Academic Essay: Potential and Limitation of Digital Activism: A case study of Indonesia's #GagalkanOmnibusLaw

*Submitted as an end-term essay at Goldsmiths, University of London.



Drawing on contemporary examples discuss whether the internet reinvigorates the political public sphere and expands citizenship or exacerbates existing tensions and economic and social inequalities.



This essay is particularly interested in how digital media affordances may give benefit or disempower different political actors. Some studies have measured how the network technology enhances public participation, hence democracy, which are then reexamined by critical scholars that situate media power and its limitation more carefully. Drawing a case study from Indonesia, this essay adds its voice to the later, arguing that the democratic potential of the internet pales in comparison with the existing structure that will always find its way to repatriate and exerts its influence. This is especially evident where citizens’ expression is strictly controlled by digital law. 




The emergence of the web had been forecasted to transform our political public sphere, where its affordances—interactivity, cheapness, global reach, among others—believed to be central in reinventing and advancing our democracy (Curran 2016, Curran 2010, Van Djick 2013). Given this communicative architecture, internet was celebrated by many to resemble an ideal public sphere (Habermas, 1989), where it provides accessibility to people to engage in rational debates, similar to what people had in ancient Greek or 18th-century European bourgeois clubs. 


Development of communication technologies—from the printing press, telephone, TV—has always been a profound influence for political sphere and democracy, and a global infrastructure of digital technology being the best recent example (Davis 2019). In the state level, the increasing adoption of social media networks by government agencies may, according to Mossberger (2013), ‘foster two-way or multiparty discussion in the govt context’ (p. 352). She further argues that civic participation may be promoted by the effective use of online platform, open data portals, and other interactive features. The state may be also engage with residents in new ways, including opportunities for wider public deliberation (Cho et al. 2020, p. 21). Internet is also believed to ‘disintermediate’ politicians and voters, vanishing communication barrier between them (Bennet & Pfetsch 2018, p. 247). This will also allow citizens to monitor members of parliament as their activities are now ‘recorded, aggregated, and accessible’ (Davis 2010, p 128).


While social movement has existed before digital media, it provides capabilities that make activism even more pronounced (Tufekci 2017). Activism has now manifested as networked demonstrations and series of online campaign—from the Anonymus, uprisings such as the Arab Spring, and the emergence of (Hintz et al. 2018, p. 26)


Twitter has been widely associated with “Arab Spring” where civic groups in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, among others, use it to protest against each government (Murthy 2013). In fact, many international media based in the West, put emphasise on the role of Twitter, as if the platform starts the revolution to happen (Tufekci 2017). As Juris (2012) documented that social media and activists websites enable #Occupy movement to establish network at local, regional, and global scale from Barcelona, Prague, to Boston. In what he calls ‘logic of aggregation’, social  media can forge horizontal ties and connection among diverse, autonomous elements, and facilitate decentralised coordination and direct democratic decision making (p. 266)


ICTs were claimed to be intrinsically empower citizens, as it alleviates people’s voice to be heard in public debate (Hintz et al. 2018), as the instruments were no longer confined to the elites (Tufekci 2017) and resource-poor NGO may present more influence to the public. (Fenton 2010). For instance, feminists from minority backgrounds who had no organisational backing may now have more visibility after had been previously marginalised (Clark 2016). Jenkins et al. (2016) argue that even though digital media did not start participatory culture (which originated decades back), it has granted greater visibility to grassroots voices, particularly youths from marginalised groups. Jenkins et al. further argue that the reach offered by this technology—its communicative capacity, grassroot mobilisation, and contributions—have expanded participation, particularly from those who previously had no access to power. 


Central to this notion is the ability of new media in organising social networks. Tufekci (2017) notes that digital network has helped demonstrators to mobilise individuals, organise logistics, publicise their cause, and also overcome censorship, in an unprecedented way seen impossible to happen in a previous decade. It made possible more efficient dissemination of information among organised interest groups and has helped activism (Fenton 2020 Jenkins et al. 2016). However, it is beyond just communication system (Tufekci 2017, Bennett & Pfetsch 2018) as the internet opened up a new, more fluid, and spontaneous domain for digital subjects to interact with the social and political environment (Hintz et al. 2018). Hintz et al. further emphasised that this landscape is shaped amid the 'loss of public trust in formerly authoritative information sources' (p. 249) 


What online platform also has to offer is what Bennet & Segerberg (2012) call as ‘connective action’, where political contents—such as meme—is easy to be personalised and technology provides sharing at large scale. For the former, political content such as the 'we are the 99 per cent' in the #Occupy protests is inclusive of different personal reasons. For the latter, various forms of texts and video can be shared among friends or trusted others, then travel across diverse populations (p. 745). In this interactive process, people are invited to appropriate, produce, and share their themes, making overall pattern and message. Bennett and Segerberg further argue that this act of sharing across social networks becomes an act of personal expression but can scale up very quickly. Unlike before, making political action and connection on social media timeline does not require a formal membership to a club or a political party. Its flexible nature also enables coordinated adjustments, while crossing boundaries of geography and enhance greater political participation (Bennett & Segerberg 2012, Fenton 2010). 


The design of platform may dictate participation as well, where Facebook keeps encouraging its user to engage ‘by creating the impression that everybody participates’ (Bucher 2018, p. 154) and on Twitter, hashtag provides means for people to assemble around various topics (Tufekci 2012). She further argues that the design shapes our experience of space and time, connecting people between boundaries, and preserving words and pictures that would otherwise undocumented.  


Social networks made it easier for the protesters to win media attention, with viral images and messages taken up as news in legacy media (Curran 2016, Bennett & Segerbeng 2012). In Egypt, the platform has helped Egyptians to spread the message to foreign politicians and international news agency (Murthy 2014). It seems that the internet had reconfigure the field and giving an advantage to political challengers (Tufekci 2017)


Critical Political Economist


While being mindful to its potential, the web cannot be over-glorified because it is, and will always be, inseparable from politics and business. The notion that the digital world is an isolated new space is ‘digital dualism’ which Tufekci (2012) call us to avoid.


First of all, social media is not a purely inclusive and democratic sphere. Not everyone entering the digital realm will be made equal. Some have more followers than others, some even do not mind about it, but it is clear that according to how many followers you have and who, you can sense the magnitude of one’s account (Tufekci 2017). They may be persons of influence to begin with, or rose to internet fame, one thing is exact that power imbalance still exists. Aside from power relation reflected from the offline world, Bennett & Pfetsch (2018) add that people also have to deal with filter bubbles, bots, trolls, hacking, and disinformation (p 245-246) in a space increasingly defined by the 'rise of undemocratic movements and parties, and networked (often polarised) political information flows' (p. 250). Even platform algorithms that are now ‘assuming gatekeeping roles’. (Bucher 2018, p 64)


Fuchs (2014) responded to Jenkins, which celebrated participation culture on online platforms. Even if everyone has a chance to be heard, not all voices have the same power (p. 74) and attention is unequally distributed and will advantage celebrities and well-know politicians (p. 75). Jenkins may argue that blog reinvigorates the political public sphere, but in the political blogs tend to be less visible than mainstream media outlets (p 76). Fuchs also critique Jenkins that his focus on fandom—which despite making political actions—does not contribute significantly in political protests like in Egypt (p. 72). 


Besides, participation from civil society groups—regardless of its message—still are digital content for the online platforms, which then collected and aggregated to predict their behaviour for advertising purposes. The more users make and share content, the more input they compile as ‘big data’. Fuchs (2014) argues that any creativity from web users is sometimes overstated because in the end, it is commodification. Moreover, he further argues that participation should mean that users have access to political decisions making process in which they do not. In fact, despite making it to a trending topic, netizens’ voice still can be ignored entirely by the government.


Second of all, the digital traces means the government may commit digital surveillance, making an active citizen becomes a supervised citizen (Hintz et al. 2018). Dissident voices then confronted with social media that is incorporated within ‘restrictive state policies and intelligence gathering routines’ (Hintz 2016, p. 336).


Some countries, like Turkey and Indonesia, require mobile number registration with unique number citizen ID, which the government may later utilise to track (Tufekci 2017). Not to mention Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed the details of the US government mass surveillance programme such as Prism, XKeyscore, and Tempora (Fuchs 2014, Tufekci 2017). But this practice is seemed to has been justified by media coverage (Wahl-Jorgensen et al. 2017).


This also speaks to the fact that the government still wield the power to define illegalities of content and practice content filtering and blocking (Hintz 2016). The state sets standards that police users behaviour, changing the platforms ‘into controlled spaces’ (p. 336). Therefore, netizens still submit to government regulation in the country where the internet is operating (Isin & Ruppert 2015), whether the law is protecting people’s rights to express or instead, suppressing it. In fact, government interference to the digital sphere have been documented in in nine countries including the US, Canada, Germany, China, and Russia, where social media abuse, bots, and junk news, are found (Woolley and Howard 2017).


Third of all, contrary to what many believe as revolutionary potential of the web, it alone did not start the revolution. In Egypt, where Twitter is associated with the Arab Spring, the platform was used only by 0.00014% of the population concentrated among American University in Cairo (Murthy 2013). In Iran, when the revolution happened and associated with Twitter, only a few Twitter account actually existed (Morozov 2009). 


Furthermore, many of these protests utilising digital tool have not yet met their initial goals. In Egypt, years after initial uprisings, many revolutionaries are now in jail or exiled, and the military took over the government (Tufekci 2017). It seems that all political actors—like the government and the military—have also adapted to the online sphere, not only civil society groups. Consequently, ICTs must be understood as recombinant, not the cause for social change (Davis 2019, Tufekci 2017, Murthy 2013).


Digitally networked protest is also, if not fortified with offline deliberation, is easy to organise but hard to maintain and win (Tufekci 2017). Davis (2019) argues that it serves rapid engagement but ‘failed to build long lasting network to tap into mainstream politics’ (p. 149). ICTs also do not change the fact that interest groups and unions are rarely part of an established beat (p. 116) with brick and mortar presence, making them have to battle for influence an attention. Sometimes, when they distance themselves from conventional media and political institutions, they limit their potential to effect institutional change (p. 120).


Lastly, in the presence of the internet, the fortress of the elite network is largely undisrupted. Davis (2019) argues that elites from politics and business may have gone from executive positions at public office, corporations, and even think tanks,. Given that their web is still deeply intertwined, they may ‘please one another to protect those same powerful interests’ (p. 121). The elites also keep the possession of superior economic and political capitals to spend, which provide means to expand their influence ‘through agenda-setting and policy outcomes’ nevertheless (p. 108). Unlike grassroots movement that has become more visible in the digital public sphere, elite power has in fact ‘quietly been extended and consolidated’ (Davis et al. 2020, p. 62), operating in ‘private communicative spaces’ (p. 68), away from public observation. Elites’ position as ‘primary definers’ (Hall et al., 1978) is then remain unchallenged. 




In order to illustrate the debate, this essay will highlight #GagalkanOmnibusLaw (Halt the Omnibus Law) in Indonesia. This will give us further examination on how digital media affordances play a critical role in a political debate among public, activists, and government, on the controversial law.


The law officially titled Job Creation Law and passed in October 2020. It revised 1,244 articles across 79 bills at once. The government claimed the law is needed for Indonesia to avoid the middle-income trap, while many criticism from civic groups pointed out that it will undermine labourers rights and damage the environment.[1]


Since its proposal in early 2019, there had been physical protests across Indonesian cities, particularly capital Jakarta, which immediately consolidated under two umbrella hashtags of #GagalkanOmnibusLaw (Halt the Omnibus Law) and #MosiTidakPercaya (Motion of No Confidence). The most widespread demonstrations, including in the online sphere, happened around October 2020, when the Indonesian parliament proceeded to pass the law amid the pandemic. Since then, more protests had emerged in over 20 cities in Indonesia[2]. In each city, offline protests went differently, from peaceful, some turn into violent where police shows extra forces. 


To demonstrate how different agents use the internet, this essay will draw information from online media coverage, particularly from October 2020. This case study is minimal and understandably cannot be comprehensive at scope. Rather, this offers a lens to understand where power is situated among political actors, and who, eventually possess more agency.




Democratic Qualities


Connective Action 


The web has undoubtedly facilitated activists from across Indonesian archipelago to connect one another in a short period of time. Different local groups worked together and orchestrated a nation-wide protest, and within a week, #GagalkanOmnibusLaw protest emerged across all main islands in Indonesia, in Sumatera[3], Java[4], Kalimantan[5], Sulawesi[6], and Papua[7].


Many of these groups are grassroots communities and not affiliated with any national network of established organisations. Given that, these local groups were outsiders and resource-poor organisations that are mainly not involved in the national political debate. Social media has given the otherwise unavailable space for these local groups to speak and participate.


Digital Presence


One study recorded that there were 2.65 million tweets on Twitter, 136K online news, 34.7K posts on Instagram, and 4.1K videos on Youtube discussing Omnibus Law or Job Creation Law[8]. This study also revealed than during October, the hashtag #MosiTidakPercaya and #GagalkanOmnibusLaw grew rapidly in volume, helped by a network of K-POP fans, and on the 6th of October become international trending on Twitter. Inevitably, #GagalkanOmnibusLaw became the most popular hashtag in the country in 2020, outnumbering #covid19 and dirumahaja (stay at home)[9].


On Instagram, #TolakOmnibusLaw gained 244K posts followed by #MosiTidakPercaya by 205K posts. While the hashtag initiated by government #IndonesiaButuhKerja (Indonesia Needs Job) only gained 5000+ posts. It is clear that social media has made it easier for the message to be disseminated across thousands of demonstrators in different islands, in seemingly almost a little time and free cost.


Online platforms are proven to help established right groups in Indonesia to consolidate key messages to the public and support demonstrators on the field. Amnesty International-Indonesia office, for instance, which has 64K followers on Instagram, published political memes criticising the government (which gained 10K likes), published a video about rights to demonstrate to counter govt imposed restriction amid the pandemic. Amnesty also frequently publishes press releases online, making it accessible to the wider public, instead of circulating among journalists and activists. 


Another great utilisation was demonstrated by KontraS[10], a national human rights group based in the capital, which used a form to document footages of police brutality during protests in many cities. It  then use Instagram to expose the video, which gained 486K views and irritates police spokesperson.[11]  The Instagram account, which has 101K followers also support the protesters on the street by publishing posters on “how to secure a WhatsApp account” and “digital security amid demonstration” to prevent hacking from an unknown party. 




Public participation is also seen to have been increased by online activism. KontraS collected 74 million Rupiah (3,800 Pound sterling) for logistics, medical equipment, and legal assistance for those who arrested. A similar move was carried out in September 2019 protests by a musician and former journalist, Ananda Badudu, which initiated crowdfunding for wounded protesters, which collected 175 million Rupiah (9,000 Pound sterling)


The internet also creates unique ways for citizens to continue protest in the digital sphere, while many physical protests were dispersed by the government. Especially during COVID-19 situation, where some people may be at greater risks, online platforms have provided them means to participate from the safety of their homes. 


Platforms for an online petition, such as, made voices from non-activists being magnified. A petition by interfaith leaders gained 1,4 million signatures[12] while another petition by local activist gained 637 K support[13]. To this point, it is clear that the web has reduced geographical boundaries, reducing distribution time and costs, and provide different levels of political engagement to broader participants. 


Structural Constraints


Cyber patrol and arrests


Structures had not been waiting in silence and the Indonesian government, in fact, exerted it power in the networked sphere. Leaked police directives —which circulated on Twitter—include mandates to conduct social media "cyber patrols". Police confirmed the document was legitimate but was only aimed at preventing hoaxes[14]. However, musician and former journalist Ananda Badudu, who made a crowdfunding in 2019, and uses hiw Twitter account to update regularly about the use of the funds[15]., was taken to police headquarters and questioned by the police for 5 hours for channeling funding to student demonstrators[16]


WhatsApp was also used extensively for coordination among protesters. During the nationwide protests, the government arrested ten admins of different groups, for allegedly disseminating provocative materials to its members, and encouraging them to take violent protests[17]. However, a verification using True Caller and GetContact by an online media revealed several numbers who provoke members in the groups were actually police officers themselves[18].


Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SafeNET) documented that during the protests, per 20th of October, at least 16 digital attacks happened in forms of Instagram hacking, Twitter hacking attempt, WhatsApp takeover, doxing—all targeting activists, labourers, and college students[19]. A well-respected national media, TEMPO, has its website endured two hacking attempts after publishing a story about the government-paid influencers caught promoting the law[20]


Information Monopoly


The government also tried to diffuse the issue, creating information monopoly by utilising the country’s controversial internet law (ITE Law) and employing professional influencers. It was started with the president alleging protesters to have misunderstood the law, and their action was galvanised by disinformation[21]. After that, the Ministry of Communication and Information claimed there are 547 hoax messages about the law across Facebook, IG, Twitter, and Youtube, Tiktok[22]. The government insisted that the draft circulating in public was not the final version, but at the same time refused to reveal the legally public document[23]. When the Indonesian Minister of Communication and Information was questioned on a live TV talk show about the basis of hoax allegation, the minister said that “if the government said it was a hoax, it was a hoax.”[24]. Accordingly, the police arrested critical voices under Indonesian Law of Information and Electronic Transaction (UU ITE), and three activists, mainly linked to opposition figures, were arrested for ‘spreading false news’[25]


It is worth to highlight that the ITE Law, which was enacted in 2008, has been used to arrest 241 people under the current administration, rose rapidly compared to previous administration with only 74 cases[26]. Record by Amnesty and SafeNET shows that the law mainly targets journalists and activist[27], and also unhappy customer complaining about hospital services[28]. ITE Law has been called as ‘draconian’ which put the country ranked 124th out of 180 countries in RSFs 2019 World Press Freedom Index.[29] While Freedom House criticizes government ability to censor ‘without adequate transparency, oversight, and appeals processes’[30]


While attempting to silence the critical voice, the government also deploy influencers. On the 22nd of August, social-media influencers tweeted the hashtag #IndonesiaButuhKerja (Indonesia Needs Jobs) which immediately evoked criticism from the public. Several influencers later apologised, announced that they had cancelled the contract and unaware that the hashtag was promoting the bill. One musician @ardhitoprmn, who has 500K followers on Twitter, said he received ten million Rupiah (530 Pound sterling) each tweet[31]. The government denied that they have paid influencers to endorse this specific law, yet admitted doing so so forcertain policies[32].


Elite strikes back: Shopee 


Perhaps the highest level of internet diffusion is when the government promoted the controversial law in cooperation with an online shopping platform ‘Shopee’.  On the 11th of December, Shopee held a webinar “Kerja Bareng untuk Negeri” (Work Together for the Country) which was broadcasted live on its Youtube account which has 1.14M subscribers[33]. The webinar had government officials promoting the controversial law as beneficial to small business owners. 


‘Shopee’ has been downloaded for 10M+ on Google Play Store and become #1 in Shopping on Apple Store in Indonesia. For its 5th anniversary, it promoted huge sale on its platform and encouraged people to watch TV Show Shopee 12.12 Birthday Sale” on the 12th of December. The TV show was then broadcasted on 5 national TV stations[34] and has three ministers promoted Job Creation Law directly to the public. They are the minister of Cooperative and Small Businesses, Minister of State-Owned Enterprises, and Coordinating Minister of Maritime and Investment.


During the show, it was the president commissary of SEA Group, Pandu Sjahrir, which control Shopee operation, said that the platform has facilitated small and medium business owners to grow. He shared the stage with Coordinating Minister of Maritime and Investment, Luhut Pandjaitan, who added by the that the Omnibus Law would further help small business owners. It is worth to note that minister Luhut, which has been the central government figure in promoting the law, is a direct uncle of Pandu[35]. Luhut is also a retired general who served under Indonesian dictatorship in the 1960s to the 1990s, which pretty much still holds massive influence in today’s politics. 




The brief overview of digital movement above offers us a glimpse of the trends and challenges in digitised society. The following part will elaborate on how the internet affordances had supported or undermine the political public sphere, where we can identify different implication for different agents. Previous studies may interpret the case studies in several ways, as follows.


For regular citizens, online platforms seem to have amplified their voice against political establishments. The internet makes it possible for them to send a donation and report police brutality. However, digital presence has extracted data traces in which cyber patrol find its way to track dissident voices. Given the government possess access to users data, vocal critics means more visibility and more susceptibility to arrest. The more content, the more input they compile as ‘big data’, the more it feeds pervasive surveillance (Hintz 2016). Agency granted by the technology has shifted now, from the netizens to those who process their personal data (Hintz et al. 2018, p 37), which are corporations and the state.


For activists, it may seem that the ICTs have empowered and consolidated them through connective action. They may engage with previously unaware netizens and win media attention. Yet the reduced barrier and cost do not always translate to affect decision-making process within traditional political institutions. Outstanding digital presence does not necessarily mean structural change. In fact, social movement may end up losing its momentum if ‘the organizational infrastructure is absent’ (Fenton 2016, p 357). An understanding that the mere existence of social media may start a revolution is simplistic, reductive, and trapped within techno-determinism (Tufekci 2017, Fuchs 2014).


Communicative infrastructure also provided means for previously outsider, resources-poor groups to participate with a more affordable cost. However, it fails to create a disruptive power that challenges the elite structure, let alone a more level playing field to fight. The study case offers vivid illustration on how elites’ power operates within a single family, which has greater access to legacy media and away from public scrutiny. Compared to digital media, legacy media operations still play more significant influence in Indonesia, hence a more effective means in disseminating message. At scale, the web cannot deny the superiority of resources secured by the elite network. In fact, the elites have found their way to leverage influence with new instrumentation and transform new technology to operate on their behalf. Davis et al. (2020) argue that the elites are still able to operate, accumulate and manipulate institutions and decisions (p. 72). We can see as well that the long-established network of elites is not yet being weakened. Their familial, educational, or professional relationships secure avenues for them to display their forces. In fact, loud mediated protests may have distracted us from private communication among elites that is influential to policy outcome.


Tufekci (2017) argues that new technologies may not automatically produce new types of human behaviour. That is why for politicians, even though the internet has provided tools to diminish barriers with voters, interactivity between them is not necessarily fostered. Instead, social media is used as a one-way communication tool to impose the government viewpoint. Variety of online features have provided politicians with a massive amount of feedback in a seemingly real time experience. However, the internet affordances alone cannot overcome political and commercial rationales that practically define their political decisions. As a member of the ruling class, they also have access to the existing elite network. This private web can be activated whenever politicians, or their business partner, aim to guard their mutual interest. Politicians also have access to legislative power which can be adjusted to better serve themselves.


For the government, its tendency to control the public sphere and citizens remain unchanged. In fact, using a set of policies, the state has re-territorialised (Hintz 2016) the online public sphere and the government seem to have learned how to further its power (Tufekci 2017 p. xxviii). This is where regulation plays a crucial role. Restrictive internet law may, as in Indonesia, accelerate violation to the freedom of expression. The tranparency that social media offers does not prevent the government from instead operating in silence and spinning public opinion. State behaviour of using forces and propaganda still exist, even though they now manifest as cyber patrol, ICT law, and paid influencers. With those under government’s command, the state can still establish information monopoly. Social media accounts of government agencies seem to be meaningless for public participation since they are not used to absorb public opinions, and instead act as a PR machine. 




A recent example in Indonesia, among many other countries, is an undeniable confirmation that the democratic potentials of the web have always been confronted, and usually lost, by existing political and economic structure. By expanding our focus beyond celebrated online protest, we can start to understand the real impact and limitation of the internet in public sphere. While technology affordances have facilitated social movement to publicise at scale, also reduce barriers for civic groups to participate, all users inevitably leave traces in which the government may track and arrest digital dissidents. This very much holds true, especially when one country’s track record on violating freedom of expression is further manifested in draconian internet law.


The ICTs do not prevent the primordial nature of the government to dominate public discourse. What different is that the spinning is carried out by the internet law and seemingly benign digital actors of social media influencers. While the web seems to give the power to amplify citizens and outsiders groups against giant establishments, it is not disruptive to the long confined network of the ruling class. They can shield their interest with more resources and larger scale of influence. 


Given that the internet is largely defined by the state and the business, it is affirmative that both forces still speak louder in the political public sphere. Therefore, it will be wrong to conclude that the web has extended citizenship in the digital era. Rather, under current circumstances, digital media tend to exacerbate existing government force to its citizens. Lastly, the consequence of the internet law, and the role of influencers, are areas in which further examinations can be developed. **




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[10] KontraS,