Indonesia and Social Media: An Open Door for Extremism?

As a nation that’s very ethnically diverse and sprawling with multi-religious groups, Indonesia is no stranger to communal violence and acts of terrorism.  The 2002 Bali Bombing serves as a constant reminder as of the dangers home-grown domestic terrorist networks offer.

Now however, the game has changed and terrorist groups in Indonesia have a new weapon to add to their arsenal, Social Media. Highly inflammatory tweets, texts or Facebook posts can help sow the seeds for disharmony. This has promoted extremist groups to take full advantage of the wide audience that social media sites offer.  In February 2011, a mob of 1,000 people overran the home of the leader of a minority Islamic sect. He and two other men were clubbed, stoned and machete to death in the street. This incident was incited by a simple chain text message.

In recent years the access to the internet in Indonesia has greatly improved, with millions more people online.  As of 2013, 75 million people in Indonesia have access to the internet, with a third of that coming via smartphones. This has caused the concept of social networking and websites such as Facebook and Twitter to vastly grow in popularity. Indonesia currently accounts for 15 per cent of world’s global tweets, and have over 40 million Facebook users, placing Indonesia second only to America for number of Facebook users.

The substantial increase in internet access and usage in Indonesia opens up a completely new audience for extremist organisations, allowing for social media websites to become a very dangerous and prolific recruitment tool; Permitting groups like Jemaah Islamiyah to affirm their ideologies and make contact with others who hold similar inclinations, and potentially creating international networks.

This ever increasing audience also means that extremist groups can now craft their own counter narratives, should they make any mistakes. It also gives them the opportunity to defend their actions or dismiss any claims of lack of legitimacy. In the case of Indonesia, messages from those who are a part of the extremist movement have a greater impact compared to that of the voice of the government.

Facebook has become an ever more popular recruitment tool by extremist groups in Indonesia. Even the Indonesian police have stated that Facebook is one of the main places that they have found online terrorist activity. Over the last two years extremist Islamic organisations have recruited 50-100 new militants directly through Facebook. There are at least eighteen Indonesian radial groups on Facebook, with one having around 7,000 members. In May 2013 a bomb plot to blow up the Myanmar Embassy was intercepted by Indonesia’s counter terrorism unit, Detachment 88. The individuals involved communicated via Facebook; and even went as far as to declare their intentions as an online status. It was also later discovered that the suspects had learnt how to create the pipe bombs they planned on using online.

One of the main arguments to counter this threat is blocking these sites; however it is viewed as only a short term fix. If you block one site then another one will pop up by the same people just hours later. Many believe that social media can be used as a counter tool, not just a weapon for extremist groups. Some multi-religious groups have been working together to counter online hate and correct false rumours made online. For example when rumours began to surface on social media that a church in Ambon had been attacked and destroyed by Muslims, a multi-religious group posted a picture of the church undamaged online. Thus relieving all tension among the community before the rumour spread too far and got out of hand.

The vast expansion and availability of the internet, along with the growing popularity of social media and smartphones in Indonesia clearly opens up the country to exploitation by extremist organisations. Social media allows extremists groups’ access to a new audience, who they can groom into militants. It is very difficult for governments to combat and counter this threat, as the freedom created by the internet allows groups to set up new pages even after their old ones are shut down.

Indonesia has had many incidents were social media has played a vital role in assisting extremist groups in completing their violent actions. Facebook has become a clear breeding ground for recruitment, giving extremist organisations the opportunity to radicalize a whole new generation of militants. Indonesia’s information technology laws only ban pornography and illegal financial transactions.

If Indonesia really wants to tackle their growing problematic link between extremist groups and social media, then the government will have to look into expanding that law and continue to invest in their counter terrorist programs. Or risk becoming the world’s case study on the relationship between extremist groups and social media.

2 responses to “Indonesia and Social Media: An Open Door for Extremism?”

  1. Luke Douglas says:

    I think it is a little unfair to describe Indonesia as a country with a big extremist problem. It has issues, especially in terms of Islamic extremism, undoubtedly, and of course like in any other country, social media can help extremists widen their audience. However when you consider the size of the country and its population, it is comparatively peaceful. It is undoubtedly one of the safest large muslim countries in the world and threats posed by extremists are relatively small when you consider the size of the country. It might not quite be Malaysia yet, but it is getting there.

    Additionally, we should be greatful for social media in Indonesia. They have just had an incredibly intense presidential election, and Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has prevailed, surprisingly. He used social media intensively and various other modern ways to engage with the people, and he has beaten his rival – Prabowo Subianto: a corrupt former military man who has been widely accused of human rights abuses and fraud (and who incidentally didn’t use social media at all during his campaign). So in that example at least, social media has benefitted Indonesia, and hopefully the country can look forward to a more united, fair and democratic future under their new leader.

    • Lewis Barton says:

      Hi there, yeah I agree with most of what you are saying. This article isn’t intended to say that Indonesia is about to be overrun by extremists or that social media is only a bad thing, as you have said it can do a lot of good. While I did concentrated mostly on Indonesia, the article is more about the boarder relationship between extremist groups and social media.

      I never meant to imply that Indonesia has a big extremist problem, however it does have a history with acts of terror and communal violence. Jemaah Islamiyah and the 2002 Bali bombings stand out the most, causing the government to create Detachment 88 to counter domestic terrorism. Since then splinter groups of Jemaah have carried out suicide bombings in Jakorta and Bail between 2005 and 2009. Even before 2002 Jemaah’s parent organisation Darul Islam, carried out a wave of bombings throughout the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. So there is a historical link. That, along with its rapidly growing access to the internet and a large population that uses social media is why I decided to use Indonesia as a case study.

      Again this wasn’t an attempt to attack Indonesia and say ‘watch out, it’s all about to kick off’. Not at all, it was to demonstrate the dangerous relationship that extremist groups can have with social media. As well as saying that there is the possibility of potential trouble in Indonesia with social media and extremist groups, just like there is in all countries.

      Thank you for the comment, always good to get feedback and debate the issue.