Social media and policy change: good practice from Indonesia

13 February 2013

Social media has changed the way research reaches audiences by making its dissemination easier and quicker to interact with. Has it has the same impact on advocacy? The case of a social media campaign to promote the reform of criminal law in Indonesia, published on Inside Indonesia as part of an effort to discuss how social media is used for activism, tells us that while social media helps with raising awareness and mobilizing the population, it does not by itself cause a significant change in policy.

Indonesian activists began to use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to bring to the public agenda the problems with Indonesia’s criminal law, after Prita Mulyasari, a young mother, was charged with criminal defamation for complaining via email about the service she had recieved at a private hospital by the same doctors who had treated her. Indonesia’s criminal code punishes people with jail time if they make statements or remarks that contain insults and untruths about other individuals or institutions – this punishment is even harsher when the statements are made online.

Mulyasari’s situation generated a lot of public attention and resulted in a Facebook campaign called Coin for Prita, which received widespread news coverage both in Indonesia and across the world.  A fundraising concert was even held in Jakarta, and there was much debate and discussion on the need to reform criminal law and protect free speech.

The Coin For Prita campaign successfully generated broad condemnation of the use of criminal defamation laws by senior political figures in Indonesia. The case also prompted a flurry of debate and discussion about how criminal defamation laws should be balanced against free speech rights in Indonesia.

Ultimately, however, there has not been any significant reform of Indonesia’s criminal defamation laws after this campaign. Other individuals have also been jailed since Mulyasari’s case, and when she was convicted by the Supreme Court to a six month suspended sentence, there was no longer the sort of initial hype as social media interest had moved elsewhere.

Another article on Inside Indonesia explains that civil society organisations have not been deliberately using the internet and social media for their strategies. These tools are used impulsively, reacting to developments in their field, and not resulting in long term change. This can be explained by the lack of strategic use and the lack of engagement with traditional forms of media such as television and radio. Overall, advocacy groups and civil society organisations must be aware that change occurrs slowly.

Bottom line? Social media can help get the word around, but participants must be united by a core message and traditional methods of mobilisation and media must be used.