‘Social media capital’ brews with hatred between us and them

In Indonesia, ranting online holds the risk of offending thousands of people and even jail time. EPA/Adi Weda

“Unity in diversity” is how Indonesia likes to describe its multicultural country. But cyber-bullying cases in Indonesia’s active social media project a different view of how Indonesia’s diverse groups really get along.

In Indonesia, going online to criticise someone or something outside of one own’s social group holds the risk of offending thousands of people. In the case of a Batak woman who called the Javanese city Yogyakarta “poor”, “stupid” and “uncultured”, it landed her in jail and got her suspended from her graduate studies.

Indonesia has been dubbed the “social media capital of the world”. Internet penetration is only 23% of the 240 million population. But nearly all of Indonesia’s internet users log on to social media.

Half of them use smartphones to do so. Jakarta tweets more than any other city in the world. Indonesia is also Facebook’s fourth-most-active country and Path’s third.

In multicultural Indonesia, the internet is becoming a new public space where conflicts between “us” and “them” manifest.

Watch your tweets

Florence Sihombing, a graduate student at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, faced the wrath of thousands of social media users after venting her anger at the city in her Twitter-linked Path account. The woman, who hails from North Sumatra city Medan, was upset when petrol station staff did not let her buy non-subsidised petrol for her motorcycle in the car queue. She wanted to avoid a long queue of motorcyclists who mostly buy cheaper subsidised fuel.

The hatred and anger that Yogyakartans directed towards her went beyond the screens of people’s gadgets. People rallied demanding she be banished from the province. The police arrested her on defamation charges under the controversial Electronic Information and Transactions (ITE) law.

The woman is no longer detained but her case is ongoing. She can face up to six years in prison and a A$94,000 fine. She is also suspended from her graduate studies at Gadjah Mada University.

Florence publicly apologised and the Sultan of Yogya, Hamengkubuwono XII, later encouraged Yogyakartans to forgive her. But the damage has been done.

In Bandung, the capital of West Java and home to the Sundanese ethnic group, a similar case occurred. The mayor of Bandung has reported a Twitter account holder who posted insulting tweets about the city.

Multiculturalism in the age of social media

This is Indonesia’s problem of multiculturalism. With more than 300 ethnic groups speaking 700 different languages, Indonesia has a fragmented society.

In the 32 years of Suharto’s dictatorship (1966-1998), public expressions of ethnic or religious sentiments were heavily censored. Suharto regulated expressions of differences to keep social and political stability, the bedrock of his regime. The state was the only apparatus to control representation of ethnic or religious identity in public spaces.

In post-Suharto Indonesia, the state has become weaker. Groups are now expressing their identity and ideology in many spheres of activity. Ironically, social groups now replicate the Suharto New Order’s way in punishing “the other” when it comes to differences of identity expression.

Each group feels they have the authority to represent icons and cultural symbols. At the same time they have the desire to control differences of representation of their cultural identity. People become weary when “outsiders” start to criticise their own ethnic or social class and even their sense of belonging to the city.

Through Indonesia’s love affair with social media, these claims for authenticity and exclusion of other’s opinions are being brought into Twitter, Facebook and Path.

When people use social media to criticise others not from their own social group Indonesians tend to involve the state apparatus to punish them. Flickr/世書 名付, CC BY

This us-and-them attitude is the very foundation of social tension and unrest. It is the precondition of social conflicts and fascist attitudes that create hostility to the “other”. Several studies reveal that cases of religious conflict such as Ambon in 1999 and violent attacks on the Ahmadiyah minority group in the last six years first escalated through rumours which amplified the rigid act of social exclusion.

Indonesia’s media regime has become dystopian with social groups condemning people through social media and involving the state apparatus to punish people with offending views.

Creating moral order

Cyber-bullying on social media is often the result of society’s desire to create moral order online. Shaming other people for their mistakes or identifying what is morally wrong and right is a new trend of social media usage in Indonesia.

Ethnic and religious sentiments usually become major factors that drive people from different cultural or religious backgrounds in Indonesia to criticise others’ behaviours through their postings on social media. But not always.

Another case of cyber-bullying involved Dinda, a female worker who commutes between Depok on Jakarta’s outskirts and the capital. She complained on Path about pregnant women in trains who would always get a seat wherever they board. In just a matter of hours, her post went viral and she faced a chorus of condemnation.

Indonesia’s case reveals a different picture of social media usage in discussing public issues compared to the United States. A recent study by Pew Research Centre reveals that social media silences public debate. The study found Americans tend to not voice their opinions in social media, especially when they feel that their opinion is different from popular or widely shared ideas.

This is not the case in Indonesia where ideas and opinions are widely contested and often arouse social tensions, such as in the last presidential election campaign’s heated debates on Facebook and Twitter. Indonesia’s social media users are more likely to voice their opinions and contest their ideas.

Social media is the new public sphere

The social media, which was previously designated for friendship networks, is becoming the new public sphere. With screen-grabs and linked social media, private information can very easily become public. Online news portals and their integration with social media platforms are escalating the level of virality of controversial personal postings.

Indonesians believe that they live in a democratic public sphere. Social media has indeed provided a new medium of political participation. Too bad it has also become a space for crystallising hatred and anger towards others.