Transformation or stagnation? How digital media is changing student activism in Indonesia


Indonesia, like its neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia, has a long history of student activism; from the participation of indigenous and Islamic students to end Dutch colonial rule and a wave of protests in the 1970s against corruption, student movements became a strong force in Indonesia’s democracy.[1] With the changing landscape of technology has also come a shift in how students and youth in Indonesia become politically engaged.

Demonstration. Mann hält einen roten Lautsprecher mit gehobener Faust

However, maybe unique to Indonesia is how student activists have come to be seen as a moral force (kekuatan moral) or moral movement (gerakan moral) over the last decades - motivated by principles and ethics rather than personal interests (pamrih).[2] Aspinall[3] argues that the moral identity of students can be seen as a defence against the state who would try to arrest them:

The idea that student activism was moral and not political was thus partly defensive: it allowed student activists to express their criticisms of the government while denying that they wanted to remove it or that they are linked to any wider political forces.

Although the Indonesian government tried to repress student activism during the 1970s, they were only successful for a decade. After this hiatus, student uprising once again swept the nation, beginning in the late 1980s in more radical ways. Further on, the Reformasi movement in Indonesia in the late 1990s to the early 2000s saw riots, mass demonstrations and the eventual transition of Indonesia to democracy that “brought sweeping changes to the Indonesian political system, decentralising power from the centre to the margins, abolishing the military’s control over civilian life”.[4]

Low-risk vs high-risk activism

With the changing landscape of technology has also come a shift in how students and youth in Indonesia become politically engaged. There are 27 million Indonesians who are connected to the Internet and spend an average of 8 hours and 52 minutes online, 10 million of whom are active social media users.[5] It is not surprising then that digital media is playing a role in transforming student activism. Lane[6] notes that young Indonesians have been using the Internet through initiatives like signing petitions supporting, for example, the anti-corruption commission after being attacked by the police.

There are, however, many criticisms of how the use of social media is not having any real world impact. Lim[7] calls this the ‘many clicks, little sticks’ phenomenon and notes:

Social media activism has a tendency for being fast, thin and many. In other words, online campaigns emerge each minute and often quickly disappear without any trace. The result can be many clicks, not equally distributed for each and every cause, but little sticks in the sense that very few causes make for mass activism in an online environment.

Lim is not the only critic. A study by Kuniawan and Rye[8] looked at how environmental activism thrived in Indonesia with the help of social media but did not easily transform into tangible political actions offline. A further study by Hersinta and Sofia,[9] which looked at the Save Sharks campaign on Twitter, found that those who were engaged in the campaign used a form of “low-risk activism” through information dissemination and making donations. Online actions have long been seen as low-risk activism and people who engage online but not offline are accused of being slacktivists - a term coined to describe political engagement that does not need much effort, such as those actions related to social media.[10] According to Lee and Hsieh,[11] slacktivism can be harmful to future actions as it may give people a sense of satisfaction without really having any effect.

The picture is not entirely bleak though, as Hersinta[12] argues that while some actions have yet to be translated offline, political engagement online has helped increase participation in others, such as shark conservation, and can be used as a step towards other forms of activism. It also seems that low-risk activism is not just tied to social media actions. Other forms of offline action can be considered low-risk, especially if the actions do not antagonise corporations or the state.

Ahmad*, an environmental activist, describes his work as between low-risk activism and high-risk activism. Ahmad’s work fighting for the conservation of forests and orangutans and going head to head against big corporations is considered high-risk activism, while his other work on educating young people about conservation is considered low-risk activism. The difference between the two also relates to the safety that activists in Indonesia face. According to Ahmed:

It’s hard to say if it’s safe or not. For me, there are some moments when it is not safe. When I worked for Tapanuli orangutan conservation to protest against the hydro dam being built, which was destroying their habitat, I was doing media interviews, information dissemination and lectures. My colleague, a lawyer, got killed before he was able to give the lawsuit to the company building the dam. The Indonesian police said he died of a motor accident but we don’t believe this claim. Is it safe or not? It’s not safe if your activism fights oligarchs, but if your activism involves beach clean-up, planting the trees, you’re fine.

Dave, also an environmental activist who works to educate children on plastics and water sanitation, feels the same. “As long as the movement is not against the law, it’s fine,” he said. Indonesia uses its Criminal Code and its provisions against rebellion to arrest activists. According to Amnesty International,[13] there has been a 201 recorded cases of harassment of activists between February 2019 and September 2020, both online and offline

When asked if he thinks of himself as an activist with the work he does, he said:

I previously never claimed myself as an activist but when I was invited as a speaker at conferences or webinars, I was always introduced as an activist of climate change. I think activism is a constant effort to speak and struggle over an issue and convince other people on how the issue matters. I utilise various platforms to speak about the issue, either through social media, meetings or writing.

Both Ahmad and Dave use social media for their campaigns and advocacies. Dave, who also runs Dream School, an informal school to help underprivileged children access education, was featured on the YouTube channel NAS Daily in 2018, a Facebook page with 20 million followers. As a result, Dave says people have tried contacting him to duplicate his idea in other countries, while some volunteered to teach in the school. It is through these kinds of online campaigns and promotions that Dave believes the power of social media can bring people together.

Ahmad, for his part, uses social media to amplify messages and for networking, preferring his offline activities, such as working with children and protecting orangutans’ habitats. Although he uses his social media channels to publicise his work, it seems more like a natural complementary activity where he gets more people interested in the campaigns through publishing about his offline activities on these platforms.

Ahmad and Dave are two examples of young Indonesians who see social media as a complement to the work they do offline. Although Gazali[14] argues that most Indonesian activists have only been “clicking and clicking” and that they have not overcome the ‘many clicks, little sticks’ phenomenon, both Ahmad and Dave show that young people can overcome slacktivism and effect real-life, tangible change on the ground.


Looking at the history of Indonesia’s student movement points us to the creation of a moral force used as an armour against the consequences of high-risk activism such as student arrests. Today, digital media is transforming the way young Indonesians engage politically. As opposed to Malaysia and Singapore, where social media is seen as a force in reinvigorating youth movements after decades of suppression, social media in Indonesia represents a stagnation student activism. It is not controversial, given the vibrant history of student movements in the country, to say that low-risk actions online, such as signing petitions and clicking like, are a far cry from the student protests that toppled a dictatorship in the past. However, in this article we show examples of how online actions can complement real-world change. While online actions are low-risk, the fact that they can potentially lead an individual to participate in tangible offline actions should not be easily dismissed.

Note: *some names of activists were changed as per their request to protect their identities



[1] Aspinall, E., 2012. Indonesia: moral force politics and the struggle against Authoritarianism. Student activism in Asia: Between protest and powerlessness.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lee, D., 2011. Images of youth: On the iconography of history and protest in Indonesia. History and Anthropology, 22(3), pp.307-336.

[5] Kemp, S., 2021. Digital 2021: Indonesia. Data Reportal. Online. Available at: [Accessed 15 September 2021]

[6] Lane, M. (2010). The Internet has long arrived in Indonesia. In P. Behnke (Ed.) Social Media and Politics: Online Social Networking and Political Communication in Asia. Singapore: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

[7] Lim, M., 2013. Many clicks but little sticks: Social media activism in Indonesia. DIGITAL, p.127.

[8] Kurniawan, N.I. and Rye, S.A., 2014. Online environmental activism and Internet use in the Indonesian environmental movement. Information Development, 30(3), pp.200-212.

[9] Hersinta, H. and Sofia, A., 2020. Social media, youth and environmental low-risk activism: A case study of savesharks Indonesia campaign on Twitter. ASPIRATION Journal, 1(2), pp.113-134.

[10] Cambridge English Dictionary., n.d. Slacktivism. Cambridge English Dictionary. Online. Available at: [Accessed 28 September 2021]

[11] Lee, Y.H. and Hsieh, G., 2013, April. Does slacktivism hurt activism? The effects of moral balancing and consistency in online activism. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems, pp. 811-820.

[12] Hersinta, H. and Sofia, A., 2020.Social media, youth and environmental low-risk activism: A case study of savesharks Indonesia campaign on Twitter. ASPIRATION Journal, 1(2), pp.113-134.

[13] Amnesty International., 2020. Indonesia 2020. Online. Available at: [Accessed 28 September 2021]

[14] Gazali, E., 2014. Learning by clicking: An experiment with social media democracy in Indonesia. International Communication Gazette, 76(4-5), pp.425-439.

This analysis is part of our dossier "Young voices on the rise – Youth and democracy in the Asia-Pacific region".

It was first published here: