Webinar on “Social Media and Democracy: A Complicated Relationship”

While democratic efforts continue to be channelled effectively through social media, social media’s popularity and affordances are also exploited in ways that destabilise or erode democracy’s functioning. This webinar examined the complicated relationship between social media and democracy across Southeast Asia.

Digital Technologies and Democracy in Southeast Asia

Monday, 21 September 2020 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held a webinar on “Social Media and Democracy: A Complicated Relationship”. The webinar is part of a seven-part Webinar Series co-organised by the Media, Technology and Society Programme and the Indonesia Studies Programme on “Digital Technologies and Democracy in Southeast Asia”.

Moderated by Visiting Fellow of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja, the webinar featured the insights of Professor Merlyna Lim (Carleton University), Dr Janjira Sombatpoonsiri (Chulalongkorn University), Dr Clarissa Lee Ai Ling (Sunway University). The speakers shared their analyses of the role and complexities of social media in shaping politics and democracy processes in Southeast Asia, and discussed potential policy and civil society responses for a more democratic political landscape.

Dr Benjamin Loh delivered the Welcoming Remarks for the webinar series and Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja gave the Opening Remarks. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The webinar began with Welcoming Remarks on the webinar series by Senior Fellow of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Dr Benjamin Loh, and Opening Remarks by Dr Yatun Sastramidjaja. Dr Loh said that digital technologies can be used to both empower and divide society, and online radicalisation, social unrests and the manipulation of public opinion, have hampered stability and cohesion in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. He also highlighted the urgency to investigate the impact of Covid-19 pandemic on the online information ecosystem. With governments and social media platforms taking extraordinary measures against online content that threatens public health and safety, this poses a concern in the regulation of disinformation. In her opening remarks, Dr Sastramidjaja observed that “Democracy 4.0”, has been set aside against “Industry 4.0” agendas. She said that instead of achieving more inclusive and equal citizen participation online and offline, a more polarised landscape is seen in Southeast Asia today.

Prof Merlyna Lim sheds light on “Networked Spaces of Hope and Despair: Social Media and Politics in Southeast Asia” via recorded video. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The webinar began with Professor Merlyna Lim’s presentation on how social media is polarising politics across Southeast Asia. She explained that increasing polarisation over electoral politics among Indonesians has led to the formation of social media clusters – or “algorithmic enclaves” – that are made up of individuals who exercise their right to voice their opinions while actively silencing others. Apart from algorithmic enclaves that were formed between supporters and detractors of Joko Widodo in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections, Professor Lim noted that similar dynamics can be seen in other Southeast Asian countries on contentious issues. Beyond national politics, Professor Lim said that “networked spaces of hope” are emerging locally. These networks of civil activism, which focus on issues of equality, justice and pluralism, can lead to a more just, inclusive and pluralist region.

Dr Janjira Sombatpoonsiri talked about “Understanding the Triad of Social Media, Polarisation and Democratic Erosion/Collapse” in the case of Thailand. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Janjira Sombatpoonsiri examined how the ongoing repression of pro-democratic digital activism and their networks have not only reinforced Thailand’s political polarisation but also brought the country deeper into authoritarianism. Dr Sombatpoonsiri noted that while social media is not the cause of Thailand’s polarised political history and landscape, it has served the role of amplifying ideologies and mobilising pro- and anti-establishment movements in tit for tat protests since 2005. As the military regime increasingly monitors and controls Facebook, Twitter has become a beacon of freedom and a platform of defiance for young people in Thailand. She observed that frustrations expressed on Twitter about contentious issues such as the role of the monarchy have amassed significant traction through trending hashtags. This has incited an asymmetric response by the autocratic government to suppress critical views using both legal control and content manipulation.

Dr Clarissa Lee Ai Ling talked about “When Race Becomes the Bait, or the Algorithms of Divide and Conquer in Malaysia’s Politics”. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Finally, Dr Clarissa Lee explored what racialised algorithms might look like and their implications on party and everyday politics in Malaysia. Dr Lee argued that identity politics has been shaped by perceptions of race privilege and hierarchy in the country. She said that the amplification of race in contentious issues across social media has been largely based on the Malay-Chinese binary that was created in the course of Malaysia’s political history and shaped by its government over the years. She analysed cases of racism that has occurred in social media platforms in the country, and noted a consistent strategy of distraction, division and conquering of cyberspace in one’s favour. She recommended that stronger attention to the racial dimension will need to be paid to better understand racialised contexts, interactions and behaviours on social media.

The webinar concluded with an engaging Q&A session. A variety of issues were discussed which included the dynamics and state of autocratization in Southeast Asia; the relationship between social media platforms and the government in the regulation and surveillance of citizens; the rise of anti-China and/or anti-Chinese sentiments in Southeast Asia; and the role of civil society in promoting healthy democracies and ensuring accountability of the government and social media platforms. This webinar was attended by close to 200 participants.

Almost 200 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)