More responsive journalism – not social media ban – is needed to fight disinformation in Indonesia

Protesters clash with police outside the Election Supervisory Board (Bawaslu) building in Jakarta following the announcement of the Indonesian presidential election result on 22 May 2019. Adi Weda/EPA

Protests in Jakarta by supporters of former military general Prabowo Subianto, who lost the presidential election to incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, prompted the Indonesian government to temporarily limit social media access

Provocateurs among protesters turned the protest into riots. Hundreds of people were injured and at least six people killed.

The government said it is limiting social media access to prevent the spread of disinformation.

A human rights NGO, the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), criticised the government’s move, arguing that limiting access to information does not defuse the problem. On Twitter, some supported the move and others protested. Some people installed virtual private network (VPN) software to bypass the restrictions.

Social media bring challenges of circulation of false news and hardening of divisions between different political groups. But I argue that banning social media, especially at a time when some citizens need to use it to express their disappointments with the election result or support for the winner, is hurting citizens’ right to freedom of expression.

Not only that, but it can also limit the reach of much-needed verified information from journalists to the general public, harming press freedom in the process.

Media organisations and communities should be empowered to produce credible information and distribute this to the public to fight disinformation. Media organisations must also respond to how new technology has changed the information landscape. They should adjust their role to not just report events but to verify information circulating in social media.

About the ban

Governments and social media companies around the world are grappling with how to deal with the spread of disinformation with the rise of social media platforms. Many have taken the social media shutdown path. Last month, Sri Lanka temporarily banned social media following bombings on Easter Sunday.

By limiting access to social media to prevent the spread of hoaxes, the Indonesian government seems to favour a top-down approach, in which the government evaluates, filters and distributes information for the public.

This approach is reminiscent of the counter-propaganda approach that political scientist Harold Lasswell and New York Times columnist Walter Lippman call “benevolent technocracy”. It’s based on the belief that the public is vulnerable to propaganda and too gullible to recognise it.

This is in contrast to an approach supported by public educator John Dewey, who believed people could learn to defend themselves from propaganda if they were taught how to do it.

The second approach, for me, is more liberating and empowering for the public than the first one. Especially since recent research shows shutting down social media does not reduce violence.

Dewey’s approach can be translated into media literacy activity or reforming the media to serve public education and debate, instead of just another “bulletin board of information”.

Impacts from the bans

Limiting access to social media hampers the public’s ability to access information and at the same time to share information with their social networks. During a situation involving protests or riots, people need to be able to exchange and update information.

In term of the Indonesian election, some citizens need to express their feelings about a seemingly unfair voting process.

Social media restrictions could also limit the press’s ability to listen and gather information from different sources, angles and perspectives. Limiting information also means limiting the press’s capacity to check on information and find “the truth”.

Social media shutdowns can have impacts at both the individual and state level. Blocking social media can influence people to self-censor because they know they are being watched. In Turkey, many people understand that social media restrictions are a form of government threats to opposition voices.

At the national level, social media shutdowns can silence the public. In Thailand in 2017, when the junta blocked social media posts related to political expression sent by anti-junta scholars and activists, it succeeded in silencing the protest.

New role of the media

New communication technology has ushered us into a new era where propaganda and disinformation can spread quickly on social media. News organisations should respond to this change. It’s not enough for journalists to gather information or cover events. News organisations have a new role now in verifying information on social media.

There is a strong belief that a good journalist is the one who can uncover facts in complicated investigative reporting, and its quality depends on how significant the impact of the news is. This is important work, and media organisations should continue to do this.

However, in the era of disinformation, people also need trained fact checkers to verify information for the public. The best one for the job is a trained journalist.

Persistent distribution of credible information

Another way to fight disinformation is to keep publishing credible information until the public gets the whole picture. The public must be kept informed and updated. This approach needs collaborative action between mass media organisations, communities and individuals.

This method is inspired by a study of network propaganda during the 2016 US presidential election.

The research shows there was an imbalance between the credible media and the networks of media that spread disinformation. The networks of disinformation were wider and influenced by fake news websites, while other networks that consisted of credible media platforms were less intensive in running and amplifying trustworthy information.

Such disinformation networks can get wider because they are more persistent in producing, disseminating and amplifying information, compared to the credible mass media that have a shorter span of attention to issues.

A new public sphere

Social media, like any other communication channel, are just another tool. It is the people who use social media that determine whether their uses are bad or good.

Social media allow people to have private conversations with friends, family and acquaintances. Not only that, social media have emerged as a new public sphere, a place to express an opinion or political support and to form socio-political movements.

Research has shown the human rights and economic impacts of banning social media.

What Indonesia needs more is credible verified information from journalists spread widely to the public.

This article was originally published in Indonesian