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Saving social media

Jakarta Post Editorial - June 4, 2024

Jakarta – In democracies, social media is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is riddled with fake news and hate speech that often fuel acts of violence or even insurrection, as happened in the United States on Jan. 6, 2020. On the other hand, it can keep governments with repressive tendencies in check.

The latter has been evident in Indonesia, which has seen its hard-won democracy sliding backward in recent years. At a time when minimum public consultation is the norm for policymakers and powerful entities, a situation they welcome, social media emerges as the hero.

A number of controversial government policies have recently been retracted or revised in response to public opposition spread through social media. We also have social media to thank for unveiling the truth behind the killing of a National Police adjutant at the hands of his boss, a police general, two years ago.

And social media users are now challenging the police narrative in a double murder case in Cirebon, West Java, that occurred eight years ago and which resurfaced after a movie attempting to reenact the crime was screened in cinemas.

It is true that social media, despite its drawbacks, offers a space for the public to voice opinions that can drive changes in public policy.

However, the government recently renewed a plan to establish a council to monitor social media content, saying it wanted to ensure more accountable social media governance amid rampant misinformation and hate speech.

Communications and Information Minister Budi Arie Setiadi has underlined the importance of having a council for mediating disputes that occur on social media, suggesting that the council may include academics, journalists, industry experts and public figures.

To what extent the council will work and what constitutes harmful social media content remain unclear.

The plan is worrying as it comes on the heels of House of Representatives deliberation on changes to the Broadcasting Law and Police Law, among others, that may further curtail free expression and the freedom of the press, especially on social media. The Police Law revisions, if passed, will grant the police sweeping authority over cyberspace, including to block access to the internet for security reasons.

The government has repeatedly attempted to curb free speech and silence critics through criminal charges and other "security" measures. We still recall the internet blackout in Papua and West Papua during heightened tensions resulting from protests against racism in 2019. The Jakarta State Administrative Court ruled the internet shutdown unlawful.

The fact that the government and lawmakers tend to resist public participation in the policy-making process gives us another reason to doubt how the government is devising the plan to form a social media council.

Democracy activists are concerned that the council would pave the way for government overreach and mass surveillance in the country's already shrinking civic space.

When proposing the establishment of an independent social media council last year, the Southeast Asian Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet) said the council could help address the negative impacts of social media. In the view of SAFEnet, the council would moderate any harmful content on social media platforms.

Understandably, SAFEnet opposes the government's plan to form its own social media council, on the suspicion that the institution would serve only the interests of the political establishment.

Content moderation needs to be regulated, but that does not give the government the right to impose censorship or mass surveillance on social media. A social media council should be independent and involve a variety of stakeholders.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released guidelines last year on how to regulate social media platforms in a bid to protect freedom of expression and access to information through a multistakeholder approach and at the same time protect people from misinformation, disinformation and hate speech.

Social media should give us, civil society, the power to keep watch over the government, not the other way around.

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2024/06/04/saving-social-media.htm