The TIME Magazine once stated that Covid19 is “ravaging local newspapers, making it easier for misinformation to spread.” But, even before Covid, we have seen the declining trend of local news. This is particularly worrying in Indonesia where the media landscape is dominated by large Jakarta-based digital conglomerates who predominantly broadcast national news from the capital. 

Regardless of the decline, the pandemic shows how local news is more important than ever for the communities. Updates on the hospital's occupancy, the area of contagion, as well as the vaccination centers are crucial and better-served by local news. Not to mention policies and instruction from local politicians and health authorities regarding restriction or local lockdowns in their area.

It is in this context that local “news sites” are mushrooming on the Instagram scene in Indonesia. While the traditional local newspapers are dying or barely survive, we see in contrast how accounts with newspaper-ish names such KabarTangsel, InfoBandungKota, KabarJogja grow and attract a wide audience. The size of followers indeed vary, but on average they can reach tens to hundreds of thousands.

Amid the rise of these local news accounts, Indonesia's potential as a growth area for Instagram as local news requires further attention. Our ongoing research captures this emerging phenomena of Instagram news. Here, we want to share some preliminary findings, especially regarding how these sites work and operate, as well as reflecting on their potential for democratic process.

 

The Rise of Instagram Local News 

One may wonder why local news outlets are booming on Instagram, as opposed to other social media platforms. The trend is perhaps linked to the overall pattern of social media consumption in Indonesia. 

According to 2021 data from We Are Social, Indonesia has around 170 million active social media users, of which around 98% access social media via mobile phones. Much of this usage is driven by users aged 34 and under, who spend over 3 hours per day on social media platforms. At the heart of this growth is young, urban Indonesians using Instagram as their main social media platform and, increasingly, as a source for information needs. 

In 2021, for the first time, Instagram overtook Facebook in Indonesia as the most-used social media platform--although it remains slightly behind WhatsApp and YouTube. Users are also more likely to stay on Instagram longer, and visit more pages, than they are when on Facebook or YouTube. Facebook (which owns Instagram) reports that around 85 million Indonesian users can be reached using advertisements on Instagram, which had a 9% quarterly growth in advertising reach in 2021.

Such economic potentials motivates a range of digital entrepreneurs and amateur journalists to create contents oriented on local news and monetize them via Instagram. We examined five local news accounts primarily based on Tangerang: @tangerangnews, @infotangerang, @kabartangsel, @tangsellife and @infojkt. We also interviewed their editorial team to better understand how they work. 

Our findings show that these accounts run as for-profit small businesses. They are operated on small teams of fewer than 10 people doing various tasks from scanning contents and posting regularly. Typically, they have around four people in the core team making key business and editorial decisions. 

They fetch information from various sources, including audience-generated contents, post curated news and updates concerning the local area. Most information would be seen as not “newsworthy” enough to make it to national news, such as traffic jams, accidents, or hospital queues. But, the social media presence of such news makes them more relevant in times of crisis like the ongoing pandemic. 

Most of them are not affiliated with major media organizations, although some of our respondents were members of a local digital media association, Serikat Media Siber Indonesia (SMSI). It marks their difference from big online media companies like kompas.com, tempo.co, detik.com which are affiliated with the larger association, Asosiasi Media Siber Indonesia.

The main source of income is from paid endorsement posts. In addition, they also offer digital consulting services to local businesses. Our informants estimate their monthly revenues between 15 million to 30 million rupiah. The lowest level employees typically earn from 1-2 million rupiah. For comparison, an entry-level journalist in bigger media companies in Jakarta would earn as low as 3 million rupiah per month. 

Despite the relatively low revenues, most of our informants rely on running these news organisations as their main source of income. They also claim that the sites’ revenues would grow as their followers increase.   

 

The Potential Impacts on Politics

Scholars have already begun to examine the role of Instagram in shaping politics and public discourse. One study has noted the rise of Instagram “click-farming” as digital labour in Indonesia. They also show how Instagram becomes a space for digital operations, including disinformation

The growing role of social media in political campaigns in Indonesia prompts us to see the possibility of the Instagram local news sites to engage voters, perhaps even to be ‘bought’ by politicians. We study this possibility in the context of the 2020 local election in South Tangerang, especially to inquire whether political candidates use these sites in their campaigns. 

South Tangerang is dominated by rising middle-class voters with high-use of social media. Moreover, the Covid19 pandemic suggested that politicians would need to flow more money into digital operations, given the supposed limitations on face-to-face campaign. The local election featured candidates which were undoubtedly backed by high-profile politicians and big money, such as the Vice President Ma’ruf Amin’s daughter, the Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto’s niece, and the former Banten Governor Ratu Atut’s nephew.      

We found that, prior to the regional elections, these local news Instagram accounts regularly shared statements of the candidates and local election authorities. They also updated news relevant to the health protocols for the voting day or information on voting booths around Tangerang. Most of the local news sites we monitored, such as @Tangsellife and @Tangerangnews, presented the news updates in a relatively neutral and uncritical manner. 

One site, @KabarTangsel, dedicated one section for puff pieces supporting the incumbent pair, the then deputy mayor Benyamin Davnie who paired up with Pilar Saga Ichsan, Ratu Atut’s nephew. This content was disguised as news updates from the South Tangerang administration. However, KabarTangsel did not respond to our requests for an interview. 

 

Why Local News Matter

We suggest that pro-democracy and media freedom advocates in Indonesia take note of the growing local news sites on social media for two reasons. 

First, these local news accounts may easily turn into a battlefield of disinformation. We only need to look at the Philippines to learn this lesson. In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 election victory was in large part due to a highly networked social media campaign, and has spawned a growing disinformation industry, including the creation and manipulation of many local Facebook and other social media pages. 

Our finding suggests that in the context of Tangerang Selatan’s election, it seems the Duterte-style ‘networked’ social media campaign was not evident. Our respondents claimed if their site became ‘too political’ it would drive away readership, as they believed most of their audience were politically apathetic and engaged with Instagram in-part to avoid the more heated political discussions--driven by ‘buzzers’--which permeate Indonesian Twitter and Facebook. Thus, they view neutrality as the likely key to growth. Nonetheless, maintaining neutrality is a hard task and the dynamic may change in the future, especially if politicians deploy a huge sum of money to manipulate information via these sites.

A second reason to be aware of these Instagram news sites is to study the extent to which they can legitimately hold power to account, such as criticising policies of local politicians or local police operations. Given these sites are not registered with the Press Council and their practitioners are not considered professional journalists, any potential criticism of security forces or politicians could see them easily arrested under Indonesia’s notorious UU ITE, amongst other such laws. 

Perhaps these sites need more protection, rather than scrutinization, from those who are watching out for Indonesia’s democracy, given the shifting digital information society is a factor in the country’s democratic decline.