Influence Communication in South East Asia

This paper seeks to present how digital communication contributes to modifying processes of popular influence, activism and lobbying on companies and governments in East Asia civil societies. It will be guided by identifying methods, trends and similar behavior to westerns countries. It is an anthropological view of communication issues.

This paper seeks to present how digital communication contributes to modifying processes of popular influence, activism and lobbying on companies and governments in East Asia civil societies. It will be guided by identifying methods, trends and similar behavior to westerns countries. It is an anthropological view of communication issues.


Scholars are particularly aware of uses of Information and Communication Technologies (ITC) for public spheres, debates and civil society dynamics. The concept and reference frame came from the West, especially if we consider the public sphere notion, mainly described by Jürgen Habermas, or the paradigm of Internet based on Western philosophy. It is admitted that Internet, from its origin until now, has relied on liberty of expression and of exchanges, and allows development of skills and access to knowledge—dimensions included in a liberal and socio-technical context. In other words, it’s a sovereign Internet in its own right (for more details, see the debates of the Internet Governance Forum). On the other hand, discourse of some governments, such as China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Russia, contests this aspect [1]. As European scholars, we are aware of this background (or at least, of some part of it) and we try, as anthropologists, to take it into account.

In Southeast Asia, changes of political system and uses of digital communication are key factors in the evolution of societies. When citizens and governments mobilize ICT for their goals, they support creation of controlled spaces in democratic regimes or places of expression in authoritarian ones.

Many scholars such as Orr (2007) argue that the Web 2.0 emphasizes social networking and collaboration and also offers alternatives for political engagement or activists’ methods. Cardon, Granjon (2010), propose three aspects for the use of media and ICT by the citizens. First is attentiveness and counter expertise, sometimes called citizen journalism. Second is subjectivity and diversion on media, images and symbols (for example, a web site parody). The third is grassroots mobilization: on occasional topics, citizens commit themselves with the idea of reinforcing collective procedures and increasing attentiveness.

Considering the public sphere in the sense of Habermas [2], we have an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action. Dahlberg (2001), contributing to enlarging the concept, proposes six requirements to observe public sphere procedure:

“Autonomy from the state and economic power.
Exchange and critique of criticizable moral-practical
validity claims.
Reflexivity, where participants must critically examine
 their cultural values, assumptions, and interests, as 
well as the larger social context.
Ideal role taking, which means participants must
attempt to understand the argument from the other’s perspective. This requires a commitment to an ongoing dialogue with difference, in which interlocutors respectfully listen to each other.
Sincerity. Each participant must make a sincere effort to know all information, including their true intentions, interests, needs and desires, as relevant to the particular problem under consideration.
Discursive inclusion and equality. Every participant affected by the validity claims under consideration is equally entitled to introduce and question any assertion whatsoever”.

In that context, several examples will be presented here. In many cases, civil movements or NGOs, by organizing communication campaigns and strategies of influence, first contribute to personal emancipation of the participants and develop actions towards the media, the public sphere and politicians. Civil movements and NGOs know that they should, at the same time, catch the attention of the public and of the governments with symbolic and credible arguments in order to convince and, in time, to bring about change.

One dimension should be taken into consideration: competitive intelligence. Competitive intelligence (CI), a strategy issued from business and now used by nation states as well as NGOs, could be regarded as the action of defining, gathering, analyzing, and distributing intelligence to support executives and managers in making decisions for their organization [3]. We consider public relations, web sites, online petitions, lobbying, and networking as the usual tools. Different forms include publishing news on web sites, creating video and audio investigations, spreading information about protests, and organizing communication campaigns based on credible arguments.

Cases presented here reflect three levels which makes the comparison both problematic and enriching. The Control Arms case is a global one, focusing on arms traffic and international relations, with ethics issues. Bloggers from the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) case operate at a regional level and deal with identity. The Prita Mulyara Sari case speaks about civil rights at a local level. At the same time, what is interesting to observe is whether each one uses the same kind of strategy or communication tools under the frame of the six requirements.


Amnesty international and the “Control Arms” campaign

Amnesty international and its headquarters in London is leading the Control Arms campaign. It’s a long-running project, around ten years old. “Control Arms is a global civil society alliance campaigning for a “bulletproof” Arms Trade Treaty that will protect lives and livelihoods. A ‘bulletproof’ Arms Trade Treaty means an international, legally binding agreement that will stop transfers of arms and ammunitions that fuel conflict, poverty and serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.”

The idea of an arms trade treaty first came from Nobel Peace Laureates, supported by civil society organizations worldwide. In 2003, the Control Arms Campaign was launched and has since gathered support for the Arms Trade Treaty from over a million people worldwide. In 2006, Control Arms handed over a global petition called the “Million Faces” to the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. In December of that year, 153 governments finally voted at the United Nations to start work on developing a global Arms Trade Treaty. Momentum for the treaty has been building ever since.

In 2009 the UN General Assembly launched a time frame for the negotiation of the Arms Trade Treaty. This included one preparatory meeting in 2010 and two in 2011, before the final negotiating conference scheduled for July 2012 [4]”. The purpose of this campaign is to convince the UN members, first, of the necessity to regulate arms trade, then to vote for an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

Lord of War

Besides political aspects, the situation is quite complex. First, to develop precise arguments, the NGO must investigate arms trade, illegal air flights or non-respected embargos by arms manufacturers. The members of the NGO do the research at exhibitions (Milipol in Paris), on some battlefields (Congo, Togo), or online by checking databases and the Web in order to collect data, flight plans, arms manufacturers, photos, all kinds of evidence which lead to writing fact-checked reports [5]. To see some of them, see the dedicated web site or the 2005 movie Lord of War, by Andrew Niccol.

These well-documented reports become arguments, synthetized by a lobbying and communication team.

Killer Facts

In order to convince politicians and public opinion, a two-branch strategy is used: lobbyists and a grassroots approach. Throughout the year, lobbyists working for Amnesty send press releases, reports and arguments to the UN delegates in New York. In addition, Control Arms members made a presentation to states and organized a number of well-attended side events. Then, once a year, during the general assembly, they have tried to convince the delegate at the ambassador’s level to develop or support a positive position for the ATT project. Such a strategy could perfectly well be designated as lobbying, often defined as “A group of persons who work or conduct a campaign to influence members of parliament to vote according to a group's special interest”. This could involve, for instance, a piece of legislation, the attribution of a license, or the awarding of contract.

Lobbying is devoted to modifying the law, with its complete dimension of politics and international relations. But this strategy is not enough for an NGO, nor, more generally, for actors who need to receive the support of the public sphere. Here, the communication strategy takes place. The complete set of tools is used to influence the public: press conferences, demonstrations in the streets that are able to catch the attention of television, Web sites, including online petitions, Twitter, Facebook pages, expert testimony or reports, support of stars (for example, in France, the football player Lillian Thuram).

Some special videos are also posted on YouTube. Here is for example a parody of an AK47 sale. [video]">

The purpose is clear: to mobilize the media, to gain positive acceptance in opinion, to collect donations, and in time, to convince the public sphere, in order to put pressure on politicians, civil servants and heads of governments engaged in the issue.

Such a combination of communication tools and competitive intelligence could be used in many cases, especially when administrations and governments are authoritarian.


The Prita Mulyara Sari case

In Southeast Asia, the political and social situation is different, one of the main reasons being, in our opinion, that the development of Internet connections, of freedom of expression and of bloggers’ ability to spread information and to debate with the civil society are recent. Within the 10 ASEAN member states [6], due to the difference of political regime, the modalities of freedom of expression are different between countries. For example, in Vietnam, one blogger was arrested by Vietnamese authorities in August 2011 on subversion charges because he was involved in anti-China protests and other activities. In Thailand, a Thai-born US citizen was charged with insulting the monarchy after he posted material deemed offensive, including a link to a banned book.

Indonesia, one of the most open countries in ASEAN for freedom of expression, presents the following two cases. The Prita Mulyara Sari case is famous. The following paragraph summarizes the debate presented by Wayansari (2011) [7]. This story is symptomatic of links between civil society and administration. Housewife Prita Mulyara Sari made a complaint in a letter about her dissatisfaction with the treatment for her fever in a hospital in Tangerang, northwest of Jakarta. The letter was spread to various groups on the web. The hospital management protested against the image revealed by the letter and reported Prita for defamation. The police put her in jail for 20 days. The Prita Mulyara Sari case is so significant in terms of civil rights problems that many media sources ran stories about it and triggered social activism about unfair treatment of citizens. A Facebook group was created and received more than 64,000 members.  This page, along with Twitter, has motivated several organizations such as the Indonesian Lawyers Association and Indonesian Legal Aid Institute to take actions condemning the police and asking them to release Prita. We have the usual interaction between Internet and media: actions of citizens, reports by media, NGOs taking the floor and implementing actions to modify the situation. These combinations contribute to enlarging the public sphere and to enhancing personal commitment, and reflect self-mobilization facilitated by ICT.


The new ASEAN bloggers

A recent and quite interesting case is the new ASEAN bloggers community, an initiative launched in November 2011. ASEAN is more a political project, focused since it’s beginning

in the 70s on market and trade, with few results in other fields for reasons that we will not develop here.

ASEAN faces a problem, also known within the European Union, which is the lack of shared identities between the citizens of the region. In other words, there is no common language (except English), no common religion or value, nor any kind of membership. Moreover, there are broad differences of GDP per capita: the highest is Singapore with 50,714 USD and the lowest is Myanmar with 804 USD [8].

In short, the ASEAN community has concrete and symbolic problems of identity. A target has been decided: the ASEAN Community 2015, which requires forming regional identity, and creating a policy decision, making a paradigm shift from a “state leads society” approach to a “society leads the state” approach. The purpose is to increase relevance in the lives of its communities. From that top-down context, a digital and bottom-up initiative has emerged.

In November 2011, Mr. Tifatul Sembiring, Indonesian minister of communication and information technology declared: “The ASEAN bloggers conference 2011 is expected to bring ASEAN closer to the community and to be a forum for brainstorming ideas about the implementation of the ASEAN Charter towards the establishment of ASEAN community 2015 [9].”

The ASEAN Bloggers Community (ABC) was initiated by bloggers from various cities of Indonesia. They want to be not only a forum but also a place of connection and communication between people. They took advantage of the chairmanship of Indonesia in 2011 and of the rapid development of social media to try to reach all ASEAN people at the grassroots level and to involve them in the process of the ASEAN community [11].  The Web site is structured with posts, tweets, and RSS (no Facebook page at the time of consultation, January 2012). We notice that some above-mentioned dimensions of lobbying and communication are missing, but it’s also too early for a reasonable evaluation or even to discern any results.   In conclusion, the Control Arms case is a complete one. Maybe because it deals with a complicated global issue, facing well organized arms manufacturers as opponents. Maybe also because it’s done by an NGO founded in 1970 in Britain who is aware of the CI methods. The Prita Mulyara case seems more spontaneous, reflecting many types of actions by informal groups of citizens. For two or three years, citizens have been ready to take their time to mobilize the web and catch the attention of media or of more organized NGOs. (The events in the Arab world in 2011 are actually analyzed like this: a spontaneous combination of actions, tool utilization and a dose of indignation). We claim that such common cases will stay at this level, because it’s more focused on civil rights facing inefficient governments. The ASEAN bloggers case deals with politics and identity. It may need such methods of competitive intelligence if it reaches some sensitive topics, such as development, corruption and political regime. If the community of bloggers organizes itself on such a basis, i.e. providing facts and data to balance governmental affirmations, they may contribute to modifying the position of the citizens and politicians. If they stay in the ASEAN way, i.e. consensus everywhere, their impact will be very low.  




Fuchs, Ch. (2008) Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age. New York: Routledge. Dahlberg, L. (2001). Computer-Mediated Communication and The Public Sphere: A Critical Analysis. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 7(1), available online: Orr, A. (2007). Political Participation and the Web 2.0. Paper presented at the Australasian Political Studies Association (APSA) Annual Conference 24th-26th September 2007, Monash University, Melbourne. Cardon, D. Fabien Granjon, (2010), Médiactivistes, presses de Sciences Po, Paris  

Sources :


[1] Arifon, O., LIU, C. Sautedé, E. (2009), Société civile et Internet en Chine et Asie orientale, Hermès n° 55, 450 pages.

[2] Habermas, Jürgen (1989), The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Thomas Burger, Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press, p. 36.

[3] For more information:

[4] Source:

[5] A French documentary on that operation was broacast on Arte, the French-German TV channel, on March 2010.

[6] Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Viet Nam.

[7] Wayansari, Agustina, The Internet and the Public Sphere in Indonesia’s New Democracy:

[8] Source:, retrieved 19 January, 2012

[9] Source:, retrieved 20 January 2012 [10], for the statement, retrieved on the 25 January 2012