Political Violence and the Media

Understanding the Case of Indonesia

Written by Marina Kusumawardhani

The 2019 Indonesian election delegitimization attempt and the May 2019 riots around the house of the election-monitoring body in Jakarta proved just how powerful politicians’ incitement of violence could be. But months before that, it was the divided narrative of the media that created deep polarization in the country. Sources that supported the opposition produced anything from hyperpartisan news to hate speech to downright conspiracy theories. Such alternative sources went largely unchecked before and after the riots. According to my research at MIT Media Lab, there were more than 60 alternative media sources (a number that’s still growing) producing 1,800-plus election-related news articles a month that year, compared with 170 mainstream media producing about 3,000 fact-checked election-related articles a month. As a result, a survey by Indonesia’s Cyrus Network found that 62 percent of the opposition supporters trust these hyperpartisan, Islamic/religious alternative media, while only 30 percent of those who support President Joko Widodo, also known as Jokowi, trust them, with the rest trusting mainstream media. Similarly, based on the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, 61 percent of U.S. Democrats trust the mainstream media, compared with only 27 percent of Republicans. The rest of Republicans — especially conservatives — trust the hyperpartisan, Christian/religious alternative media.

On May 22, 2019, a year and a half before protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol, rioters stormed Bawaslu, the house of the election monitoring body in Jakarta, Indonesia. Eight people were killed and around 600 injured. Several buildings and cars were burnt. The government blocked WhatsApp and social media platforms for two days to avoid further incitement or the dissemination of fake news. The military and the police deployed 34,000 officers to face 10,000 protesters, quelling the rebellion within about 12 hours.

Prior to that day, an ex-general and opposition supporter was detained for ordering the assasination of top government officials. Another opposition supporter, a former military commander, was arrested under charges of illegal firearms possession, and 29 suspects were detained for plotting armed terrorism for the day of the riot.

The Incitement

What led to this? Between early April 2019 and the day of the riot, the elites in the opposition group — presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto; Amien Rais, a former parliamentary chief and a close advisor of Prabowo; and Islamic Defender Front leader Habib Rizieq Shihab — called upon their supporters to delegitimize the national election on April 17 and hold “people power” demonstrations if they lost. “If our team managed to find evidence of massive, structured, and systematic cheating,” Rais said, “we would not go to the Supreme Court anymore; rather we would mobilize en masse in a big protest.” This was repeated by Prabowo at a mid-April rally with an audience of 150,000 where he said he condoned the people power demonstration if there is evidence of cheating. A week later, in a YouTube video, Rizieq, who had fled to Saudi Arabia in 2017 to escape pornography charges, told Prabowo supporters why the people power protest would be justified and constitutional.

There was never any evidence of structured, systematic cheating done by the National Election Committee (KPU) or the incumbent president’s team. There have been cases of fraud at the grassroots level — in polling stations — by supporters of both parties, but there is no evidence that these incidents were coordinated from the top. However, the accusation that only Jokowi’s team cheated has given Prabowo’s team fuel for conditioning his supporters that the election was rigged, and that the KPU and Bawaslu are compromised and have not done enough to stop these violations.

With almost all national election surveys predicting Jokowi’s victory, the opposition and their supporters were growing more anxious. The incitement was easy for opposition supporters to accept because of long standing racial prejudice against ethnic Chinese minorities and paranoia about communism, both of which are linked to Jokowi thanks to years of fake news. Moreover, the demographic groups associated with opposition support — mainly “Islamist radicals” and economically desperate young people — are also prone to brainwashing and provocation.

Furthermore, in a country with high obedience to Islamic authority, groups that announced their support to the opposition — such as thousands of members of the political party PKS, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the fundamentalist pan-Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia — consider the call to Jihad and toppling of the president and his government an obligation.

However, all this narrative wouldn’t reach so many people without widespread, alternative means of transmission. Prabowo’s speech at the stadium was attended by 150,000 people, but it was through alternative online media and social media that his message was spread to millions. Even with mainstream media constantly debunking claims that the election was rigged, the opposition and its supporters — especially the Islamist groups — created their own hyperpartisan, religious media as their alternative source of information.

Means of Transmission

The clash between the alternative and mainstream media created two completely different narratives and polarized the nation.

Again, in a span of months starting in early 2019, 60+ alternative online media sources were created by opposition supporters. They produced more than 1,800 election-related news articles a month, compared with 170 online mainstream media sources that produced around 3,000 news articles. According to a survey by Cyrus Network, 62 percent of opposition supporters in Indonesia stated they trusted these religious, hyperpartisan media, while only 30 percent of the president’s supporters do. The rest of Jokowi’s supporters rely on mainstream media and KPU or official announcements.

Interestingly, these numbers are very similar to those in the U.S. Based on the 2019 Edelman survey, 61 percent of Democrats trust the mainstream media while only 27 percent of Republicans do; the rest of Republicans trust hyperpartisan Christian/religious media.

In Indonesia in 2019, the mainstream media were busy battling the narrative that the election was rigged by explaining why it was transparent and fair. They warned of potential rioting and cited other organizations, such as the Association of World Election Bodies, which stated that the election was transparent and credible. Bawaslu pointed out that all steps of an election can be monitored by anyone, and indeed each region’s election tallies can be verified directly on KPU’s website. Indonesia Public Institute, a think tank, called encouraging protest unconstitutional.

On the other side, the alternative media spread the story that the election was rigged. In these media, the call to people-power protest was amplified, and evidence of grassroots cheating by Jokowi’s supporters was reported without mentioning that Prabowo’s supporters cheated as well. This narrative then traveled through social media echo chambers, especially Whatsapp, where fake news is hard to trace.

Although the mainstream media worked hard to clarify many of these stories, they were largely ignored due to media distrust and echo chambers, while alternative articles posted on social media were liked, retweeted, and shared heavily by opposition supporters. During my research at MIT Media Lab using the listening software Media Cloud, the news with the highest Facebook engagement, at more than 38 million shares, was about Habib Rizieq’s disappointment in Prabowo because the protest was not as big as it should have been.

Apart from all these online activities, billboards and flower bouquets were turning up around Jakarta shortly after the Election Day congratulating Prabowo for his victory, even though quick-count results announced otherwise and real-count announcements had not yet been made. High-profile imams nationwide also spread the false message of his win through mosques, especially during Friday prayers.

Governing the Media

Fearing a systemic undermining of democracy, KPU called on Prabowo and his team to stop the provocation and wait for the real-count results. On the evening of May 22, Prabowo finally called on his supporters to go home and wait for the decision of the Supreme Court, where he planned to go as his next step.

Weeks after the riot day, accountability was (understandably) being directed at the political figures who promulgated the falsehoods. But almost no one talked about the problem of the media landscape and how it’s structured.

What are we to learn from this experience? At least four questions must be addressed to maintain a healthy media environment. First, is there an independent body that monitors and certifies the creation of a new media in the country? In Indonesia there is the Press Council, but it does not certify all newly created media, which is why it was easy to create a new platform. In any case, there is no guarantee as well that people will treat this certification as a standard before reading a news article. However, the existence of an independent press council certification should provide awareness and an option that allows the audience to decide. More attention must be paid to strengthening this awareness, and to educating the public to use the Press Council as a standard of trustworthiness.

Second, are there transparent, crowdsourced platforms that provide facts and are accessible to everyone? One reason the call to action in Indonesia did not reach its intended scale — 10,000 protesters showed up at Bawaslu instead of the 1 million opposition leaders were hoping for — is because the counting of the election results was so transparent that anyone in the country could validate them through the KPU website and judge for themselves whether the victory claim was valid. There were also non government platforms, including one called Kawal Pemilu, that deployed young volunteers to monitor and scan tallies of all the ballots in the country and upload them to the website simultaneously with KPU’s releasing them. Again, these platforms need to be highlighted for citizens to become aware and utilize them.

Third, are there platforms for debate, particularly offline? In Indonesia, popular debate shows on national television and radio examine issues by giving time to representatives from each side. These debates interest everyone and force partisans (and swing voters) to step outside of their echo chambers and see both sides of the argument. TV is also an effective medium because it is widespread, whereas internet penetration in Indonesia is still low. These national debates were another reason the protest remained relatively small, since all potential scenarios were discussed publicly, allowing the police and military to be more prepared. Apart from television shows, micro discussion and debate platforms at the grassroots level (for example at the county level) are necessary for helping neighbors to neutralize polarization. In-person discussions can lessen the tension and create a more relaxed, if not humorous, exchange between people. These bipartisan grassroot movements are probably what is missing in Indonesia, and have not been amplified enough.

Fourth, is there a law against fake news? Although this imposed measure is the last resort because of historical and potential for abuse, in some countries it is still the strongest protection against hate speech and provocation. Some Jokowi’s supporters reported the call for protest to police, citing it as an inducement to violence. A politician from the president’s party, PDI-P, also reported Amien Rais and Rizieq Shihab to the police, charging provocation and treason. The founders of the offline alternative tabloid Obor Rakyat, which spread fake news in the 2014 national election, were charged with defamation and slander against Jokowi. Both cases were eventually dropped, but the fact that false information could be processed legally created an understanding within the society that fake news, hate speech, and provocation are unacceptable and against the law.

About the Author

Marina Kusumawardhani is a research fellow at Harvard Ash Center and a Mid-Career MPA 2020 at Harvard Kennedy School.

Research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School. Here to talk about democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy.