By Diani Citra*
This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London. Watch this space for the other 24 essays.
In 2004, 100 fellow students and I stood all day in Jakarta’s muggy weather. We gathered in support of Bambang Harymurti, chief editor of Indonesia’s most prominent news magazine, Tempo. He had been sentenced to two years in prison for an exposé of a wealthy, politically connected businessman. There were dozens of speeches that day but the spirit was unified. Everyone was there to fight for diversity of perspectives and of politics.
That was an earlier moment in the media politics of my home country, which continues to be a scene of slowly, unevenly ripening freedoms. Until 1997, Indonesia had been ruled brutally by Soeharto, a dictator who controlled the press for personal and political gain for 32 years. More than once, Tempo had been shut down for criticizing the regime’s policies and tactics. By the time of the demonstration for Harymurti, reporters and editors considered any effort by elite or ruling powers to silence a publication a badge of honor and a signal that journalists and newsrooms were on the right track.
It was still a dangerous Indonesia in 2004, but there was a clarity to how journalists fought against censorship and for diversity and freedom of expression. The battle seemed somewhat simple: journalists resisted any kind of authoritarian suppression of voices. Amplification of a budding social movement was generally good editorial policy. Getting the voices of many groups out there was a singular and simple goal to strive for. Silence is bad, amplification is good.
This was the milieu in which I first adopted freedom of the press as a personal calling and developed a passion for the public’s right to equal access to information. My late father, a program manager at TVRI, Indonesia’s state-run television channel, had often lamented that he had to “tell lies for the very people who are hurting us.” I channeled the spirit of his dinnertime rants, spending my free time affiliating with members of emerging political movements in Indonesia’s young democracy.
As someone who has been working on both sides of the world, in Indonesia and in the US, my wholehearted belief that silence is bad and amplification is good has been greatly challenged over the past decade.
When I first worked with the Media Diversity Institute almost 20 years ago, we encouraged Indonesian journalists not to be deterred by any attempt to silence newsroom reporting. I helped MDI provide workshops on security and ways to safely investigate sensitive political and social issues. We covered everything from radical Islamic movements to the rampant corruption that has always plagued Indonesia – and continues to.
When former President Soeharto died on a workshop day, everyone immediately received texts from their workplaces. Suddenly they all had to excuse themselves so they could return to their offices and start covering the events. Before they left, we encouraged them to prioritize their safety. But amplification was good. We wanted to use this event to remind Indonesians of the hardships of Soeharto’s repressive regime and the long and arduous struggle for democracy. Accurate news stories could encourage responsive social and political developments in the communities we served, lived in, and cared about. Amplification was good.
These are different times. All around the world, we find ourselves in a media ecosystem turbulent with misinformation and polarizing rhetoric that increasingly pushes extreme points of view. The relationship between silence and amplification is less straightforward than it used to be. It has become much clearer to me that what news media do not cover can be as significant as what they do cover. These days I ponder how silence and amplification figure in the editorial and content moderation practices of current news and social media platforms.
Freedom of Disinformation and Extremism?
My pondering arises from where the work I do has located me: at an intersection of forces in tension. The free press is a social institution with an enormous responsibility to accurately frame public issues and represent fairly the nature of disputes between individuals and groups, however powerful. Because of their unique role in setting the public agenda, all newsrooms must carefully weigh what they choose to cover and what may run contrary to public interest. With the rise of the Internet over the past 30 years, the press has undergone a dramatic overhaul. As the cost to publish has plummeted, the capacity for nearly anyone to broadcast anywhere has soared.
The roles and responsibilities of news media and platforms are shifting, yet the need remains for cooperation with each other in covering issues that could create public harm. Platforms are battling disinformation propagated by rival mobs of Internet trolls and adversarial governments, both supercharged by financial incentives to spread misinformation.
Some of my work has focused on efforts by Indonesia and the global south to explore ways of expanding access to digital spaces and increasing diversity in those spaces. Since 2019, Indonesia has seen an acceleration in indicators of digital authoritarianism: online censorship, cyber surveillance, and Internet shutdowns. Indonesia is not a unique case of democratic backsliding; much of the world has been in the grip of a democratic recession for the past 15 years. But unlike previous periods, when military or dictatorial national leaders were the primary actors driving the process, in the vanguard of democratic decline today are populist politicians at all levels who enjoy broad support from the people.
More recently, my work with PEN America in the US has brought me closer to the newsroom realities of confronting disinformation and extremism within journalistic traditions that champion free speech and oppose censorship. Everywhere, but in the digital world especially, easier access to information for more people means more exposure to not only diversity of views but also to greater deformation of information, both accidental and malign.
In the past, whether or not topics received broad attention hinged almost entirely on whether journalists were inclined to cover them. Social media has created infinitely more pathways for information to pass through and considerably fewer gatekeepers to vet what comes in. There are still institutional gates, of course, and many of them remain formidable. But journalists are no longer unique in their reach. They now often play catch-up with millions of citizens who are perfectly capable of producing their own news.
These intermingled audiences of citizen-produced and citizen-consumed media, in turn, have the ability to track news and events that aren’t being covered by mainstream organizations. They also have the tools they need to raise hell in response. At the same time, powerful and sophisticated new media players have the ability to draw audiences into amplification networks that rapidly spread information, misinformation or disinformation. Many people, unable to do the complex work of assessing online content for veracity and journalistic integrity, can be persuaded by the hyper-partisan media sources trusted among members of their community.
In Indonesia and elsewhere, extreme Islamic perspectives are now more easily shared in the public sphere. This is not to suggest that such extremist positions are new but, rather, that they have become quotidian. Extremist positions have been a part of the political rhetorical repertoire since Soeharto’s downfall, but the rapid spread of digital communication and the lack of media-savvy pedagogy have allowed such positions to find a place in mainstream public discourse.
The clearest example of this phenomenon is the mobilization of blasphemy accusations against Basuki (Ahok) Tjahaja Purnama, who sought a second term as Jakarta’s governor in 2016-2017. His opponents eventually took him down politically through a mosque- and online media–based campaign suggesting that Muslims who voted for him, a non-Muslim candidate, would be acting against God’s will. Islamist websites, such as PKS Piyungan and Arrahmah, disseminated conservative and sectarian rhetoric promoting the idea of Indonesia formally becoming an Islamic state. As a member of both the Chinese and Christian minorities, Ahok was the subject of frequent racist and anti-Christian comments. Hardliner groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) had explicitly opposed Ahok based on his ethnicity and religion since Jokowi chose him as his gubernatorial running mate in 2012.
What started as fringe news was eventually picked up by mainstream media. Ahok’s loss at the polls in April 2017 was a significant event in recent Indonesian history: the power of mobilized religion decided an election outcome, which marked a new level of acceptance of Islamist positions in Indonesian society.
In a 2016 speech, Ahok had said it was misleading for politicians to invoke specific verses in the Koran in telling Muslims they should not vote for non-Muslim candidates. “Ladies and gentlemen”, he said, “…you’ve been lied to by those using [the Qur’an’s] Surah al-Maidah verse 51.”
A video of the speech was carefully edited to make it appear that Ahok was saying the Koran itself was misleading voters and then deployed to mobilize orchestrated mass demonstrations calling for the government to charge Ahok with blasphemy. The video went viral, inciting outrage among conservative Muslims. The desired result occurred: Ahok was charged with blasphemy. In a country in which judicial independence frequently yields to public pressure, in May 2017 a South Jakarta court found Ahok “to have legitimately and convincingly conducted a criminal act of blasphemy, and because of that we have imposed two years of imprisonment.”
The most alarming aspect of this episode is that it showcases how readily issues can be manipulated and amplified. Digital tools not only enabled the creation of disinformation in the form of the edited video but also facilitated its swift, widespread dissemination.
Digital technology allowed extremist Islamic groups to speedily access a much larger audience than had hitherto been possible, projecting religious intolerance in a newly pervasive manner. The algorithms that underpin these communicative networks also respond in feedback loops that, link by link, amplify toxic views and guide new audiences to them. These online echo chambers strengthen and cement dubious notions, giving them a semblance of legitimacy, which builds a digital environment increasingly separated from reality. Some extremist group leaders in Indonesia, as in the US, are highly educated and carefully couch their hateful beliefs in language that gives them an aura of reasonableness and legitimacy.
Journalism and strategic silence
Decisions about what to cover – and what to monitor but not publish – are part of a calculation that a growing cadre of reporters tracking extremism has to make all the time. Many journalists have deep concerns about the impact of publicizing polluted information and just as many express deep concern about the impact of not publicizing such information. Journalists are worried that they are doing the public a disservice by not publicizing the existence of a certain political discourse, such as white extremism. But at the same time, they are also worried that even framing the issue as disinformation can potentially inflame it.
In both the US and Indonesia, journalism perpetuates public ambivalence by attempts to cover “both sides,” finding equivalencies between extreme and more commonplace and commonly understood ideas or actions. The effect is to create nudges toward normalizing extremism. Placing fringe positions on equal footing with one or another selected aspect of more mainstream positions helps legitimize hateful and dangerous claims. In Indonesia, too many journalists entertained a false parallel that allowed Islamic extremism to breeze into the public square, not as an authoritarian abomination but simply as the moral and political equivalent of being a religious Muslim.
In early 2018, the Wahid Foundation released the results of a survey on intolerance among Muslim women in Indonesia. The survey found that the principal targets of intolerance were religious and political minorities, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities. In Indonesia, Islamic classifications of decency and statutes involving pornography practically define what is considered proper and improper.
In the past decade, the types and number of groups vulnerable to prosecution for online religious speech have grown, and cases alleging blasphemy on digital platforms have increased. What was a very rare political case prior to 1998 is now common. Indonesia’s Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI) reported 67 cases of alleged blasphemy in 2020 alone.
In the US, covering right-wing extremists as one among the many diverse voices democracy produces – perhaps presented as the voice of a respected “silent majority” of “working people” – is a dangerous practice insofar as such coverage can easily disguise anti-democratic ideologies and intentions.
The presumption that all speech must be heard, regardless of what effects that speech might end up having on people who hear it, aligns with the “libertarian, content-neutral ethos” that legal and technology scholar Nabiha Syed characterizes as the prevalent way speech online is framed. In addition, more news outlets now appear to promote the notion that radical beliefs aren’t a fringe phenomenon but represent only one among a variety of groups. However, just because beliefs are no longer considered “fringe” elements in public discourse doesn’t mean they should be normalized. Unfortunately, particularly when it comes to reporting on hate speech, newsrooms tend to begin and end with the question of whether or not someone has a right to say something, not whether or not they should have.
Joan Donovan and Danah Boyd of Data and Society, a New York based think tank, argue for “quarantining” hate speech through “strategic silence,” which notably includes reporters not covering it at all. Strategic silence is defined as a deliberate and conscious effort not to communicate certain information, an alien concept for most journalists committed to the public’s right to know. Some outlets, including The New York Times, have found themselves on the defensive after readers reacted negatively to individual opinion pieces they felt went too far in normalizing ideas that are either false or close cousins to hate speech. This happened when the Times published a June 2020 op-ed by a Republican Senator, calling for the government to invoke the Insurrection Act to have the military put down protesters responding to the killing of George Floyd.
That kind of amplification can be a step toward normalizing an extreme act as a lawful act and, at the same time, result in targeting a person or a group as lawless. It is even more troubling when the people targeted are already harassed, belong to vulnerable populations, or even represent large groups that significant numbers of people despise.
The line between coverage and amplification has thinned. In 2022, Indonesian scholar and activist Ade Armando was assaulted by an Islamic mob while covering a demonstration. Conservative Islamic media published a lie – that the police started shooting after Armando’s beating to justify the riot that happened. Soon after, when the press debunked the fringe media’s lie, it actually inflamed the lie to spread further as mainstream media picked up and thus amplified mis- and disinformation purveyed at the outer fringes of the Internet.
In the US, as soon as journalists started to report that a figure from a 2005 comic, Pepe the Frog, had become a symbol of white supremacy, searches and shares of the Pepe image propelled it into the mainstream. Press coverage of Alex Jones’s fabrication that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, was faked helped the lie to spread widely. Even when reporting takes an explicitly critical stance, news coverage of extremist messages can help make those messages, and their messengers, much more visible.
Amplification and sensationalistic journalism also simplify complicated conversations. A 2020 report by Remotivi, an NGO focusing on journalistic practice, analyzed mainstream media coverage of attacks on members of Ahmadiyah, a minority strain of Islam. Indonesia has seen an increase in selective prosecutions of citizens or organizations whose online religious communications dominant Muslim groups deem offensive. The Remotivi report shows that attention-driven journalism fails to capture the complicated nuances of religious oppression in Indonesia, which extends beyond legal statutes. For instance, media reporting can bring social consequences, such as public shaming or social isolation, which are sometimes more powerful punishments than official sanction.
In the US, journalists have expressed concern that debates about systemic racial injustice and everyday instances of white supremacy in 2020 were being supplanted by sensationalist, neon-flashing-light press coverage of individual neo-Nazis. In other instances, some people have observed that generally peaceful protests covered by the press featured decontextualized nighttime images of fire and smoke that led to violence and chaos being associated with largely peaceful protests.
Amplification also risks desensitizing people to harmful views. The language of violence encountered every day through reporting has desensitized many journalists to such an extent that they sometimes fail to register violent threats, even when these threats are directed at them personally or their newsroom more broadly.
Bigoted and dehumanizing messages emanating from extremist corners of the Internet are impossible, and maybe even unethical, to ignore. So the unsolved brain-teaser for journalists is how to report on issues that matter without amplifying misinformation or normalizing extremist ideas.
Is it possible to balance ‘silence’ and ‘amplification’?
To me, the idea of not covering extreme movements and extreme ideas doesn’t seem like an option, given how prevalent they are. The risk with disinformation is not necessarily that it will overtake real news but that its constant presence will drown public discourse, and then democratic deliberation itself might drown in noise and doubt. Without standards for what counts as journalism, societies lose the basic materials for participatory democracy. Journalism practice relies on editorial discretion in determining how best to serve the public good: for instance, weighing the benefits of reporting something by whether and how it might affect policy, hold the powerful accountable, or bring marginalized voices into public discussion in a shared space with other voices. The benefits have to outweigh the potential harms.
*Diani Citra is a journalist, academic and filmmaker. Citra has more than 15 years of relevant experience in journalism, academia, and technology. Her writing has been published or cited in Kompas, Tempo, and The Jakarta Post. She is a former Fulbright scholar and a full time, passionate advocate for digital rights and data justice. Citra holds a PhD from the Columbia University graduate school of Journalism, an MA from NYU Media Culture and Communication, and a BSC in Journalism from the University of Indonesia.