ISEAS Webinar on “Between Memes and Mobilisation: Youth, Digital Literacy and the Evolution of Political Expression and Action”

This webinar discussed the impact of digital technologies on politics and political participation in Southeast Asia. Topic that were examined included the ways in which enhanced technological infrastructure and social media platforms could hamper and/or facilitate political engagement with youth populations, and the opportunity for such processes to usher in a “Democracy 4.0”.

Digital Technologies and Democracy in Southeast Asia

Monday, 2 November 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a webinar titled “Between Memes and Mobilisation: Youth, Digital Literacy and the Evolution of Political Expression and Action.” The webinar was the final session of a seven-part series on “Digital Technologies and Democracy in Southeast Asia”.

Moderated by Senior Fellow and Coordinator of Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme at ISEAS, Dr Benjamin Loh, the webinar featured the insights of Ms Lestarini Saraswati Hasporo (Lund University), Dr Fiona Suwana (University of South Australia) and Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja (ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute). The speakers presented their insights on the complex relationship between social media and democracy, highlighting its ability to engage large populations of youth, but also its potential detriments in promoting misinformation and censorship.

Ms Lestarini Saraswati Hasporo
Ms Lestarini Saraswati Hasporo’s presentation on “Meme-ing Democracy: The Conveyance of Political Dissent through Contemporary Public Discourse among the Indonesian Youth”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The webinar began with Ms Lestarini Saraswati Hasporo’s presentation on “Meme-ing Democracy: The Conveyance of Political Dissent through Contemporary Public Discourse among the Indonesian Youth.” Through the two recent case studies of #ReformasiDIkorupsi (Reform Corrupted) and #TolakOmnibusLaw (Reject Omnibus Law), she investigated how Indonesian youths’ political engagement and participation were facilitated through the use of social media. In particular, she examined the role of memes in making political issues accessible, digestible, and relatable to youths through the use of familiar pop culture references. She explained how engagement with memes had the effect of both encouraging political discourse amongst youths and increasing youth’s potential for mobilisation. Ms Hasporo cautioned, however, the possible dangers and negative impacts memes, including its polysemic potential, and the way in which it could invite antagonistic counterattacks and government crackdowns via censorship or regulatory laws.

Dr Fiona Suwana
Dr Fiona Suwana’s presentation on “Indonesian Young People and Digital Literacy for Digital Activism”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Fiona Suwana spoke on “Indonesian Young People and Digital Literacy for Digital Activism”, and analysed the role of digital media literacy and social media platforms in political and civic engagement. She said that digital literacy is important in political activism, and she elucidated how digitally savvy activists were able to select appropriate platforms to better protect their networks of members, disseminate information, and create effective online strategies. She recommended that programmes promoting greater digital literacy of citizens should involve the collaboration of multi-stakeholders. She saw education, online regulation and cyber laws as important means to cultivate a resilient digital population and foster a safe and functioning digital ecosystem.

Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja
Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja’s presentation on “Digital Youth and Multi-mediated Action”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

In the final presentation, Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja shared about digital youth and multi-mediated action and its implications for democratic citizenship in Southeast Asia. According to her, Southeast Asia is home to the most engaged mobile internet users globally and has amongst one of the youngest populations in the world. She said that these digital youths’ politics of multi-mediated action foreshadowed new means of democratic citizenship in Southeast Asia. She noted recent shifts from traditional modes of duty-driven democracy to newer “self-expressive” modes of participation by youths to reclaim civil rights. For example in the case of the current youth demonstrations in Thailand, youths used the interactive poll functions on social media to decide on protest timings. These features highlight the unique multi-mediality of these protests where the online and physical components of the movement fortify and increase each other’s effectiveness. Dr Yatun also elucidated the role of budding transnational networks between youth protestors worldwide in encouraging and mobilising youth protestors to action, such as the Milk Tea Alliance (2020) between Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand. She stated that these various changes in political culture as espoused by youths could see a “Democracy 4.0” in Southeast Asia.

During the Question and Answer segment, the moderator and the audience engaged with the panelists on a plethora of questions regarding the opportunities and challenges of social media platforms for youths and active citizenship. Some of these included queries on the obstacles (e.g legal persecution) youths might face in using such platforms for organising political movements, as well as the measures that governments could undertake to help youths be more resilient to disinformation. An edited volume, provisionally titled From #Activism to Cyber-Surveillance: Digital Technologies and Democracy in Southeast Asia, based on the webinar series, will be published by ISEAS Publications in 2021.

80 participants attended the webinar. The session was moderated by Dr Benjamin Loh. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)