Using social media strategically: #Indonesia
21 Dec 2012|

Recently I wrote about the ways in which social media can be employed in an aggressive virtual campaign during warfare, using the example of Israel and Hamas. Australia is in very different geostrategic circumstances, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons here for the ADF. The IDF–Hamas case shows how social media can be employed in spreading a strategically-crafted message to a world-wide audience. Australia in general, and Defence in particular, have a good opportunity to tailor some strategic messaging about our relationship with Indonesia.

With a population of 240 million, Indonesians are some of the world’s most prevalent users of social media. Looking at Twitter alone, Indonesia is the fifth largest Twitter user country in the world, with Jakarta and Bandung (another major Javanese city) ranking first and sixth respectively in recent surveys (click to enlarge). A message in Indonesia’s Twitterverse is likely to be heard.

Top 20 cities by number of posted tweets, Source: Semiocast

Source: Semiocast 2012

And Indonesians haven’t shied away from opportunities on Australian social media, including those of the ADF. During this year’s Exercise Pitch Black, Indonesian social media users took to the official Exercise Pitch Black Facebook page to share their enthusiasm and support for the Indonesian Air Force’s pilots and Sukhois (see images below). Indeed, it was a momentous occasion to celebrate—it was the first time that Indonesian combat aircraft had participated in an Australian air exercise.

Ex Pitch Black FB page
Ex Pitch Black FB

In fact, it was an opportunity to really push the development of ADF–TNI ties and the camaraderie between our personnel, just over a decade on since Timor Leste. But even more than promoting ties at the tactical and operational level, these messages can be crafted as part of positive Australia–Indonesia relations at the strategic level. We’ve come some way since the ambiguous language about Indonesia in the 2009 Defence White Paper, and social media is just one way to reinforce the message to the Indonesian public that we see Indonesia as a strategic and Asian Century partner. Showing our militaries cooperating in a positive light signals the future potential of the relationship.

In terms of implementation, we’re not going to have the kind of intense resourcing like the IDF had during Operation Pillar of Defense. But defence PR via social media is a toe in the water of gauging Indonesian public opinion, and we can afford to start small. It could be as easy as a question and answer time in both English and some Indonesian. DFAT have already done that, with Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia Greg Moriarty holding an #askGM event over Twitter this month.

Or we could live tweet an event with a call to submit questions directly to a panel like the Chief of Army’s Exercise 2012. For this event tweeters could follow proceedings in realtime via a live tweet on the Land Warfare Studies Centre account (see below) as well as submit questions to a panel of visiting military experts using the hashtag #CAEX12. The panel addressed a select number of questions that were projected onto a screen during the conference.

Pitch Black was supported by the social media world by bloggers like the Melbourne-based Mike Yeo of The Base Leg whose coverage of Southeast Asian and Australian aviation appeals to a regional audience. And there was an official Facebook page, Twitter feeds (including Defence personnel like Eamon Hamilton who gave a face to the campaign) and regular Defence releases via the official Pitch Black page which provided an interactive multimedia package for sharing images and information about the exercise. All good stuff, and a good basis for further development, more proactive engagement, more strategic messaging and more active social media diplomacy.

And this doesn’t need to be limited to Indonesia. For other multinational exercises involving regional partners, a few phrases in Malay, Thai, Vietnamese or Tagalog (provided by Defence linguists) to accompany Facebook photos or tweets would go a long way. And, given the ease with which social media content can become a news story in itself, a well-crafted message coupled with images and statements on an exercise with a regional partner like Indonesia could provide some much needed balance to the next story about drug smuggling or the cattle trade.

All of these efforts will have to be appraised in terms of effectiveness. As I’ve argued before, this isn’t as easy in a military context, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. There’ll be immediate gains in relationship building via social media avenues like IKAHAN (the online Australian–Indonesian defence alumni group), but also longer term strategic gains in our ties as well. There’s bound to be more ‘firsts’ like Exercise Pitch Black, with our relationship with Indonesia set to grow. If Indonesians can develop an increasingly clear and favourable attitude towards Australia, nationalistic sentiments stoked up about Papua (for example) will become less potent. And this can be done by harnessing the skills of ‘internet natives’ who will increasingly populate Defence ranks in both countries. This will be for relatively little cost but, if done well, will be beneficial in its effect. What’s not to ‘like’ about that?

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist.