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After the Debate, Comes the Hashtag War

March 14, 2019

Please note that these translations from the original Indonesian were made by Southeast Asia Center staff for the educational benefit of our readers but without official approval from the news outlets.  The original articles, with attribution, are also included on this page.  While the translations were made by bilingual staff, thus minimizing the chance for errors, we acknowledge that translations are often subjective and therefore may not always reflect the intent of the author.  

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By: Antony Lee
Published: February 19, 2019

“Losing democracy is far worse than losing an election” (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in “How Democracies Die”)

The 2019 presidential debate between Joko Widodo and Prabowo began with a proffering of platforms. However, netizens responded with a “hashtag war” in their timelines that mocked each other, reinforcing polarization.

Not long after the debate was over between presidential candidates Jokowi and Prabowo on Sunday (02/17/2019) night, the Twitter timeline was in an uproar with a hashtag war between Jokowi’s supporters and Prabowo’s supporters. Data shows the #jokowibohonglagi (Jokowi lied again) hashtag began trending on Twitter in Indonesia on Monday (2/18/2019) at 5:00 a.m. An hour later, hashtag #02GagapUnicorn (Prabowo stuttered on unicorn) was also trending. The two hashtags continued until Monday afternoon. Around 2:00 p.m., the #savepulpen (save the pen) tag appears.

In the #jokowibohonglagi hashtag, Twitter account users questioned and mocked the data that Jokowi mentioned when the themes of energy, natural resources, infrastructure, food, and the environment were raised in the debate. Meanwhile, in the hashtag # 02GagapUnicorn, Twitter account users mocked Prabowo’s response when answering Jokowi’s questions about efforts to facilitate the development of “unicorn” start-ups in Indonesia.

The debate only involved the presidential candidates discussing energy, natural resources, environment, infrastructure, and food.

The search queries of the phrases “Jokowi’s Debate” and “Prabowo’s Debate, which jumped sharply


“Jokowi’s Debate” Phrase   “Prabowo’s Debate” Phrase
Jokowi’s earphone 1 Prabowo’s land
earphone 2 Prabowo unicorn
Jokowi’s device 3 unicorn debate
Jokowi is wearing a device 4 Prabowo’s estate
Jokowi’s pen 5 Presidential debate unicorn
earpiece 6 last night’s debate
Jokowi’s earpiece 7 debate’s explosion
Jokowi wears earphone 8 Prabowo’s land rights
Jokowi is wearing a device 9 electability after the debate
Jokowi is wearing a device during the debate 10 Prabowo’s land holdings


Polarization getting stronger

This hashtag war is nothing new during the 2019 presidential election. The residual political division from when Jokowi and Prabowo competed in the 2014 presidential election has once again gained momentum as the two figures face off in the 2019 election. It’s not rare for fanatical supporters of both figures to attack each other.

This increasing polarization is not healthy for democracy. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) study entitled “The Global State of Democracy: Exploring Democracy’s Resilience” (2017), warns that polarization undermines the social cohesion needed for a functioning democracy.

There are several studies that explain the issue of increasing polarization. Social media allows polarization to strengthen through the emergence of information bubbles. Internet users tend to interact with other people who have the same thoughts. There are also studies that link polarization to widening gaps in the community. Furthermore, it is undeniable that what is happening within society is influenced by political elites, who often instantiate antagonism, zero-sum political games, or winner-takes-all politics. Political rivals are considered a threat that must be opposed completely.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two professors at Harvard University, United States, in How Democracies Die (2018), caution that in a democracy, besides the written rules of the game, there are also unwritten rules. One unwritten rule that has become one of the “guards” of democracy is the existence of mutual restraint amongst political elites.

This attitude means respecting political opponents as long as they adhere to constitutional rules. No matter how much political elites do not like the ideas or figures of opposing politicians, they still accept them as legitimate “opponents”.  Conversely, when this norm is weakened, it is difficult to maintain properly functioning democracy.

“Because, if we view rivals as a dangerous threat, there are many things to fear if they are elected. We might use whatever method is needed to defeat them,” Levitsky and Ziblatt wrote.

In the 2019 Election, this also needs to be a matter of reflection for elites. All-out strategies to win elections will damage democracy.

Trivial narrative

In addition to polarization on social media, after the debate, there has also not been a tendency for internet users in Indonesia to explore the programmatic narratives of Jokowi and Prabowo. This tendency was drawn from Google Trends data on Monday afternoon related to the search for the “Jokowi debate” and “Prabowo debate” queries in Indonesia over the last day. Search queries with these two phrases indicate searches are still limited to trivial things.

Queries related to the search for the phrase “Jokowi’s debate” which jumped sharply include “Jokowi earphones,” “Jokowi using a device,” “unicorn debates,” and “unicorn Jokowi.” Meanwhile, the queries related to the phrase “Prabowo’s debate,” which surged, included “Prabowo unicorn,” “Prabowo’s land,” and “presidential debate unicorn.” There was no query regarding their platforms on the debate themes.

In fact, healthy democracy presupposes that the public makes informed political decisions. In other words, voters decide the presidential candidates they will choose based on adequate information about their campaign platforms.

In the end, polarization, weakening the norms of mutual restraint among elites, and trivial election narratives became an indicator of the problems in democracy. Accumulation from these three issues has the potential to undermine the consolidation of democracy in Indonesia.

At a time when democracy in some Western countries is retreating due to institutional damage and the strengthening of populist leaders, Indonesia could play an important role as a good example. Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa in “The End of Democratic Century: Autocracy’s Global Ascendance” published in Foreign Affairs (2018), said that amidst the decline of democracy in the West, developing democracies, such as Brazil, India and Indonesia, are expected to take the role of maintaining democracy and spreading it to various parts of the world.

However, they are also aware of the potential for developing democratic countries to experience a decline in democracy. Brazil has “fallen” to a populist leader with Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in the 2018 Presidential Election.

Can Indonesia preserve democracy so as not to retreat?