By the time you read this, enlisting the many ways COVID-19 has upended our lives is already a cliché but still necessary. What strikes me the most is how it lets Indonesia’s unresolved problems rear their ugly heads, making the pandemic and its ensuing fallout particularly devastating. Rampant inequality is the prime example of said problems, and I’d like to add another: the deterioration of the quality of public debate in Indonesia.
In the early days of the outbreak, the public health community and civil society demanded the government to listen to science-based evidence and impose a partial lockdown through social media. Meanwhile, the president publicly expressed his reluctance to do so1
, and the government would rather brief social media influencers (“buzzers”) to convey its narrative related to COVID-19 to the public2
. Soon enough, pro-government buzzers attacked the demand for lockdown and framed it as a tactic to boost the chance of the president’s political rival for running for the top seat in 20243,4,5
. It should be noted that this kind of diversionary tactic has been deployed before, for example in pushing the revision bill that declawed Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi6
The same pattern was also observed in late May when the social media accounts within the network of the national police launched a massive campaign to push “the new normal”, swallowing the objections from members of the medical or public health experts and anxious public7
Actors from civil society have expressed their perturbation about how the government has weaponized buzzers against critics8,9
. But it’s worth elaborating why buzzers are toxic for public debate and thus dangerous for democracy.
Buzzers tend to work by “gaslighting” grievances (“it’s not authoritarianism”) or deploying logical fallacies such as ad-hominem (“the critics are supporters of pro-Islamist agenda”), false-dilemma (“freedom of assembly or Indonestan”), or slippery-slope (“if we start discussing Papua, NKRI will be disintegrated”). The usage of these tactics is the hallmark of bad argumentation and leaves no room for evidence and logic. Since these buzzers have huge audiences, arguably they set the norms about public debate, and thus contribute to its destruction.
When the government would rather be weaponizing social media propagandists instead of using evidence from the science and research community, do think tanks and civil society organizations (CSO) have a fighting chance to push for much-needed reform?
Think tanks (I am including research-based CSO in this discussion) exist to mobilize expertise and ideas to influence the policy-making process. To be effective, think tanks should be able to create social and intellectual settings that compel stakeholders to argue and become aware of their own biases. Think tanks should provide a platform to introduce new ideas and expand the scope of the public debate10
. That platform must include social media since Indonesians from all walks of life are avid users of this channel11
I have stated before
that for many think tanks, communication in social media is not yet treated as an integral part of programs. It is mostly used to announce upcoming events, replace the greeting cards, or at most disseminate findings or analyses. If think tanks continue this practice, they are wasting the opportunity to improve the quality of public debate, strengthen democracy, and create a favorable climate for their advocacy.
How can think tanks use their social media to provoke and improve public debate? It has everything to do with the practice of academic writing that they do every day. The best academic writing has one underlying feature: it is deeply engaged in some way with other people’s views12
, such as other scholars in their field.
In other words, at its most fundamental level, the construct of persuasive and engaging academic writing is “They say / I say”. Thus, to be effective public debaters think tanks must enter an ongoing conversation, using others’ statements (“they say”) as a launching pad to assert their findings and evidence (“I say”). They should indicate something about other arguments that they are supporting, opposing, amending, or qualifying.
Here is a good and recent example from SMERU Research Institute who has done a lot of research on poverty. On June 5 this year, SMERU responded to a tweet from an influencer with one million Twitter followers who expressed his objection about privilege being used to discount one’s success since hard work mattered more. SMERU took this opportunity to disagree (politely) with him, and to introduce their study about the lack of social upward mobility among the poor in Indonesia. This interaction gained an enormous response from the netizens. But more importantly, SMERU has expanded the reach of the debate about structural poverty to those who probably have been indifferent or ignorant about the extent of inequality in Indonesia.