The Curious Case of Vox Populi 2.0: ASEAN’s Complicated Romance with Social Media

Barely three decades ago, the world generally functioned in a way that people would nowadays call “old-fashioned” or “old school.” When friends wanted to meet, they would call each other or set a time and a place. When one had the desire to express ideas and opinions, he or she would take the time to manually write and distribute a critique. When people were disappointed by how the state and officials carried out their duties and responsibilities, they assembled themselves and went out to the streets to protest.

Back then, television, radio and newspapers were the main sources of information. These provided opportunities for people to inform themselves and eventually be able to amass themselves to commit social and political change. Telecommunication facilities were scarce, and mobile phones were costly and could only be accessed by well-to-do individuals. Southeast Asia can be considered a bastion of modern post-colonial uprising during the 1980s and 1990s. Vox Populi movements, such as the Philippine People Power Revolution of 1986 and the Reformasi Revolution against then Indonesian President Suharto in 1998, were brought about by organized calls to the public by activists. Despite limited media tools, these successful social revolutions had a great influence on the current democratic systems and processes of the two Southeast Asian countries.

Fast forward to today: human interaction, expressions and movements have advanced dramatically due to a technological resource that is now deemed essential to billions of lives.  The World Wide Web, or the Internet, allowed people to connect, know, and be heard, regardless of socio-economic status, age, gender and political environment. It also allowed people to be more capable of contributing to increasing needs (and wants) of the world. In fact, it is so integral to human existence, that the UN acknowledged the human right to access the Internet in 2011.

The Formidable (and Inevitable) Digitization of ASEAN

Southeast Asia is no stranger to the inevitable impact of the Internet. In fact, most parts of the region have a higher internet penetration rate compared to the rest of the world. The Philippines is considered by many studies as the Social Media capital of the world. Even Myanmar, which had difficulties connecting to the world barely a decade ago, has been enjoying the highest growth of social media users among its neighbors. Internet speeds in Singapore and Thailand, which are also incidentally two of the main economic hubs of the region, have surpassed global speed standards. Saadia Gardezi (2014) asserts that “there has been a mass scale digitization of the ASEAN countries and in the next few decades this population will adopt more digital services to meet their needs.”[1]

The ASEAN campaign for a more integrated community seems outdated considering how people have already connected and interacted on cyberspace in recent years. Despite increasing rates of migration within and outside the region, people can still regularly communicate with their friends and family for free over the internet through programs such as Viber, Line and Whatsapp. Mobility has also become more hassle-free through the instant services provided by online transportation applications such as GoJek (Indonesia), Grab and Uber. The internet has also provided prospects for small-scale entrepreneurs and consumers via heaps of online shopping schemes.

The Internet gave birth to a generation which could enjoy instant opportunities to engage with the world. Social media has provided people with a platform to connect— one that may be relevant to one’s preferred society or community. Popular platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have also allowed populations to be part of discourse and movements via online groups, memes and hashtags. Furthermore, YouTube, an online video site, has produced not just celebrities, but also people of political influence.

People who are silenced, marginalized and powerless have indeed found an ally in social media. However, many governments deem this phenomenon to be threatening. This digital revolution pushed many ASEAN governments to regulate online activities in the pursuit of protecting “social harmony” and “national interests and peace.” According to Freedom House, governments of internet-savvy Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore have actively censored online topics such as criticism of authorities, political satires and social commentaries. Controversial social issues surrounding the LGBTQI community as well as religious and ethnic minorities are also being scrutinized in Vietnam and Indonesia. Interestingly, the Philippines, which has the slowest internet speed in ASEAN, enjoys greater freedom of internet use and interaction. 

One prime example of government insecurity surrounding the power of social media is the case of then 16-year-old Amos Yee. During the national mourning for Lee Kuan Yew in 2015, he shared his “unconventional” thoughts about the late Singaporean founder in a YouTube video. Both the government and its loyal supporters found his online video disrespectful and offensive. The Singaporean government eventually pressed charges against him, and he was temporarily detained. Amos Yee recently filed for asylum to the US to escape harsh penalties and social persecution. Despite this, Amos was able to gather support from within and outside Singapore via online platforms that had gotten him into trouble in the first place.

Kids playing smartphone in Jakarta

The Social and Political Might of Social Media: A Closer Look at Indonesia and the Philippines

Over the recent years, the Internet has contributed a great deal to the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the extensive progress of social knowledge in most parts of the ASEAN region. Indonesia and the Philippines, two of the more advanced democratic nations in the region, have been witnessing the various effects of social media on their respective governments and people. Millions of Indonesians and Filipinos currently turn to social media platforms for their daily dose of news, gossip, entertainment, and lately, in a more disturbing uptick, their political discourse. With such a massive and vigorous social media presence, how is democracy framed in high-speed communication in these two ASEAN countries?

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) is the most social media-savvy among ASEAN leaders. It was his campaign for presidency that utilized social media in its early stages. As president, he posts online video logs, as if in real time, to inform the public of his activities— be it having dinner with the King of Saudi Arabia, or arm wrestling with his son. This directness has enabled Jokowi to reach millions of young voters who are updated frequently about his life on Facebook or Twitter. Social media proved to be an asset in Jokowi’s quest for maintenance and power.  Social media not only creates connection, but also traction within the young voters with online lives. Instead of fiery rhetoric and humdrum campaign promises, viral videos and hashtags have proved to be quite the engaging alternative for political discourse. 

One notable example deals with the horrendous Jakarta traffic. Utilizing snappy music video editing, one viral video sang of the time-wasting and soul-draining traffic (matching it with the snail-paced bureaucracy) to a parodied version of One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.”  The seamless interconnection of national bureaucratic redress, catchy slang in Bahasa Indonesia, and global pop culture has rendered the discourse of politics easily digestible by young voters who are fluent in multimedia projections.

What Makes You Beautiful by One Direction - JOKOWI DAN BASUKI with Eng Subs [PARODY] - Cameo Project

video-thumbnailWatch on YouTube

As president, Jokowi utilizes social media to establish himself as a digital folk figure. With a hashtag like “#Ask Jokowi” (in Bahasa Indonesia), netizens can directly address the president with their concerns and questions. With millions of followers on his social media accounts, Jokowi provides snippets of his life– he has a video of himself talking about a goat while standing next to one– to make him “closer” in the social media sense to citizens and to his voters. Jokowi’s projected “chill,” easy-going online persona is helpful in rallying the younger voters to support his handpicked success for the post he once held: Jakarta Governor, which is a possible stepping stone to presidency. His successor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, more famously known as Ahok, is also riding the social media coattails of Jokowi. Ahok has enjoyed a considerable online popularity and presence as evidenced by the number of hashtags associated with him days before the Jakarta election.

The 2016 Philippine elections saw the power of social media on two fronts— the election of Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte as president, and the near-victory of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (Bongbong) as Vice President. Bongbong lost to the previous administration’s Liberal Party candidate Leni Robredo by a close margin of 263,473 votes. These two factors clearly demonstrated social media’s potential for mobility and organization.  Many Filipinos jokingly observe that the country is ahead of the U.S. by six months in terms of online proliferation of fake news, and people clustering online and into the analog world towards ideology, instead of facts and “truth in journalism.” These two are intricately woven into the social media fabric of the Philippines, and entrenched political families still are very much present in any given platform.  Although the current president is Duterte, there has been an acknowledged participation of the Marcoses in the former’s catapult to power. The Marcoses used nostalgia and internet memes to enhance their image and redirect populist hostility and anger towards the Aquinos (The Marcoses were ousted in the 1986 EDSA Revolution which installed Corazon Aquino as president from 1986-1992.  Upon her death in 2009, her son Benigno Jr. decided to run and won the presidency from 2010-2016. Duterte followed in a populist wave, reacting against the perceived elitist and disconnected Aquino Administration). Though there is a populist surge in the country, it is still within the confines of the political dynasties' flexing their muscles.

As early as 2010, memes started to circulate showing the “achievements” of the Marcos regime. These memes listed the infrastructures constructed, the economic gains and superimposed photos of a young Ferdinand Marcos Sr. looking presidential, youthful, vigorous, and like a determined leader.  None of these pro-Marcos memes used photos of the withered dictator wracked by diseases and old age. This generated nostalgia of an imagined glorious past of the Marcos years in contrast with the numerous problems and general incompetence of the Aquino Administration. Many of the pro-Marcos memes were misleading and misinformed, but still, many supporters shared and asserted their ideology which foreshadowed the proliferation of online fake news.

There have been allegations of the Marcoses employing an online army of “trolls” to clean their names, revise history and drag their opponents through the mud. One such example was a story of the Vice President going to New York to have an abortion. It is noteworthy to frame all of this with the fact that Duterte admitted that the Marcoses helped him to gain presidency. Duterte paid his political dues at the burial of the late dictator in the Heroes’ Cemetery.

This complicates the already overwrought network of content generation on Filipino social media. Many pro-Duterte posts share ludicrous stories that purport the greatness of the Filipino president. One such post claimed that Duterte had been voted by NASA as the best president in the galaxy— this was shared blindly by some, and scorned and mocked by others.  A former government official appointed by Duterte unabashedly shared a photo of a woman crying over the body of a dead girl who was sexually assaulted, and whose body was dumped in the woods.  The post went on to rile against drug users, because the suspect had used illegal substances before raping the girl.  This correlation was used to call for more support in Duterte’s war against drugs. Many pointed out, however, that the photo was from a Latin American country, but Duterte passed the photo off as having been taken in the Philippines. He was duly called out, but no retraction or apology was made.

A number of bloggers and social media personalities who are vehemently Pro-Duterte have received government posts as well as unprecedented access to the Presidential Palace. These bloggers disguise themselves as “folk heroes” online (i.e. “not a journalist, but an ordinary Filipino”), unlike the “biased” mainstream media. These bloggers accuse the mainstream media of being “paid” (one blogger even coining the term “presstitutes”) when the news stories are critical of Duterte.  These stories, they claim, destabilize the country. The Philippine media, touted as one of the world’s freest and most raucous institutions following the revival of democracy in 1986, now faces a new obstacle: delegitimization via online programming, with trolls and pro-Duterte social media users casting doubt on news stories. Furthermore, this has enabled many to adopt a troll mentality and attack opponents ad hominem. On one occasion, a prominent pro-Duterte blogger mined through the social media accounts of a Duterte critic and posted photos of the critic on the pro-Duterte blog, later to be attacked by its followers.

Internet Meme on President Duterte of the Philippines, infamous with his bloody "War on Drugs".

Ever since Facebook became “free,” many Filipino netizens have bracketed their lives and opinions on this platform. However, the only thing that is “free” is navigating Facebook posts. If one clicks on a posted link which leaves Facebook and opens a different website, one incurs data charges. If one is unable to pay, navigating through Facebook links is useless.  This has created a dangerous precedent of reading only the headlines and comments. This leaves out the crucial part of reading the actual content, and results in reacting only to headlines and making a mess of the comments section.

The Internet in the Philippine context has gone beyond the initial ideal of its creation—as a fount of information—but has also been used by those with sociopolitical and economic power as a tool for transmitting propaganda and manipulating both the minds and memories of Filipinos.  If there is anything the Philippines can offer the world right now in terms of social media dominance, it is the following: the country should be seen as a cautionary tale in which “truth” versus ideology are now the basis of content generation. This content generation is consumed by netizens who have more time to comment and spread (mis)information than to read and verify information.

The Story Lives on: An Evolving Culture of Online Citizens in ASEAN

Over the recent years, social media in ASEAN has quickly evolved from a passive tool for knowledge consumption and entertainment to an active mechanism for change. Its effects on Indonesia and the Philippines are telling of how the power of the internet can have a life-changing impact on people, states, social norms and national laws. In developing and democratically evolving countries in the region, the Internet has become a source of power for the oppressed and ill-resourced. In Cambodia, the public turned to Facebook to express grave concerns over the murder of activist Kem Ley. In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s inaction towards human rights violations against the Rohingya was met with serious criticism from netizens.

The romance between ASEAN citizens and social media lives on. Social media continues to shape a more integrated and digitally savvy regional community. It has proven that its people have set limitations due to geographical borders, customary social divides, economic status and perhaps national laws and policies. At 50, ASEAN and its member states must admit that social media is not just here to stay, but is and will remain a dynamic force to be reckoned with.

hbs - 50 Years of ASEAN


[1] Gardezi, Saadia (2014) “The Politics of Social Media in Southeast Asia”, IDG Connect available from <…;.