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This session discussed the role of social media in strengthening civil engagement around the world, and addressed the challenges and opportunities for social media in promoting and sustaining the democratic governance of a nation.
The session was opened by Ms Shita Laksmi, Program Development Manager at Hivos and Member of the MAG, and after her brief introduction, Mr Dirgayuza Setiawan, Technology Evangelist, Author, and Internet Society IGF Ambassador, took the floor. Setiawan presented four different ways in which social media affects democracy and civil engagement in Indonesia:
- Social media is changing decision-making, as it is used as an indicator of public support for policies.
- Social media is changing information dissemination, which is no longer monopolised. Yet, challenges related to echo chambers and harassment remain.
- Political hacking during elections poses a challenge to democracy, although this has not (yet) happened in Indonesia.
- Through social media, political participation has opened up to young people through the online platforms they have built in Indonesia. The next step is to share these platforms with other parts of the world.
Next, Hamza Ben Mehrez, Policy Analyst Lead, iGMENA, Hivos, provided an overview of online media and its impact on democracy in the MENA region. He outlined how social media is both used as a way to challenge power structures, as well as a tool for politicians to stay in power. After the 2011 uprisings in the region, online activists have been feeling disillusioned by the lack of change. In addition, the negative perception politicians have about social media remains. On top of that, he said, the Internet seems to be polarising along social and religious cleavages. To overcome these challenges and prevent the use of social media for negative purposes, people need to organise themselves better on social media and use these platforms rationally.
Providing a view from the government sector, Ms Mariam Barata, Deputy Director General of ICT Application, Ministry of Communication and Information Technology of Indonesia, explained the challenges and opportunities of social media for policymakers in Indonesia. Apart from the many benefits of social media for democracy in making the government’s work more transparent and accountable, she highlighted a number of challenges, such as the incitement of hatred on online platforms, which needs to be countered. She noted that is important to solve this paradox properly by working together with social media platforms and other stakeholders.
The paradox addressed by Barata was further underlined by Tereza Horejsova, Project Development Director, DiploFoundation, who talked about the role of international organisations in this debate, which are usually built around the trinity of security, development, and human rights. This can be seen not only in the UN structure, but also at the IGF. She noted that he human rights angle seems to prevail in discussions on the link between social media and democracy. Yet, she opined, from a security angle, violent extremism online has been extensively discussed in international forums this year. The balance between the two angles is delicate, and although a win-win solution would be ideal, it is starting to look more like a zero-sum game.
During the Q&A that followed, Ben Mehrez delved deeper into the challenges in the MENA region related to the perception of politicians that the Internet is a ‘dark and scary place’. Awareness raising and capacity building among government officials is important to bring about change. Furthermore, online activists need to be aware that social media cannot quickly create a well-functioning democracy – ‘this is an illusion’, he said. Instead, there needs to be a greater focus on how to translate online movements into offline policy changes.
Awareness raising was also mentioned by Setiawan in relation to the need to fighting ‘trolling armies’, as well as to the importance of countering false news and echo chambers. He argued that there needs to be greater social media literacy ‘to understand that what we’re reading is not the whole picture’. Horejsova added that awareness building is ‘essential for inclusive and sustainable Internet governance’, as better-informed stakeholders will generate ‘more inclusive and efficient policymaking’.
Laksmi closed the session by pointing out that the issues raised merit an ongoing discussion for the years to come, and this discussion was continued over a cup of Indonesian coffee for the participants at the venue.
by Barbara Rosen Jacobson