Taming the media in the era of media abundance: What the 2014 Indonesian presidential candidates should know


In this essay I will analyse the comparative advantages and disadvantages of different media platforms for political communication, with a specific focus on television and the internet, particularly social media forms such as Twitter. I investigate these platforms in the specific context of the upcoming Indonesian presidential general election to be held in July 2014 and discuss which platform is more effective for candidates to project their political messages into the public sphere and to get their message across more clearly to their targeted audiences.

The next general election will be the first time in Indonesian politics in which the internet, particularly social media, will play a significant role in the presidential candidates’ political communication strategy. It will also be the first time in Indonesian politics in which politicians have clear choices between the media platforms they use to project their political messages, from printed media such as books, leaflets, pamphlets, posters, newspapers, and magazines, to electronic and digital media such as radio, television, the internet, and social media. This raises the question: In the midst of this media abundance and multiple choices, which media is the best to use for political communication?

I do not expect to arrive at a clear-cut conclusion about which media platform is better than the others; however, I will delve into the main reasons why such suggestions are derived. Focusing on the phenomenon of mediated political communication in Indonesia will enable me to clearly elaborate why one media platform in certain circumstances may be more effective than others in projecting political messages.

I will also argue that politicians cannot control the result of their mediated political messages as there are too many circumstances outside the media as a medium that politicians cannot control, as has been argued by McNair (2006, p. 4) in his Cultural Chaos theory:
…while the desire for control of the news agenda, and for definitional power in the journalistic construction of meaning, are powerful and ever-present, not least in a time of war and perceived global crisis, the capacity of elite groups to wield it effectively is more limited than it has been since the emergence of the first news media in the sixteenth century.

Politicians may be capable of carefully crafting their messages, but they cannot control how they are received. Finally, by focusing my research question on the Indonesian context, I also argue that there is no “one-size fits all” answer about which media platform is more effective than others as politicians are bounded to particular audiences in specific circumstances within specific electoral regions.


How direct presidential election changed the way presidential candidates communicate with the public

The 2004 Indonesian general election was the first time the president and vice-president were elected directly by the people. Previously, they were elected by the People’s Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat/MPR), which consists of legislators and senators. The shift to popular elections had a significant impact on the way political communication is conducted.

In previous presidential elections, political lobbying in the MPR was very influential as the president was elected based on the votes of MPR members. For example, in the context of the 1999 general election, the most popular political figure at that time, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was not elected to be the president although her party (PDI-P) won the general election with over than 33 per cent of votes.

With the shift to direct election, the popularity and electability of the candidates became crucial. The political communication skills of the candidates became much more important as presidential candidates now had to communicate directly to the people to win their votes. The ability of politicians to control the message – to make sure the message is delivered as they intend it to be understood by their audience – also became very important in this new environment.  This idea suggests that communicating directly to the audience is the most effective way of maximizing politicians’ ability to control the message. Furthermore, and as I discuss in more detail in a later section of this paper, owning the media is the simplest way to make sure the message is controlled.

Understanding the audience: from the internet to television

Politicians need to understand media penetration in their electoral area to identify which media is best to project their political messages. As shown in the chart of media penetration in urban Indonesia, below, while television still dominates media consumption, internet access and usage is consistently growing, while radio and printed media consumption is decreasing (Statista, 2014). Against this backdrop, I will firstly discuss the internet phenomenon in Indonesia and secondly television.

Source: Statista (2014)

Internet usage in Indonesian politics is not a new phenomenon. It has been argued that it was effectively used by underground political movements to corrode the old age of the New Order regime in 1997 (Schiller, 1999). Since the fall of the New Order in 1998, the internet has been seen as an effective media platform for the public to exercise some degree of control and moderation in the new arena of Indonesian politics, although it was used only by a tiny 1 per cent of the Indonesian population (Hill, 2003). The 2004 general election was the first time the internet was utilised in Indonesian political campaigns, although it has been argued that the political campaign websites were poorly designed and maintained, and also provided less information than what the websites’ visitors might had expected (Hameed, 2007). Despite the troubled beginnings, it was expected that the internet would play a much more significant role in the 2009 election. However, in the election the internet still did not play an important role in political campaigning as politicians were much more focused on influencing and attracting the public through TV broadcasts (Ufen, 2010).

The current election campaign in Indonesia marks the first time the internet is being widely used by politicians as an important medium of political communication in which social media plays a central role. However, a question remains: Is the internet (particularly social media) the best medium? Or is this just a euphoric response of politicians to the new technology but without actually knowing how it can be most effectively used?

Figures released by the Association of Indonesian Internet Providers/APJII (2014) show that 71.19 million Indonesians were using the internet by 2013. However, this is only 28 per cent of Indonesia’s total population of 248 million, which clearly indicates that the majority of Indonesians still do not have access to the internet. Statista (2014) revealed that, in 2012, the majority of internet users in Indonesia were located in urban areas, in which the internet penetration rate reached 57 per cent. Another survey of the same year shows that 54 per cent of Indonesians live in urban cities (Wahyudi, 2012). These figures clearly show that internet usage in Indonesia is still dominated by people in urban areas. Furthermore, APJII (2012) found that internet usage is not only predominantly a feature of urban life, but that it is also more concentrated in the younger generation of 12-34 year-old people, who make up 58.4 per cent of total internet users.

When the internet users are predominantly urban people and younger generations, the number of ‘likes’ on politicians’ Facebook fan page and the number of ‘followers’ on their Twitter account might also only reflect the demography of their constituents in urban areas.  However, it can be understood why politicians are very enthusiastic about engaging with social media as it is the most common form of internet activity. A survey found that 87.8 per cent of people in Indonesia used the internet to connect to social networking sites (APJII, 2012).
In 2012, Indonesia was ranked as the country with the 5th highest number of Twitter accounts. Moreover, two big cities in Indonesia, Jakarta (1st) and Bandung (6th) are among the top ten busiest cities in the world based on the number of tweets (Semiocast, 2012).

Source: Semiocast (2012)

One important reason for the popularity of Twitter in Indonesia is that it requires lower data transfer speeds on mobile devices.  Data transfer speed in Indonesia is very low, at an average of 4.02 Mbps, whereas the world average is 17.03 Mbps. Of the 188 countries in the world, Indonesia is ranked at 147 in terms of data transfer speed (Ookla, 2014). With limited data transfer speeds, mobile devices also become very popular as they enable faster connections with lower data transfer speeds (Johansson, 2013). MarkPlus Insight and Marketeers (2013) found out that 95 per cent of netizens In Indonesia accessed the internet by mobile devices.

Tweeting political messages

Since 2009, the widespread use of social media has attracted Indonesian politicians to this media platform. In the process, Twitter has become the most used social media by Indonesian presidential candidates to project their political messages.

    Source: Fahmi (2014b)
Prabowo Subianto was the first Indonesian presidential candidate to use Twitter (on 17 May 2009). He now has more than 600,000 followers, and most of the surveys and polls name him as the second most electable presidential candidate. The leading candidate is Jokowi who, in comparison with other possible presidential candidates, has the highest number of followers on Twitter with 1.3 million. His high number of followers might be perceived as an indication why Jokowi leads the surveys and polls. However, I argue that respondents of the surveys and polls did not choose Jokowi because of his political messages on Twitter. Jokowi rarely uses his Twitter account. Since starting his Twitter account in early September 2011, Jokowi has tweeted only 864 times or an average of 0.93 per cent tweets per day. He has only tweeted once in 2014 (as of 12 March), and only 23 times since 2013, when he was clearly leading the polls. Furthermore, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is always among the top ten most favoured presidential candidates, does not have any social media accounts.

    Source: RoyMorganResearch (2014) (with the grey shade) and Fahmi (2014c)

Six of the eleven presidential candidates at the Democratic Party Convention are social media savvy. Each one of the six candidates has more than 200,000 followers. However, the high number of followers does not correspond to their popularity and electability. Among the eleven candidates, only one of them is consistently ranked among the ten most popular presidential candidates (Amri, 2013).

Source: Fahmi (2014a)
The contradiction between online popularity, as it has been shown through the number of Twitter followers the ‘real’ followers can be best illustrated in Rhoma Irama, Gita Wirjawan, and Anies Baswedan cases.

No twitter, many ‘real’ followers

Rhoma Irama is an actor and musician turned politician. The National Awakening Party (PKB) has declared him as one of the party’s three possible presidential candidates. The two others are former Indonesian vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, and former chief justice of the Indonesian Constitutional Court, Mahfud MD. Among the three candidates, Rhoma Irama is the only candidate who attracts many criticisms. For example, Siti Zuhroh, a political analyst and researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), has claimed that Rhoma is only used as a vote-getter to boost PKB’s electability (Affan, 2014). In addition, Arbi Sanit, a political scientist at the University of Indonesia, sarcastically commented,

They’re [PKB] goofing off. As if they had nothing better to do. If they nominated Mahfud MD or Jusuf Kalla, I can still take it seriously. But Rhoma Irama, come on.” (TheJakartaPost, 2013)

In early February 2014, figures from the Pusat Data Bersatu (Integrated Data Centre/PDB) (Maharani, 2014) revealed that Rhoma Irama is among the top three most popular possible presidential candidates. He gained 97.5 per cent of votes and became the third most popular candidate (Meaning, from 1000 respondents 975 know Rhoma Irama). This number is slightly below Jokowi (1st) with 98.2 per cent and Megawati Sukarnoputri (2nd) with 98 per cent of votes. The survey also indicated that, despite Rhoma’s high popularity, his electability is only 0.8 per cent. However, this survey may not reflect the real situation on the ground as its 1200 respondents came from fifteen big cities in Indonesia (Maharani, 2014). Furthermore, I have observed that most of the surveys and polls were conducted in big cities. It suggests that people from rural areas are excluded.

News of the survey which was published on Kompas.com has attracted more than sixty comments. Forty of the comments are not favourable to Rhoma, while only three are favourable. The comments might reflect the digital divide between people in urban areas and rural areas in Indonesia. One of the commentators who is in favour of Rhoma said,

You have to know Sir [.] In the rural areas [,] Rhoma Irama is very well-known [.] Who are the rest politicians [?] People [in rural areas] do not know Jokowi [.] I am a villager in West Java. When Bang Haji (one of Rhoma’s popular nickname) attended an event, the venue was not enough to accommodate people who wanted to see him. People love and like him. God willing, Bang Haji will get votes in rural areas. (Maharani, 2014)

The PKB chairman says that one of the reasons why Rhoma was chosen is because of his popularity at the grass-roots level. He said that, in many regions (not in big cities), Rhoma Irama could attract ten thousands of people to PKB political meetings by merely announcing the event through leaflets.

At almost all spot of meetings around West Java, we did not need to provide transport, food, snacks and tent.(Maharani, 2013b)
We are thankful for having Rhoma Irama, as it is the cheapest way for our campaign in the general election. (Maharani, 2013a)

Among the PKB’s presidential candidates, Rhoma Irama is the only candidate who does not have a Twitter account. On the other hand, Jusuf Kalla has more than 700,000 followers and Mahfud MD has more than 500,000 followers on Twitter. It suggests that having a lot of followers or likes on the internet does not reflect what is real on the ground.

Gita Wirjawan and Anies Baswedan (Presidential candidate nominees from the Democratic Party) who each have more than 400,000 followers on Twitter have also experienced the effect of digital divide. When they visit rural areas, many people do not know them. They could only guess whether Gita and Anies are high ranking public officials, important people (because of the journalists following them), or even artists/actors (because of their good looks) (Asril, 2013; Patty, 2014)

Figure 1: Gita Wirjawan at a traditional local market in Ambon, Maluku.

Figure 2: Anies Baswedan during his visit around Java Island.


Television on Indonesia’s media landscape

Reports show that television is the dominant form of media in Indonesia with over 95 per cent of the population watching television (BBG & Gallup, 2012; Redwing, 2012). One of the reports also reveals that an average 94.2 per cent of households have televisions, with only a slight difference between urban households (98.2 per cent) and rural households (92.5 per cent) (BBG & Gallup, 2012). In the context of strategic political communication, this suggests that television is still the most influential media platform.

Television employs audio and visual at the same time with emphasizing in its visual aspect is (Kraus, 1996). Thus, having an attractive and confident appearance on television is the key to winning over the voters. The first Kennedy-Nixon debate was the best example. In 1960, television was a new phenomenon. Politicians were unfamiliar with the media and did not really understand how to deal with it. The Kennedy-Nixon debate was the first US presidential debate that was broadcast on television.

Having been hospitalized for a knee injury and a fever, Nixon looked pale. In contrast, Kennedy was very fit and well-prepared. A clear contrast appeared on the TV screen: the healthy look of Kennedy and the pale look of Nixon. Kennedy looked confident as he answered all the questions while looking at the camera as if he was delivering the answers to the audience. On the other hand, Nixon was looking at the reporters, thus avoiding direct eye contact with the audience at home. Nixon was also clearly sweating under the hot studio lights. It gave a visual impression that he was very nervous and lacking confidence.

Interestingly, the effect on people who followed the debate was very different according to whether they listened on radio or watched on television. Audiences who listened to the radio thought the debate was drawn. But over than 70 million people who watched the debate on television thought that Kennedy was the winner. Sindlinger & Co., a Philadelphia commercial research firm, conducted a survey about the debate soon afterwards and the results were published by Broadcasting magazine in 1960:

Radio vs. Tv (sic). Kennedy supporters may be grateful that television was invented before the “Great Debates” took place. The Sindlinger research showed that Mr. Kennedy was routed by Mr. Nixon on radio. In answer to the question who won the debates, 48.7% of the radio audience named Mr. Nixon and only 21% picked Mr. Kennedy. Among those who watched the debates on tv, 30.2% named Mr. Kennedy the winner and 28.6% picked Mr. Nixon. According to Sindlinger projections, the total television audience was about 4.5 times the radio audience-270 million viewers of tv to 61.4 million listeners to radio. (Kraus, 1996, p. 80)

Political campaigning on TV broadcasts is relatively new in Indonesian politics compared to the US. In Indonesia, political parties’ TV commercials began in 1999, while presidential debates on national TV started in 2004. These phenomena occurred as a result of political changes in Indonesian politics from the controlled media system in the New Order regime to the era of openness and transparency after the collapse of the New Order. During this era, survey and poll institutions mushroomed as well as political consultants (Ufen, 2010).

Politicians and political parties have spent a lot of money on TV commercials. In 2013, the Indonesian Advertising Agencies Union (Persatuan Perusahaan Periklanan Indonesia) released figures that showed political ads spending was Rp 10 trillion (approx. AUS$ 9.78 billion) and the number was predicted to rise 25 per cent each year, particularly before and during the 2014 general election (Rohmat, 2013).

Politicians may have a lot of money to hire the best media consultants and professionals to craft their positive images and to assist them to effectively deliver their political messages. At least four of the next possible Indonesian presidential candidates are media moguls and the owners of many national and local TV stations. Aburizal Bakrie, chairman of Golkar Party, owns TVOne and ANTV. Surya Paloh, chairman of the National Democratic Party, owns MetroTV. Hary Tanoesoedibjo, one of the Hanura Party leaders, owns RCTI, MNCTV, and GlobalTV. And Dahlan Iskan, one of the Democratic Party Convention participants, owns JTV. Sudibyo and Patria (2013) argue that politicians who emerge from media businesses will inevitably project the media owners’ interests.

The Indonesian Broadcasting Commission (Komisi Penyiaran Indonesia/KPI) observed that in April 2013 National Democratic Party and Surya Paloh commercials were broadcast 31 times on MetroTV and 20 times as a news report (Hermawan, 2013a). The KPI also noted that in the same period Aburizal Bakrie commercials were broadcast 143 times, while he appeared nine times in news reports. The TVOne vice-editor in chief, Totok Suryanto, refuted the allegation of media intervention and said that the ads were broadcast based on TVOne’s procedure and paid for by the political advertisers (Hermawan, 2013b).

“Kuis Kebangsaan”, which was aired on RCTI, attracted wider criticism as it has been clearly set up for the Wiranto and Hary Tanoesoedibjo political campaigns (FPosts.com, 2013; Hasits, 2013). The program has a quiz segment, namely “Kuis WIN-HT”. WIN-HT is an abbreviation of the names of Wiranto and Hary Tanoesoedibyo, the presidential and vice-presidential candidate from the Hanura Party. Despite gaining positive results, the criticism, I argue, has made a negative impact on the Hanura Party and its presidential candidates’ image.

If the story above shows that by owning mainstream media candidates could influence how the media project their political image, Jokowi has become the most electable presidential candidate in many surveys and polls despite not owning any media companies. While he was accused of being too busy employing strategies for managing his political image and promoting his style of leadership, such as blusukan (an impromptu visit), he replied that the blame should be directed to the media itself:

How could I do political imaging, I do not even have a TV station as well as newspapers. If there are TV stations who keep on reporting me, it is their faults. (Alsadad, 2014)

Ari Junaedy, a political scientist from the University of Indonesia, argues that Jokowi is a newsmaker, thus, he rejects the notion that Jokowi is using political imaging strategies:

It should be differentiated. Political imaging means that there are deliberate actions by creating massive publications. Jokowi-Basuki has no deliberate actions [in relation to the accusations of political imaging of his activities]. Jokowi blusukan strategy, I think, he actually does not want to be followed by camera [journalists]. But, his political activities are considered interesting because rarely done by politicians or public officials; as a result, it attracts people attention, including the [mainstream] media. (More, 2013)

Owning to control

The fact that some presidential candidates own mainstream media has been argued as the way for the politicians to control their political message. Within the framework of Cultural Chaos, McNair (2006, p. 3) argues that:

It [the control paradigm] is premised on economic determinacy, whereby ruling elites are presumed to be able to extend their control of economic resources control of the cultural apparatuses of media, including the means of propaganda and public relations, leading to planned and predictable outcomes such as pro-elite media bias, dominant ideology, even 'brainwashing'.

In Indonesia, some politicians and presidential candidates own mainstream media outlets. It has been argued that by owning media outlets, politicians could influence how the media portray them. For example, it is alleged that reporting from the Surabaya Post about the Sidoarjo mud-flow changed after the newspaper was purchased by Aburizal Bakrie in 2008 (Tapsell, 2012). The mud-flow was allegedly caused by negligence of Lapindo Brantas Inc. in one of their natural gas drilling activities. The majority shareholder of Lapindo Brantas Inc. is PT Energi Mega Persada which is one of Bakrie Group’s subsidiaries.

Social media provides the cheapest access to a media platform. Presidential candidates can easily sign-up to any social media platform for free. Extra money should be allocated to those who are not able to run the platform by themselves. However, does owning the media matter in making sure the political message is conveyed as intended? Understanding the audience is crucial to this question.

Source: Lim (2012)


The 2014 general election is just around the corner. For the first time, Indonesian presidential candidates are now confronted by multiple choices of media to project their political messages. Today, “the old media” in the form of newspapers, magazines, radio, and television, still exist. Research has found that old media usage is decreasing while only television still maintains superiority across the Indonesian media landscape. On the other hand, the internet is growing, while still struggling to close the digital divide between urban and rural areas. It suggests that presidential candidates should maximize their efforts to project their political messages through the internet and television. Therefore, understanding the power of each media platform is crucial.

Embracing social media is a must. The good news is that the majority of presidential candidates are now immersing themselves in social media such as Twitter. However, solely relying on social media would also be fatal to any political communication strategy as it has been argued that social media is largely used by urban people and the younger generation. Being popular on social media is not the same to what people know about the candidates on the ground. In a country in which the digital divide is very wide, online popularity is very different from offline popularity, as has been demonstrated in the examples of Rhoma Irama, Gita Wiryawan and Anies Baswedan.

While social media is lacked in terms of reaching out voters with not internet connection/literacy, the ability to project political messages through national TV stations is crucial as it has been argued that television is the most popular media in Indonesia. Spending a lot of money for commercials on national TV stations can be the easiest route to popularity for presidential candidates.  However, popularity is not the same thing as electability. Jokowi can consistently lead the surveys and polls of the most electable presidential candidates without actively projecting his political message through TV commercials. Based on Roy Morgan Research (2014), Prabowo Subianto, Aburizal Bakrie, and Wiranto are among the top four most electable presidential candidates. These three candidates are among the most active candidates campaigning through commercials on national TV stations (Firdaus, 2014). Why then, does Jokowi always top the surveys and polls?

McNair (2006) proposes the idea of Cultural Chaos in which he argues that elites are now in a very complex situation where no one can really control the news agenda as everyone wants to put their agenda into the public sphere using the new information and communication technologies. The notion suggests that Indonesian presidential candidates are now facing a new era of campaigning in which politician seems able to control their political message, but they will never know how it will end up being received in the public sphere. They can control the message, but they never know what will happen the second after the message is delivered as issues are developing dynamic and fast in this era of media abundance as Tony Blair’s stated in his 2007 media speech:

The news schedule is now 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It moves in real time. Papers don't give you up to date news. That's already out there. They have to break stories, try to lead the schedules. Or they give a commentary. And it all happens with outstanding speed. When I fought the 1997 election - just ten years ago - we took an issue a day. In 2005, we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening the agenda had already moved on. You have to respond to stories also in real time. (Blair, 2007, p. 477)

The speech was delivered seven years ago when the state of the internet and social media was less influential than today. Thus, we just can imagine how challenging the field of political communication is today for politicians. And for most of the Indonesian presidential candidates, it might also seem very frustrating.



. Asian Studies, Flinders University of South Australia
Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives, University of Victoria.