With the growing significance of the internet in today’s life, especially in enabling the cyberspace to facilitate wider public participation in the discussion of issues matter to them, internet does not only pose promise of inclusive and better democracy, but also a threat to the national security and unity — as its potential is used by some people to conduct bad deeds as seen in recent cases in Indonesia — such as spreading fake news, provoking hatred, or coordinating terror attacks and terrorists recruitment.
Within the cyberspace, the popularity of social media, that serves not only as the source of information of current issues but also the extension of extra-parliamentary political arena, is not seeing its decline in decades to come yet. Thanks to the agency deemed given by the cyberspace to the public, the previously underrepresented groups like women, youth, people who live far from Jakarta and the minority groups can now voice their opinions, participate in public debates and turn what they personally think is important into public issue.
The popularity of online petition, political buzzers and citizen journalism as forms of mediated activism and citizenship indicates the importance of social media to the formation of today’s public agenda and government agenda.
However, as anyone is now able to create and publish stories to audiences with the chance to spread rapidly and become very large instantly, the quality of the information consumed by the public is at stake owing to the fact that in cyberspace, be it social media or online news platform, information accuracy is seconded to the speed of its public release.
With more people prefer to consume their news in digital platform, the higher the chances of people consume and redistribute unverified information they get from the Internet, making it possible for fake information and news to be distributed widely. Information and news with sensationalism spreads quicker and gains wider public attention, giving it higher news value which in turn makes more revenue to the news creator.
In the United States, fake news is infamous for its reputation as a way to make easy money from the ignorance of Americans, deemed as one of the most influential factors leading to Trump’s win in the US election. In the United Kingdom, fake news is accused to have contributed in encouraging Britons to vote Leave during the EU membership referendum.
Meanwhile, with tensions running high between China and Indonesia as a result of rumors about the number of illegal Chinese workers scooping up jobs in Indonesia and China’s intention to wage biological warfare against Indonesia, added with a public unrest caused by divisive information and hate speech as seen in the case of alleged blasphemy by Jakarta Governor, Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, Indonesia is to set up a national agency to regulate cyber activities and fight cyber crime.
Ahead of that plan, Indonesian government reckons that the revised Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) Law, effective on Nov. 28, 2016, is the state’s pioneering step to protect the public from cyber threats and sustain national unity. However, the law itself is a threat to democracy in Indonesia not just because it neglects the opinions of civil society and the public, as they were not involved in the discussion during the revision process.
More importantly, it endangers freedom of the press, expression and speech, as the law contains articles prone to be multiple interpretations; loopholes which can be used by those in power to repress the voice of the ruled. After all, the revision has done nothing to ease public dismay over the law uncertainty.
Correspondingly, the establishment of cyber agency with the responsibility to oversee public cyber activities poses ethical and operative dilemmas: how to balance national security and civil liberties.
While it is the duty of governments to protect their citizens from threats, be it terrorism, radicalism, provoked hatred or bullying, people’s privacy and freedom of speech and expression need to equally be protected to the fullest extent possible. The government must be aware of the thin line between observing the cyberspace for security purposes and the creation of an Orwellian "surveillance society."
As internet becomes an integral component of modern daily life, while simultaneously posing opportunities and threats to individuals within the society and the nation-state as a whole, it is highly important to look at the bigger picture of cyber threats in order to seek an effective approach to fight it.
First, public should not be treated as passive audience who perceives information and acts towards it in uniformity. They might behave differently to the exposure of the same information. This brings us to the second point.
It is not the internet that has made cyber threats a success, which have ranged from fraud, radicalism, to provocation. Internet has to be seen as a mode, rather than a unitary method. In other case, the internet solely acts as an “echo chamber” through which people confirm their belief or opinion with like-minded others. Internet's role must be placed within people’s personal history and social relation. Assuming otherwise simply reduces the essence of human as thinking creature.
Therefore, censorship and surveillance aiming at safeguarding every citizen and the state — without combating the root cause of each cyber threat — may have the opposite effect of violating civil liberties and validating the attempt to plant hate and fear in public’s mind.
Consequently, as opposed to merely constituting regulations and establishing national bodies based on premature judgment about the capability of the media, especially the Internet, and oversimplification of the threats they pose, it is more important to revisit and evaluate the loop holes in our media governance so that we do not reactionary blame the technology and criminalize the public.
Focusing on collective and organizational coordination between actors in public including media agencies, civil society, government and the public, media governance points out to the sum total of mechanisms in both formal and informal sectors that aim to organize media systems, according to Freedman (2008).
With this perspective, replacing the conventional "command and control," the capacity of the state in media governance is as primus inter pares which encourages and facilitates a conversation between a variety of stakeholders about the creation, monitoring and evaluation of collective rules of the media sector.
The multi-stakeholder conversation is important for the maintenance of balance of interests between stakeholders of media sector with public interest as top priority.
In this sense, media agencies are expected to oblige to the general standards and ethics stipulated in the regulations and guidelines provided, while the government, civil society and the public should monitor them. Simultaneously, the civil society and public are also expected to monitor the government so that it does not abuse its power over the media sector for its own interest.
While online media news is designed to cater to the demand of simple, easy-to-digest, fast-delivered, real time information, mainstream media should stick to responsible practice guided by journalism ethics and standards, in which accuracy and accountability of the information covered — as well as the diversity of issues and voices represented — are more important than speed, simplicity and sensationalism.
This is extremely important given the fact that there is currently unprecedented crisis in the supply of public interest journalism and that our everyday conversations and actions are to a great extent influenced by our online media consumption behavior.
To balance the influence of online media, mainstream media agencies should invest more in conducting in-depth journalism, as well as providing more space for counter-narratives and fact-based analysis so as to avoid the voice of majority to become the absolute ideology of the public, or leading to political fanaticism.
Mass media should challenge the detriments that public has lost from the negativity brought by the digitization. This way, mainstream and online media could fill each other in, establishing an environment where conflicting facts and opinions are transparently presented to spark dialogues between people in the society.
When faced with cognitive dissonance generated from exposure to conflicting ideas, people reevaluate and reinterpret the ideas they have or even acquire for new ones to finally reduce or eliminate that dissonance. By delivering contesting facts and opinions to the public, mass media contribute to encouraging people in performing meaningful citizenship in which they assess information they are exposed to, up to a point where they eventually develop their own attitude and actions towards it.
Ultimately, the public will create its own mechanism to discuss and criticize issues in the cyberspace or daily offline conversation.
Along with that, mass media as the Fourth Pillar of democracy hold the responsibility to be a watchdog as opposed to attack dogs or guardian to certain individual or group. In Indonesia, where the representative democracy does not perform as how it is supposed to be, the media are the only institution people could turn to to voice their aspiration, whether it is support or criticism for the government. Media should not only reflect the government agenda, but also public agenda.
Attaining such conduct from the mass media in Indonesia would require the existing media regulating bodies such as Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (KPI) and Press Council (Dewan Pers) to ensure that media organizations attend to their duty to position public interest beyond their political and economic interest, as well as functioning civil society.
Prior to that, the capacity of both KPI and Dewan Pers need to be revived so as to not merely be the extension of government control of the media and communication activities without clear rewarding records in protecting public interest.
Along with the aforementioned efforts, media governance in Indonesia also calls for the participation of the government, media organizations and civil society to enhance media literacy of the public. Media literacy goes beyond proficiency in accessing and using the media.
Media literacy helps public to use “filters” to become more aware in recognizing bias, propaganda, spin or misinformation, discerning sensationalism in media narratives, to online fraud and scam, avoiding threats brought by the media.
Essentially, the fact that media, mainstream or online, are now inseparable part of our democracy needs to be embraced by all actors within Indonesia, including and particularly, by the government. Unless followed by thorough reforms in media governance and institutional reinforcement, censorship and surveillance manifested in ITE Law and cyber agency will only lead to weakening democracy in Indonesia, used by those in power to suppress the ruled.
As Dahl (1971) asserts, democratization is a process of building and maintaining a state that encourages inclusive participation. Competing claims of privacy, disclosure, and public interest should be subject to full public debate and not just determined by the government.
Indonesia has a long list of unresolved issues of media governance threatening the democratization process, including that of media ownership concentration which seems to be seconded by the government. The abandonment of some issues and advancement of some other demonstrate how the public interest, private interest and government interest are positioned in the state’s scale of priority.
Debora Irene Christine is a graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s media, communication and development program. All views are her own.