An Analysis of the Use of Social Media in Indonesia and a Social Media Use Needs Assessment for At-Risk Groups

Shiva K Dhungana & Nandita Palrecha

Created 01/14/2019

Blog, Case Studies


Search for Common Ground Indonesia has recently completed research on social media use and a needs assessment among at risk groups in Indonesia. The research is a component of its 24-month long project aimed at reducing the influence of violent extremist narratives among internet users – particularly youth – in Indonesia, as a response to growing intolerance and unchallenged hate speech online in recent years. The assessment report “An Analysis of Use of Social Media in Indonesia and Social Media Use Needs Assessment for At-Risk Groups identifies the drivers of radicalization and violent extremism among at-risk individuals in Indonesia. It also identifies platforms and narratives that must be utilized in countering extremism.

Root causes and risk indicators of extremism

This study first attempts to identify who is at risk of being recruited by extremist groups in Indonesia and what makes them susceptible to influence. There are several possible ‘root causes’ and drivers towards extremism that are summarized in three categories:

First Category: Structural Factors

The first category is structural factors and the root causes in this category include: i.) frustrations arising from socio-economic inequality, ii.) urbanization leading to strain on or gaps in support networks, iii.) low quality of and low investment in public education that results in lack of critical thinking skills among youth, iv.) lack of emphasis on diversity in religious education, v.) pervasive corruption, and vi.) inconsistent application of laws across the country.

Second Category: Enabling Factors

Enabling factors may also drive an individual towards extremism through: i.) increased access to information and provision of online platforms for extreme actors to garner support among online audiences, ii.) low media and digital literacy, and iii.) the existence of external and internal actors promoting religious doctrines that challenge Indonesian pluralism.

Third Category: Individual Incentives

There are also individual incentives that push a person to pursue an extremist path which derive from: i.) a need to form a firm identity and sense of purpose, especially for those experiencing significant life changes (e.g. internal migration), or ii.) a defensive response to perceived injustices faced by Muslims abroad or at home.


On the basis of these risk factors, the study concluded that individuals who are new to a certain environment (eg. boarding schools, universities, workplace or community), members of faith-based groups at universities majoring in hard sciences, those living in locations with a history of inter-ethnic or religious violence, and individuals who demonstrate support for or participation in hard-line groups (online or offline) are more at-risk of of extremism.

Popular social media channels and topics followed by young people in Indonesia that might be used by extremists or positive actors

Instagram, Line and WhatsApp are the top three platforms used habitually by youth. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are used much less, usually only for specific purposes such as staying in touch with old friends, following the news and watching educational videos. Extremist groups in particular use different platforms in different ways. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are used to garner support for their ideology. Meanwhile, extremist groups use WhatsApp, LINE or Telegram to do direct recruitment and more personalized one-on-one interactions, benefiting from the fact that they all have private and encrypted communication channels.

The research also found that parents and older family members are unknowingly acting as intermediaries in the promotion of extremist groups’ messages by sharing such negative content with their younger relatives via private messaging channels like WhatsApp.

While social media is a powerful influencer among young people, other online and offline engagement with religious figures, educators and peers remains crucial to enable audiences to critically evaluate content.

Mechanisms and narratives used by actors who are seeking to influence young people online

A high number of groups and individuals seek to influence young people online. This includes commercial organizations, media platforms, government departments, politicians and opposition parties, religious organizations and influencers, and civil society organizations. This results in a significant competition for their attention among these entities who face the challenge of ‘cutting-through.’ Individual politicians and religious influencers, in particular, have a more sizeable following on social media platforms compared to institutions.

An analysis of relevant content, both positive-moderate and conservative/intolerant, identified two types of narratives. The proponents of positive and moderate narratives (e.g. ‘Islam should co-exist with other religions in Indonesia’ or ‘open your mind and appreciate other cultures’) have struggled to amass the kind of competitive following that conservative and intolerant narratives, such as ‘you can be a better Muslim’ or ‘Muslims should democratically support Islam playing a stronger role in the leadership and governance of Indonesia,’ have been able to gather. The research revealed two significant reasons for this trend. Firstly, the proponents of positive narratives have been unable to articulate how their messages translate into replicable expressions of attitudes and behaviours on a day-to-day basis on online channels. Secondly, the effective use of hoax information by extremists to denigrate and undermine those sharing positive or counter-narratives has been effective so far.


The study offers several recommendations for those seeking to carry out messaging campaigns to counter violent extremism. One recommendation is to shift content dissemination from a single platform to a multi-platform strategy in order to maximize exposure for positive messages. In addition to this, messengers should ensure that content is shared with the appropriate tone and objective for each platform, in line with detailed recommendations. Messengers should also consider creating high quality content that has a lighter touch, is in a shorter format, appears authentic, honest and fresh (not overtly ‘designed’), and can easily be shared on platforms such as LINE and WhatsApp. Furthermore, it is equally as important to observe the issues tackled through these messages – messengers should consider tackling extremism (and not just violent extremism) and promote ideals of ‘friendship’, ‘self-improvement’, ‘respect’, and ‘Indonesian culture’, rather than more abstract messages about ‘peace.’ Finally, those who are seeking to conduct counter or alternative messaging should also identify and engage individuals who might share ad hoc content with an online network of young people, as well as individuals who are already actively engaged in an interest that is likely to involve a wider community or network who could use their own ‘authentic’ voices and points of view to re-create and reposition positive narratives in their own relationships and networks.

The study also provides recommendations for prevention and counter violent extremism in general. Researchers and actors of counter violent extremism initiatives need to first clarify and affirm what extremism and violent extremism entail contextually, along with relevant attitudes and behaviour. Quantitative research in this domain could further narrow down the target audience on the basis of their attitudes and interests which can be mapped against digital behaviour. This process will also help determine the impact and success of social media campaigns. In addition to research, media and digital literacy training in schools, either by government or other civil society influencers, will help develop critical thinking and ensure careful consumption of online content. Furthermore, the provision of more subject matter and mentor support along with the creation of a feedback cycle will help those who are involved in the process of developing more influential positive narratives.

This study concludes that any program that intends to counter extremist narratives must be locally-rooted, credible, and evidence-based. The program must have targeted messages to provide genuine alternatives that enable at-risk individuals and communities to address grievances and promote collaborative problem-solving.

For further information about the research, please visit

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