- Media Power in Indonesia: Oligarchs, Citizens and the Digital Revolution by Ross Tapsell
Ross Tapsell opens this examination of online platforms and politics in Indonesia with the initially uplifting tale of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, an ethnic-Chinese Christian, as he struggled to get on the ballot for governor of Jakarta. Ahok succeeded in large part thanks to networked supporters who mobilized through YouTube, smartphone apps, and other digital platforms to sidestep antagonistic, old-guard-aligned media coverage. Resisting the too-common temptation to see in such episodes any obvious or irreversible shift in political authority, Tapsell considers the strikingly different directions in which technology and political economy now pull. Indeed, that angry masses, again mobilized through social media, later toppled Ahok exemplifies the range of outcomes these platforms make more possible.2 The moral of Ahok's story, Tapsell notes, may be either about the elite machinations and media pressure that can drag a politician down, or the empowerment of young, urban, internet-savvy Indonesians.
At the book's core is a pair of research questions: what is the impact of the digital revolution on the production of news and information, and how does the evolution of digital media affect the ways power manifests? The answers—developed with an eye toward a history in which waves of emerging media (from nationalist newspapers to satellite television to blogs) have been politically transformative, but with a focus on electoral politics from the rough start of the digital era in 2004 to the election of Joko "Jokowi" Widodo in 2014—pull in two directions. Tapsell finds both increasing oligarchic control of media and centralized elite power as "big media … become bigger" (xiii) and create or co-opt nodes in Indonesia's multiparty political system, and citizens' increasing recourse to digital platforms for activist purposes, including allowing an empowered minority of digitally enabled counter-oligarchic actors to challenge elite power structures.
Contemporary Indonesians are voracious users of online and social media, including for accessing news and information, notwithstanding a still-pertinent digital divide. (The data here on the relative extent of internet access seem to prevaricate, in fact, in part due to inconsistency in whether the figures include smartphone access.) Yet far from upstaging mainstream media companies, development of new platforms has expanded those companies' reach. The key players—Tapsell sketches eight preeminent conglomerates—have themselves expanded into these new areas, consolidating their potency through cross-platform complementarities. The main [End Page 167] online news sites are now those of Indonesia's oligopolistic mainstream media or of international players, such as Google, not independent upstarts; smaller media companies struggle to survive as the big fish bloat. Political and financial currents intersect: media consolidation serves and yields both lucre and power, especially as media moguls use their platforms to back political candidates, including themselves. Meanwhile, "platform convergence" allows digital conglomerates not just to swallow up bit players, but to redefine what a media company is in the digital age. For example, a firm's consumers might click through from news to opinion, to e-commerce or gaming sites, while supplemental profits come from linked enterprises ranging from billboards to theme parks. Media oligarchs' political power not only serves the cause of profit, as they acquire multiplex digital television licenses, for instance, but also, per the exemplars Tapsell interviewed, grants agency to anoint political winners.
In other words, while the economic story of increasing oligopoly is important, its political effects are even more so. Media owners have become more powerful, more partisan in their coverage, and less hesitant to put themselves or their children in the thick of the political scrum. Although the multi-oligarchic media landscape ensures competing rather than duplicative political coverage, these conglomerates have similar business models: all play to click-generating popular sentiment more than they do to facts or policy. Moreover, by the late 2000s, in Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's second term as president, media moguls headed two political parties and held influential positions in other parties and in government. By...