With political scientist Dewi Fortuna Anwar and businessman Peter Gontha, who served as ambassador to Poland from 2014 to 2019, Djalal launched the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) as a non-partisan, apolitical platform for discussing international relations and global issues. Its annual conference has become an important event on the calendar of the local foreign policy community, attracting a few thousand participants and a lot of public attention, particularly among youth.

While it remains the case that Indonesian foreign policy is primarily shaped by experts, bureaucrats, politicians, the military and other elites, today input from the broader community of stakeholders delivered through multiple channels new and old are having an impact on decision making. The government has to analyze social media to take the pulse of public opinion before making moves abroad which it hopes will then have strong support at home.

Bringing an awareness of the views expressed on social media into the decision-making process is not without consequences. Policy makers including even diplomats of all levels of experience have had to approach their consumption and their own use of these digital tools with great care. Expressing a personal opinion – even a seemingly innocent comment about a small matter – could lead to trouble. A tweet may be considered by some to be the equivalent of an official statement or articulation of the government’s position. Comments on sensitive issues such as Papua or religious affairs could become a career-killing misstep if it triggers an uproar.

The discussion of foreign policy on social media is typically not at the expert level and not well informed. The most frequent users are usually the most ardent, loud voices driven by emotion or personal interest. Many are motivated by hate. Officials must be wary when digesting public concerns expressed on social media. Listening to the Twitter mob may be good politics but could well result in bad policy.

The widespread use of social media in Indonesia has undoubtedly created a two-way channel of communication on policy issues including international relations. Governance will never be the same. As the population of digital natives who have grown up as avid users of social media grows, the role of these platforms will only increase. The government will have to continue to adapt to this challenging marketplace of ideas. This will require more officials in the ranks who are themselves adept at wielding online tools and keeping up with the latest high-tech trends and methods of communication.

Ministerial messaging: Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi regularly tweets about her daily activities (Credit: right, Mamat Suryadi / Shutterstock.com, and left, screen capture of Twitter)

The foreign ministry, known as Kemlu, its abbreviated name, has adapted to this new environment. Under Jokowi and current minister Retno Marsudi, the foreign ministry has become very active on social media including Instagram and Twitter. The first woman to hold her post, Retno routinely reports on daily developments and her activities. The aim is to ground foreign policy in the public discourse and not restrict the discussion to the level of elites and experts.

The minister is not the only one in the mix. Indonesian ambassadors and other diplomats have taken social media engagement seriously. Through its Social Media Awards, the ministry recognized heads of mission who have distinguished themselves in their use of online channels. Kemlu itself received recognition for its efforts at the Government Social Media Summit in 2020.

While it remains the case that Indonesian foreign policy is primarily shaped by experts, bureaucrats, politicians, the military and other elites, today input from the broader community of stakeholders delivered through multiple channels new and old are having an impact on decision making. The government has to analyze social media to take the pulse of public opinion before making moves abroad which it hopes will then have strong support at home.

Bringing an awareness of the views expressed on social media into the decision-making process is not without consequences. Policy makers including even diplomats of all levels of experience have had to approach their consumption and their own use of these digital tools with great care. Expressing a personal opinion – even a seemingly innocent comment about a small matter – could lead to trouble. A tweet may be considered by some to be the equivalent of an official statement or articulation of the government’s position. Comments on sensitive issues such as Papua or religious affairs could become a career-killing misstep if it triggers an uproar.

The discussion of foreign policy on social media is typically not at the expert level and not well informed. The most frequent users are usually the most ardent, loud voices driven by emotion or personal interest. Many are motivated by hate. Officials must be wary when digesting public concerns expressed on social media. Listening to the Twitter mob may be good politics but could well result in bad policy.

The widespread use of social media in Indonesia has undoubtedly created a two-way channel of communication on policy issues including international relations. Governance will never be the same. As the population of digital natives who have grown up as avid users of social media grows, the role of these platforms will only increase. The government will have to continue to adapt to this challenging marketplace of ideas. This will require more officials in the ranks who are themselves adept at wielding online tools and keeping up with the latest high-tech trends and methods of communication.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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