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Can think tanks save public debates from political buzzers?

When the government chooses to mobilize social media propagandists instead of using evidence to inform policies, do think tanks and civil society organizations have a fighting chance to push for much-needed reform?

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.

A good example of how SMERU Research Institute is using Twitter to expand the public debate about privilege and the lack of social upward mobility among the poor.

The above example illustrates how entering the right conversation at the right time makes a difference. Think tanks can start monitoring the ongoing conversations that are pertinent to their programs using social media analyses, allowing them to identify not only “what” they say, but to some degree “who” they are. With additional exploration, they can map out the moral or value tensions underlying the debates, enabling them to engage in the conversations more perceptively.

Besides understanding what “they say”, think tanks and CSO must also build their capacity to deliver the “I say” part. There are methods everyone can learn, for example from “They Say / I Say” : The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (Graff and Birkenstein, 2018). Furthermore, there are protocols that organizations can put in place to make social media communication more manageable while still effective to advance their agendas.

Many think tanks do not employ designated staff to do communication, let alone run their social media accounts. They may have to raise additional funds to pull this effort well. Some organizations are lucky enough to be able to use institutional funds, but others can try to incorporate “strengthening democracy or inclusive policymaking through public debate” into the budgets of projects.

Curbing the deterioration of public debate is especially urgent amid the government’s rush to get to “the new normal”. “New normal” is misguided. “New normal” is distorted by the status quo bias that is evident when people prefer things to stay the same by doing nothing or by sticking with a decision made previously13. We now know how the practices that were the norms pre-coronavirus have led us to today’s predicament. Therefore, we must reject “the new normal” if it is just a euphemism for “business as usual”.

Rebuilding Indonesia post-pandemic should entail a higher ambition. Instead of “new normal”, the ambition should be “big reset”, where we correct our past mistakes or oversights and prioritize to address all the fundamental problems that made the pandemic hit us much harder. The “big reset” needs better policies and better policymaking. To influence this, civil society actors must be better public debaters.

It is high time for think tanks and civil society organizations to move from criticizing buzzers to countervailing them, and making the evidence they produce more relevant and compelling for wider stakeholders, especially the concerned citizens.


Reference:

  1. Lockdown not yet an option for Indonesia, says President (2020, March 16), The Jakarta Post. Retrieved from https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/03/16/lockdown-not-yet-an-option-for-indonesia-says-president.html

  2. Puluhan “influencer” digandeng BNPB cegah COVID-19 (2020, March 21), Antara News. Retrieved from https://www.antaranews.com/berita/1371946/puluhan-influencer-digandeng-bnpb-cegah-covid-19   

  3. Hermawan, A. (2020, March 21). Politics of pandemics: How online “buzzers” infect Indonesia’s democracy, jeopardize its citizens. The Jakarta Post. Retrieved from  https://www.thejakartapost.com/academia/2020/03/21/covid-19-doesnt-care-about-politics-how-online-buzzers-infect-indonesias-democracy.html 

  4. Sulaiman, Y. (2020, April 10). Indonesia’s politicisation of the virus is stopping effective response. Southeast Asia Globe. Retrieved from https://southeastasiaglobe.com/indonesia-covid-19-response/ 

  5. Warburton, E. (2020, May 28). Indonesia: Polarization, Democratic Distress, and the Coronavirus. Polarization and the Pandemic. Retrieved from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website: https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/04/28/indonesia-polarization-democratic-distress-and-coronavirus-pub-81641 

  6. Ristianto, C. Pakar Medsos: Ada “Buzzer” Pro-revisi UU KPK Gunakan Modus “Giveaway”(2019, September 18). Kompas.com. Retrieved from https://nasional.kompas.com/read/2019/09/18/13280691/pakar-medsos-ada-buzzer-pro-revisi-uu-kpk-gunakan-modus-giveaway

  7. Fahmi, I. (2020, June 9). Kampanye New Normal dan Reisa Effect? Slideshare. Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/IsmailFahmi3/kampanye-new-normal-dan-reisa-effect

  8. Damayana, G. P. (2019, October 3). ‘Buzzer’ dan Merawat Ruang Publik Kita. Retrieved June 9, 2020. Magdalene. Retrieved from: https://magdalene.co/story/buzzer-dan-merawat-ruang-publik-kita 

  9. Saatnya Menertibkan Buzzer. (2019, September 28). Majalah Tempo. Retrieved from: https://majalah.tempo.co/read/opini/158488/saatnya-menertibkan-buzzer 

  10. de Boer, J. (2015, March 17). What are Think Tanks Good for? Retrieved from United Nations University, Centre for Policy Research website: https://cpr.unu.edu/what-are-think-tanks-good-for.html 

  11. Kemp, S. (2020, February 18). Digital 2020: Indonesia. Retrieved from DataReportal – Global Digital Insights website: https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-indonesia 

  12. Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C. (2018). “They say / I say” : the moves that matter in academic writing. New York ; London: W.W. Norton & Company.

  13. Samuelson, W., & Zeckhauser, R. J. (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 1, 7-59.

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Written by
Paramita Mohamad

CEO and Principal Consultant of Communication for Change. We work with those who want to make Indonesia suck less, by helping them get buy-in and make changes.

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