During the US-ASEAN Special Leaders’ Summit in Sunnylands, California recently, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo delivered a counterterrorism narrative called the “Indonesian Digital Initiative: Empowering Peaceful Leaders”. This initiative stressed the importance of social media in responding to terrorism and radicalized movements. Not only did the summit result in a joint commitment to eradicate terrorism, the leaders also agreed to jointly promote cyber security and stability.
While we need to support the initiative, we have to ensure the policy will comply with human-rights principles and avoid a clash between security needs and citizens’ rights.
Innovation in information and communication technology has significantly affected the movement of terrorist and other extremist groups. Fully aware that the mainstream media is hard to control, these groups turned to internet-based new media.
This strategy has proven effective for spreading their propaganda and agitation as well as for wooing public support for their causes.
The social media instruments, particularly those supporting video content such as YouTube, are effectively exploited as a medium of propaganda all over the world. More than that, extremist groups manage to spread arguments justifying their terror acts without disclosing the official counterterrorism statements of their respective governments.
They often use a holy war against the western hegemony as their main mission, which sees their violence often gain public sympathy. In short, the extreme groups’ communication strategies for steering public opinion are more successful than those of states.
A study by Bockstette (2008) found that terrorist groups have focused on strategic communications management as part of their terror acts. For them, strategic communications has at least three purposes: to provide long-term strategy for propaganda and the global spread of information; to maintain their social acceptance; and to intimidate and threaten their enemies.
Such a situation is clearly visible in Indonesia, where extremist groups spread the counternarrative of their terror acts in response to official statements from government through the National Police. For example, they glorify the Bali bombers by posting exclusive interviews with them or by sharing their personal testimonies through their networks.
Each day, there are more pro-terrorism websites created, following the improvement of internet services and the growing number of internet users in Indonesia.
A special report by S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (2009) stated that the internet had been a vital medium for the flourishing of radicalism and terrorism in Southeast Asia.
The internet serves as a tool for strengthening religious and political messages aka building the narrative, enhancing commitment and building communities that share the same perspective. The existence of these groups in the future will be largely determined by the success of their narratives on the internet.
To address the masses of terrorist propaganda, some countries resort to strategic communications. Some of those initiatives, some run by the state and some by civil-society organizations, turn to terrorism victims, using their voices to promote nonkinetic warfare against terrorism.
They also call on former members of terrorist groups to speak out about the impacts of extremism and terrorism.
Several countries have established a strategic communications unit specifically designed to work toward the eradication of extremist violence. President Barack Obama formed the Center for Strategic Counter-terrorism Communication (CSCC) in 2011 to identify extremist propaganda on the internet and to quickly launch counter-arguments through social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
In many countries such a unit involves the public in its operations, which shows how public opinion plays an important role in counterterrorism.
The level of success in generating public support will determine the effectiveness of any information campaign and the public’s situational awareness of terrorism eradication (Ramsay, 2012).
Thus far, Indonesia has mostly relied on kinetic warfare to fight terrorism through coercive law enforcement and use of weapons. Nonviolent methods in the form of counterarguments against terrorism have been minimal. The government has mainly just blocked websites that are thought to propagate radicalism and terrorism, but failed to make full use of the internet.
Citizens to some extent have made a difference. Following the Thamrin attack in Jakarta last month netizens independently created digital content to fight extremism and acts of terror. This has inspired the government to involve the public more in terrorism eradication efforts.
With the government’s plan to make the cyber world its battleground for terrorism eradication, we have to remain vigilant of possible violations of freedom of expression and privacy rights. We have previously heard the government use the counterterrorism agenda as a pretext to push for increased surveillance of cyber activities.
What started as surveillance was followed with other actions such as blocking and filtering certain websites, intervening in private information and criminalizing internet users.
The government must follow the principles of human rights when preparing its nonkinetic cyber approach, and include the following ideas in its policy, as part of its counter-terrorism narrative.
Scheinen (2009) highlighted five main principles in combating terrorism: (i) minimum intrusiveness; (ii) minimum use of private information; (iii) monitoring and regulation of access to private data; (iv) honesty, openness and integrity; and (v) effective modernization.
These principles and limitations are crucial to ensuring a balance is found between the terrorism eradication agenda for the sake of national security and the fulfillment of human rights.
The writer is researcher and human rights advocate at the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy (ELSAM) in Jakarta
The article first published at The Jakarta Post on February 25, 2016.