Indonesia’s Social Media Elections
April 2, 2014
In the words of my colleagues, I used to be gaptek – the Indonesian term for “technologically challenged.” I didn’t know an App from an API, and the smartest thing about my phone was its shiny black case. But the expansion of social media in Indonesia has been so overwhelming and impossible to resist that I dipped my toe in and was soon immersed. With less than one week until legislative elections, many here are asking the same question: Just how much will social media influence elections in Indonesia?
Elections in Indonesia are massive in scale. On April 9, over 180 million eligible voters will elect 19,700 legislators from over 230,000 candidates for 532 different legislatures – at the national, provincial, district, and municipal levels – in only six hours at over half a million polling stations across the country. On July 9, voters will turn out again to elect a new president and vice president.
In the past, the National Election Commission (KPU), parties, candidates, and civil society organizations have struggled to support voters to make informed voting decisions. Conventional media channels have not proven suited to packaging and targeting such a volume of voter information, particularly when it is geared toward reaching Indonesia’s younger voters.
Enter social media. Over 70 million Indonesians are using the internet and approximately 90 percent of these are on Facebook. Over 30 million Indonesians tweet. Young voters are particularly active online. Reflecting the significance of this market, Google is well established in Indonesia, and Facebook recently opened their first office in Jakarta.
All 12 political parties eligible to contest national elections are now active on social media. Several of these have even established YouTube channels. Legislative candidates are also increasingly engaging voters via Facebook and Twitter. Recent news of Jakarta mayor Joko Widodo’s presidential candidacy first broke via Twitter, perhaps not surprising since Jokowi (as he is more commonly known) has over 1.3 million Twitter followers – more than twice as many as any other candidate. Not to be outdone, presidential aspirant Prabowo Subianto was recently reported to have the fourth largest Facebook following of any politician in the world.
Last month, local NGO Perludem held a Code for Vote hackathon, a first-of-its-kind voter information event in Indonesia where developers spent 24 hours coding in a competition to create the best election-related apps. Perludem presented its newly launched API Pemilu (Elections Application Programming Interface), a database of election information carefully verified, aggregated, and coded in a developer-friendly way. API Pemilu data have fueled nine apps so far, in addition to an interactive candidate map that covers all 34 provinces on Google’s new Indonesia elections page, built in partnership with Google and The Asia Foundation.
Mobile and internet technology is changing the face of election observation, too. Jaringan Pendidikan Pemilih untuk Rakyat, or JPPR, the country’s largest independent election observer network, have streamlined operations this year and are increasingly reaching voters by providing election resources and crowd sourcing reporting via social media. Prominent NGO Indonesia Corruption Watch is soliciting public reports of vote buying online, and a coalition of NGOs and media advocates have launched an innovative site for Jakarta residents to report electoral violations.
Meanwhile, Indonesia’s leading media outlets are providing extensive election information via social media. For example, leading media conglomerate, Viva, has launched an elections app where users can get news, photos, and videos about the 2014 elections. Tempo Media Group has a dynamic and extensive site that tracks voter sentiment and buzz from a range of social media channels in the run up to elections.
Survey firms are also catching on: Politicawave has predicted (for the most part correctly) the outcomes of gubernatorial elections over the past two years based solely on social media monitoring. This raises interesting questions: to what extent are social media users a bellwether of broader popular sentiment? And to what extent are they influencers – in this case, on electoral preferences – of family and friends who may not be active online?
Jokowi’s 2012 gubernatorial campaign was notable for how he and his running mate made effective use of social media. The difference in 2014 is that social media are now coloring all aspects of elections and on a national scale – official campaigns, voter information, election observation, election reporting, and political punditry. For sure, connectivity is uneven across the country and social media use is skewed to younger as well as urban voters who are not yet using these media in large numbers for news and political information. But it is finally relevant to ask: To what extent will social media impact national elections? And what is the significance of all this?
First, this is an undeniable, growing, and rapidly evolving trend. Stakeholders in elections – from candidates to election administrators and civil society advocates – are using these innovations to better engage with their audiences, or risk being simply swept along with the tide. Candidates, in particular, may benefit from crowdfunding – a novel twist in a country where candidates are better known for paying voters.
Second, social media represent the democratization of information – or content created by the people, for the people. In the context of elections in Indonesia, this does several things: it promotes public participation, allows voter information to circumvent the popular conventional media (all of which have partisan affiliations and charge mightily for content and advertising), and it decentralizes the discourse away from the one-sided lectures that have dominated election campaigns in the past.
Third, Perludem’s API is an excellent example of how the promotion of public information and ideas via social media contributes to transparency and accountability. This initiative has encouraged the KPU to consider developing its own API and to join with Perludem on future hackathons.
A note to all who are gaptek: times are changing. And technologically savvy Indonesians are changing the discourse as well as the course of their own elections.
Andrew Thornley is a program director for The Asia Foundation in Indonesia. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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