Webinar on “Contested Hegemonies and Changing Struggles in Cyberspace”

This webinar examined how state and civil society interactions in cyberspace affect ongoing democracy and anti-corruption struggles in Southeast Asia.

Digital Technologies and Democracy in Southeast Asia

Monday, 19 October 2020 – A panel of social media experts and scholars discussed the topic of “Contested Hegemonies and Changing Struggles in Cyberspace” as part of a seven-part webinar series on Digital Technologies and Democracy in Southeast Asia. Jointly organised by the Media, Technology and Society Programme and the Indonesia Studies Programme, the webinar featured the insights of Thieu-Dang Nguyen (University of Aberdeen), Muhammad Zamzam Fauzanafi (Leiden University; Gadjah Mada University) and Kieu Ngoc Hoang (University of Amsterdam). The discussion was moderated by Yatun Sastramidjaja (ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute).

Thieu-Dang Nguyen
Thieu-Dang Nguyen presented on “State-Society Interaction in Cyberspace in the Formosa Crisis: A Counter-Hegemonic Project?”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

“State-Society Interaction in Cyberspace in the Formosa Crisis: A Counter-Hegemonic Project?” was the topic of Thieu-Dang Nguyen’s presentation which centred on the marine life disaster in Vietnam caused by a Taiwanese steel plant’s illegal discharge of toxic industrial waste into the ocean. Vietnamese citizens had participated in protests in reaction to reports of the Vietnamese state mishandling funds meant for affected families and silencing the media. Thieu-Dang Nguyen noted that such protests were made possible because of a vibrant cyberspace. Notably, the initial online discourse of environmentalism gradually transformed into calls for state transparency. She argued that the relatively unregulated online platforms (in 2016) provided a ‘safe space’ for counter-hegemony to emerge as online protestors challenged the developmentalism and socialist ideals of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). She concluded that internet freedom and cultivation of critical consciousness was important in the fight against entrenched authoritarianism.

Mr Muhammad Zamzam Fauzanafi
Muhammad Zamzam Fauzanafi presented on “Digital Affective Citizenship and Anti-Corruption Movement in Indonesia: A Provincial Case”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Muhammed Zamzam Fauznafi’s presentation examined the efforts of Fesbuk Banten News (FBN) and its digital anti-corruption campaigns in Banten, a new province in Indonesia that has consistently made the list of the top ten most-corrupt provinces in the country. While there was the surprise arrest of the Banten Governor Ratu Atut Chosiyah for corruption in 2013, Muhammed Zamzam Fauznafi argued that digital anti-corruption movements in Banten were generally ineffective in triggering offline mobilization of protestors. Activist-citizens largely limited their involvement to the online sphere in anti-corruption campaigns. He suggests that FBN’s inability to transform individual grievances into collective offline support may be due to the lack of strategic programs. Additionally, offline protests have been hampered by intimidation from the supporters of Banten’s political dynasty. 

Ms Kieu Ngoc Hoang
Kieu Ngoc Hoang presented on “Everyday State Propaganda and Activists’ Strategic Responses on Social Media in Vietnam”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Kieu Ngoc Hoang provided insights into how the propaganda machine operates on a day to day basis in Vietnam. She highlighted social media propaganda networks in Vietnam such as the military cyber unit, Task Force 47, which battles the spread of online “wrong views”. The cyber unit recruits ‘sympathizers’ who do not work for the government, but they help the task force to spread propaganda about the regime. Ms Hoang said that these corrective mechanisms through social media propaganda tend to be covert, decentralized and it makes used of crowdsourcing mechanisms. According to Kieu Ngoc Hoang, the cyber unit and its symbathizers often discredit online critics of the state by labelling them as terrorists or accuse them of having received bribes from ‘foreign enemies’. During the COVID-19 pandemic, pro-regime propaganda was disseminated with the aim of enhancing the public image – at the national and international level – of the state management of the health crisis. Such messages often appealed to feelings or amplified disinformation. Protestors were also abused online and condemned for contributing to economic damage and loss of jobs. Based on interviews, Kieu Ngoc Hoang said that activists have engaged in counterstrategies by ignoring trolls and using creativity strategies to increase media literacy among the public.

The discussion on the changing nature of civil society struggles against corruption and authoritarianism in the cybersphere continued during the Question and Answer segment. The moderator and online audience engaged the speakers on a variety of questions which included whether the digital Formosa protests were spontaneous or strategic, the conditions needed to develop critical consciousness among public, the potential use of social media by political factions and elites in Vietnam, the advantages and disadvantages of supporting online movements and finally, the problem of online movements being underdeveloped due to fast-changing trending issues.