Social media and digital platforms played a massive role in Indonesia’s historic presidential election earlier this month. With the official result still out, I talked to Asian Internet scholar Merlyna Lim about how Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and innovative open-sourced platforms for crowdsourcing election monitoring and the vote count made this election unique.

A few highlights of our conversation:

Of 255 million citizens in Indonesia (which makes it the world’s third largest democracy) there are over 77 million citizens online — and 50 million of those are eligible to vote. There’s a very active social media landscape in Indonesia, and the social media activism community there is particularly vibrant.

Indonesia has one of the largest social media populations in the world. Globally, it’s number four in terms of Facebook users, and number five on Twitter. Jakarta is said to be the busiest Twitter city in the world. Indonesian’s are among the social media users with the most friends. For people there, having more than 1,000 friends on Facebook is not uncommon.

“While social media has played a much larger role in Indonesia’s election than ever before, there are still more people there without Internet access than there are with it.”

Calling the recent vote a “social media election” is not entirely accurate, Lim says. While social media has played a much larger role in it than ever before, there are still more people in Indonesia without Internet access than there are with it. And the majority of voters are still not online. But it’s true that social media was important in this election, mainly because of the lack of official information regarding the candidates and the election. Media in Indonesia is dominated by TV, whose coverage relies on the same official sources. Social media there plays a different role, which is in the realm of unofficial information – gossip and rumours – which ironically influenced the election far more than official information, because it influenced the voters more. And the network of people influenced by that information is far larger than merely those using social media.

Both candidates also used social media a great deal, but in different ways. Former general Prabowo Subianto’s use was very slick, consistent, systematic, and carefully controlled in terms of messaging and time. In stark contrast, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s use was all over the map – he had many different accounts, often using volunteers. The result was very colorful and rich but also very messy, without a coherent message. Both candidates fully understood the significance of social media and used it to build and maintain their images. But in addition to mythmaking and image building, Probowo’s campaign used social media to try to craft a negative image for Jokowi.

“Open data activists belonging to open source movements in Indonesia have been trying to push the government in this direction for the past ten years.”

Supporters of both candidates developed numerous innovative mobile apps such as games. But for Lim, the most innovative one was iWitness, a participatory election monitoring app created mainly by Jokowi’s campaign.

This is the first time a vote in Indonesia has been subjected to this level of transparency. In part, that’s because the governmental election commission published the raw results online. But only in part. “The is the result of long activism by the open data movement in Indonesia,” Lim says. “Most people have credited the government  for this, but that’s not actually correct. Because open data activists belonging to open source movements have been trying to push the government in this direction for the past ten years.”

Follow Merlyna Lim on Indonesia and Asian Internet culture on Twitter at @merlyna.

Patrick Sharbaugh (@psharbaugh)