Social media is facilitating Islamic radicalisation in Indonesia

Graffiti of the ISIS flag sprawled on a shipping containerPhoto: Thierry Ehrmann

More young Indonesian Muslims are going online for their religious education. In a landscape where rage and inflammation are rewarded, these young Muslims are facing an increased risk of radicalisation.


Indonesians are some of the most active social media users in the world. 150 million Indonesians spend more than three hours a day trawling social media sites, with Facebook, Instagram and YouTube garnering the most visitors. With a captive audience, Islamist groups are making inroads using social media outlets to radicalise young Muslims.

A 2017 study by the Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University (UIN) in collaboration with the UN Development Program (UNDP) found that young Indonesian Muslims who use the internet have more radical and intolerant views compared to those who rarely go online. 88.5% of the 1,859 respondents believed that the government should ban religious minority groups. Additionally, a similar study revealed that 10% of young Indonesians supported the establishment of an Islamic State and would accept the use of violence as a means of defending the religion.

Millennials are seeking religious knowledge through social media

Irfan Abubakar, a researcher from UIN, described how young people are increasingly turning to the internet as their primary source of religious information. As the next generation of young, digital-savvy Muslims abandon mosques and take their spiritual and religious studies online, there is the danger of absolutism, where the individual regards their own beliefs as the absolute truth and refuses to acknowledge the validity of other religious teachings. “Absolutism is a threat to the country’s pluralistic society,” Irfan said.

Many of the most popular online preachers often express radical narratives such as Indian Ulema, Zakir Naik and Indonesian preacher, Khalid Basalamah, who has been rejected at several Nahdlatul Ulama mosques for his attitudes.

Social media is a catalyst for terrorism

Dr Solahudin, a terrorism expert from the University of Indonesia, interviewed 75 convicted terrorists and found that social media played a catalytic role in the radicalisation process. In 85% of cases, the convicted terrorists said that it took them less than a year from the time they were exposed to radical ideology to commit an act of terrorism.

“Before the widespread use of social media, it would take between five and 10 years for a newly radicalised individual to take part in a terror attack,” he added.

Islamic State fighters who have surrendered to Afghan government forces in April 2018, after having been defeated by the Taliban.
Photo: Mirwais Bezhan/VOA

Alongside anti-Western messages, Islamist groups tout the benefits of life in the caliphate. These groups see democracy as Haram (forbidden by religion) and represent a direct threat to the country’s Pancasila ideology.

Although many accounts spreading extremist content have been blocked and deleted, new accounts continue to sprout up. Last year, Facebook stated that Indonesia is one a few countries where a large number of users have fake or duplicated accounts. When radical accounts are deleted, users simply migrate to another account to spread their ideas, making tackling hate online a game of cat-and-mouse between Islamists and the authorities.

Muslim figures who promote moderate teachings don’t interest young Muslims

Young Muslims are eschewing the two largest Islamic organisations in the country, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammudiyah. On social media, where rage and inflammatory comment is rewarded with likes, comments and shares, their moderate content is struggling to compete with more radical groups. Their regular posts on Facebook only receive hundreds of likes at most, while more radical accounts frequently hit more than 1,400 likes on a single post.

NU is the only moderate group amongst the top 10 religious’ sites in the country. The rest are Wahhabi or groups with an intolerant and ultra-conservative view.

According to terrorism expert Ridwan Habib, NU and Muhammadiyah are failing to attract young Indonesian Muslims because they lack young representatives.

NU has recently formed the One Nation Forum (FSB) to tackle the issue. NU will organise meetings and work with other stakeholders to combat the spread of radical ideology.  

However, Islamist groups have an advantage. The platforms’ models work in their favour and they have become adept at producing content designed to drive engagement. The two major producers of radical content in Indonesia, Gen. 5.54 and Saveme Project have created a variety of unique materials ranging from e-magazines to Android applications to appeal to young Muslims.

The government and other stakeholders must intensify efforts to stop the spread of radical content

Large Muslim organizations such as NU and Muhammadiyah will play a central role in curbing Islamic extremism online. A renewed social media strategy with more youth-friendly religious content and social media preachers that understand the language and the lifestyle of young Indonesian Muslims will better-connect with young people.

The government and social media players such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter also have a central role in preventing radical messages from spreading online. Social media giants like Facebook use machine learning to automatically detect images and videos that are extremist in nature. This is reducing the length of time radical content remains online. In the first quarter of last year, it took an average of 43 hours to remove dangerous content. By the third quarter, this was slashed to 18 hours.

However, more improvements need to be implemented. Facebook’s algorithm that suggests posts and groups a user may be interested in based on their online activity can inadvertently recommend extremist content, facilitating the radicalisation of young Indonesians.

Facebook has acknowledged its limitations and the work that needs to be done. But so far, extremist groups are winning the digital battle, and without improvements in the detection technology, the country will continue to struggle to keep young people safe online.