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Pretty Good Podcast Episode 22: Narrating Conservative Islam in Indonesian Trolling Culture

Over the past few years, Indonesia has seen an increase in online hostility, especially when it comes to matters of religion. The most notable is the rise of conservative Islamic groups that have turned into a political force able to mobilise hate speech. The hate narratives now prevalent in Indonesia’s online public discourses today are rooted in a pervasive trolling culture that preceded the social media era.

In this episode of Pretty Good Podcast, Imam Ardhianto, lecturer and chair of the University of Indonesia’s Media, Culture, and Research Center for Anthropological Studies, discusses the transformation of religious social media movements in Indonesia and how they shaped the socio-political landscape of the country, adapting into hyperlocal spaces online and offline.

The episode is part of the Association for Progressive Communications’ (APC) Challenge project, with the aim of “Challenging hate narratives and violations of freedom of religion and expression online in Asia”.

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  • Imam Ardhianto is a lecturer and the chair of the Media, Culture, and Research Center for Anthropological Studies at the University of Indonesia. His work focuses on contemporary religious movements in Indonesia:
  • #Indonesia TanpaJIL (Indonesia without liberal Islam), which started in 2012, began the practice of using popular culture – memes, trendy fashion, celebrities and influencers – to express religious beliefs espousing conservative Islam views, a move that appealed to urban youth.
    • This experimental movement inspired the use of popular culture to promote ideologies online, and their online engagement tactics draw from trolling culture that was prevalent in Indonesia prior to the social media era. Such strategies later transformed and branched out into the current religious and political movements in Indonesia.
  • Drawing from the influence of the #IndonesiaTanpaJIL movement and the generation of polarising discourses on social media, conservative Islamic groups adopted the same strategy for political propaganda during the 2014 national elections. Then-Jakarta governor and now Indonesian president Joko Widodo, popularly called Jokowi, represented the liberal progressives against his presidential rival, then-former military commander Prabowo Subianto, currently the country’s Defense Minister.
  • Although the followers and social media presence of these movements have declined in recent years, Dr. Ardhianto pointed out that the movement has branched out beyond Twitter, Facebook, and other popular online platforms. To adapt to the changing media landscape and digital practices in Indonesia, these movements have gone into hyperlocal spaces and underground into closed systems on the internet.
    • In Greater Solo, for example, Dr. Ardhianto found that there were people in restricted WhatsApp groups participating in the discrimination of indigenous religions – propagating the narrative that practitioners of indigenous religions are ‘foreign’ and must be converted.
    • Dr. Ardhianto also noted that  astroturfing is rampant among Islamic movements in online spaces and communication platforms. Astroturfing refers to an attempt to give the false impression that there is widespread grassroots support for a particular belief. On WhatsApp groups, for instance, Islamic movements rely on the credibility of one group member to create the implication that the majority support a particular idea. In doing so, other group members tend to keep silent for fear of being tagged as non-believers or worse, enemies of the religion. Instead of facilitating open communication, social media is now being used to create silos.
  • To counter the rise of hate narratives, Dr. Ardhianto lays out recommendations for activists and civil society organisations:
    • Find ways of using the same strategies adopted by conversative groups – leaning into popular culture and involving celebrities and endorsers –to popularise their advocacies and help counter conservative narratives and hate speech.
    • Rethink the tendency to romanticise indigenous religion believers as the “true” or “authentic” unchanging stewards of Indonesian culture. Such a view is ahistorical and may even serve as the rationale of conservative movements to “modernise” the nation from so-called primitivism.
  • EngageMedia, in partnership with Diani Citra from Sintesa Consulting, produced a research report scrutinising freedom of religion in Indonesia’s digitally-mediated spaces. The report, titled “In the Name of Religious Harmony: Challenges in Advancing Religious Freedom in Digital Indonesia”, delves further into the topics covered in this episode. Read the report here.

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