Conservative religious narrative dominates social media: Research

Source – November 16, 2020
Social media and religion illustration (Republika)

Achmad Zulfikar Fazli, Jakarta – The Jakarta Islamic State University Social and Islamic Studies Centre (PPIM UIN) has released the results of the latest research on religious trends on social media. The principle finding of the research is the domination of conservative religious thinking and narratives on social media, particularly on Twitter.

Media and Religious Trends in Indonesia (MERIT) research coordinator Iim Halimatusa'diyah explained that conservative propaganda dominates the discussion in the virtual sphere commanding a 67.2 percent share. Meanwhile moderate views command 22.2 percent, liberal views 6.1 percent and Islamicist views 4.5 percent.

Between 2009 and 2019 the use of hashtags with conservative attitudes has been most popular. Often, neutral hashtags have even been linked with conservative religious ideas.

"The conservative narrative which mostly appears on social media is generally related to issues of women, the relationship with the state, citizens and groups which exist in society, as well as issues linked with good and bad deeds [amalan]", said Halimatusa'diyah in a written release on Monday November 16.

Halimatusa'diyah said that thematic discussions on social media are also dominated by a conservative narrative. On the theme of gender for example, conservative ideas are mostly used to construct views about the subordination of women. Narratives about women are also closely linked to the limited sphere related to their roles of caring for children, as mothers and as wives.

"This research also shows that women are more vulnerable to fanatic explanations of religious idea compared with men. Because of this therefore, the domination of the conservative narrative on gender issues and the high proportion of conservative narratives in women's circles can give birth to the transmission of cross generational conservatism", said the Jakarta UIN Faculty of Social and Political Science lecturer.

The politicisation of religion

The other finding of the research was on the politicisation of the religious narrative which impacts on an increase in conservative ideas on social media. This can be seen from the close link between religion and politics.

The political context plays an important role in constructing the religious narrative on social media. Many religious issues on Twitter experience a shift in accordance with the dynamics of the political situation.

The use of religious hashtags generally increases when it is not a political year (when there are no elections), then declines in political years. Meanwhile political hashtags mostly emerge in political years, particularly since the 2014 legislative and presidential election. This shows that political competition in Indonesia is very often oscillates around religious issue. The religious narrative is manipulated for political interests as a source of political support.

"The politicisation of the religious narratives is not only done by the Islamic parties but by almost all the political parties, including the nationalist parties. A phenomena occurs where the conflicting interests of the elite are disseminated in the public space by the spread of religious narratives on social media", explained Halimatusa'diyah.

In geographical terms, the research found that Java Island is the main arena for the contestation of religious ideas, particularly in Jakarta. Moderate ideas dominate the discourse in virtual space with 67.11 percent followed by conservative ideas with 60.11 percent, Islamicist ideas with 53.19 percent and liberal ideas with 44.64 percent.

If it is assumed that conservative views are compatible with and in line with Islamicist ideas, a combination of the two dominate the contestation of religious ideas. Halimatusa'diyah gave as an example the case of former Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama during the 2017 gubernatorial election in Jakarta which became the biggest factor in the contestation of religious ideas on social media.

A liberal narrative is also significant in East Java with a proportion of 22.62 percent. The contribution of youth and progressive groups within the Islamic mass organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) plays a big role in the proportion of liberal ideas in East Java.

In line with the findings of other research, West Java province has quite a high proportion of Islamicist and conservative narratives with 15 and 10 percent respectively. Aceh and South Sulawesi provinces are also included as provinces with a high proportion of conservatism.

Yogyakarta, Papua and North Sumatra, which are not provinces with a majority Muslim population or a principle basis for the Islamic parties, in fact have a quite high proportion of conservative and Islamicist ideas. This further explains the politicisation of religious narratives in the interests of garnering political support.

Tendency for moderates to be passive

The other finding which confirms the domination of religious conservatism in the virtual world is the central actors in constructing a religious narrative. The religious narrative on social media is controlled by accounts which tend to have Islamicist and conservative ideas. These accounts have the potential to generate a higher level of viral religious tweets than those who are moderate.

"Although there is a higher proportion of moderate compared with Islamicist ideas, the character of its participants is such that they tend to be passive and are defeated by a long way by the Islamicist movement which has a more active voice", said Halimatusa'diyah.

These findings confirm the position of Islamicist groups as a noisy minority, groups that while small in number echo more loudly on social media. The other finding that can be taken from the central actors on social media is the closed nature of their social networks which are formed between clusters of accounts on Twitter.

The Jakarta PPIM UIN research was based on data from two social media platforms, namely Twitter and YouTube between 2009 and 2019. The data was analysed to find the spread of trends and patterns occurring on social media in quantitative terms. The research also involved in-depth interviews with several key figures to obtain qualitative data. (AZF)

[Translated by James Balowski. The original title of the article was "Narasi Paham Keagamaan Konservatif Mendominasi di Medsos".]