A small fraction of the coins raised by a Facebook campaign for Prita Mulyasari. (JG Photo)
This was the year that online got in your face.
These days, even as a news event is happening, it seems that a Facebook page opens up to gather supporters for one side or the other. And news of an earthquake or a terror attack? Look to Twitter for the fastest update.
The government, crooked cops or overzealous prosecutors may have little to fear from massive street demonstrations, but the legions of people who have made Facebook the No. 1 Web site in Indonesia are something else entirely. And these days the powerful ignore the world of social media at their peril. In the past, a big corporation may have been able to railroad a cowed consumer into dropping an uphill battle, but not anymore. A slight misunderstanding between two countries in the past might have resulted in token rallies outside an embassy or a flurry of diplomatic activity. Now, Internet users heap scorn on, for example, Malaysia, allowing Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry to calculate public sentiment almost instantly.
Of course, it is nothing new that technology is morphing and transforming before our eyes. What was new in 2009 in Indonesia were the political manifestations of social media into areas of traditional activism. Netbooks, BlackBerrys, iPhones and other gadgets are not just status symbols and business tools, they are the new town hall.
There are obviously legions of people sitting at their computers who would never think of joining a street protest but who nonetheless have found a convenient and seemingly effective way of making their voices heard in a democracy. Those of us in the information business have obviously had to react to this new and constantly evolving world as quickly as we can. A few of the people at the Jakarta Globe grew up in an age when typewriters could still be heard clanking away in a newsroom. For traditional print journalists, it was a leap to go to a computer, the Internet and a Web site.
Now, mere online news portals or blogs — those are so two years ago — are starting to seem kind of quaint in the face of Twitter, where tens of millions of people write their own ongoing 140 character “news” stories constantly. We are doing our best to keep up, and we are proud of the fact that our Jakarta Globe Facebook page has more than 90,000 “fans” and counting; 11,000 people “follow” us on Twitter, a site that few had even heard of a year ago.
In two elections, in April for the House of Representatives and in July for the presidency, many candidates also treated a Facebook page as another place to hold a rally. Added to traditional campaign swings and mass gatherings (with paid-for crowds), garnering sympathy online is relatively easy and effective. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also has nearly 500,000 supporters on Facebook, many of whom are not shy about sharing their criticism of the job he is doing.
The PT Bank Century bailout scandal has also generated Facebook heat, with the “Movement for Clean Government-Solve the Bank Century Scandal” group gaining tens of thousands of followers. Groups like “We Believe in Sri Mulyani’s Integrity” battle it out over what her supporters say is a conspiracy to bring down the popular finance minister.
Does all this sound and fury worry us? Sometimes, although we applaud the spirit of civic activism and participation that the technology is enabling. When information is shared so widely and rapidly, however, misinformation moves just as fast. Information shared on a micro-blog site like Twitter can be liberating and informative; it can also be sensational and just plain wrong. That’s the dark side of this new news culture.
However, creative minds and mature personalities also can do wonders with this kind of media. The past year has seen social networking used to send some powerful messages. Does anyone doubt that Indonesians are fed up with corruption, terrorism or injustice? The facts are there for all to see in the hundreds of thousands of people speaking their minds on Facebook and elsewhere.
Three events that symbolized the rise of social media politics in Indonesia:
Within seconds of the twin bombs exploding at Jakarta’s posh JW Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton hotels on the morning of July 17, Twitter and Facebook were lighting up with information, pictures, reactions, condemnations and condolences.
The mood of anger and disgust over an act of terror that claimed nine lives, injured more than 50 people and damaged the country’s reputation was soon channeled into an online movement to maintain unity and pride in the country under the banner of Indonesia Unite. A Twitter buddy, @aulia, first coined the phrase and #indonesiaunite soon became the most popular tag in Twitter-world. Users were asked to click on the phrase to show their support and to overlay their avatars on Twitter with the red and white colors of the Indonesian flag. The #indonesiaunite page on Facebook garnered hundreds of thousands of fans within a few days.
On YouTube, local rap musician and social network user Pandji Pragiwaksono also released a music video called “Kami Tidak Takut” (“We Are Not Afraid”), which was widely circulated.
After the terrorist bombings, with business back to normal, Indonesia Unite remains an active Facebook group spawning all manner of commentary on the country from ethnic cuisines to social causes, cultural heritage and holiday destinations.
Support Prita Mulyasari
With housewife Prita Mulyasari finally acquitted of criminal defamation charges for the e-mail she sent to friends criticizing the service she received at Omni Hospital, it almost seems as if she has been in the news forever. But the 32-year old mother of two rose to such prominence largely because of Facebook.
Working mother Ika Ardina angrily reacted to idea that a housewife could be jailed for sending an e-mail by creating a Prita cause page on Facebook. The page, “Support Prita Mulyasari, a mother who is in jail for writing an e-mail complaint” drew hundreds of thousands of fans and led to a number of other similar support-Prita groups and pages.
The outpouring also caught the attention of politicians, including Yudhoyono and the first lady. Eventually the president urged the Tangerang Court and law enforcers to expedite the legal process and the pressure helped get Prita released from detention.
Losing an appeal of the civil court judgment, Prita was ordered to pay Rp 204 million in damages to Omni. That decision sparked more Facebook outrage and a Help Prita Movement.
The idea was to collect coins to pay the fine. Thousands of people, from school children to street musicians and tycoons pitched in and the movement collected more than Rp 650 million in coins, three times bigger than the needed amount. Former Trade Minister Fahmi Idris also donated Rp 102 million for Prita, while the Democratic Party handed over Rp 100 million. The Regional Representatives Council (DPD) gave Prita Rp 50 million and called for a boycott of Omni.
The movement was followed by a charity concert where more than 30 Indonesian musicians, including famous bands such as Slank, Padi and Nidji, donated their voices to the cause. The concert raised more than Rp 50 million.
Omni eventually dropped its civil suit against Prita but the criminal court case went forward. Prita also filed a civil countersuit against Omni for Rp 1.3 trillion. The money raised to pay her fine is to be used for social causes.
Gerakan 1.000.000 Facebookers Dukung Chandra Hamzah & Bibit Samad Riyanto (Movement of 1,000,000 Facebookers Supporting Chandra Hamzah & Bibit Samad Rianto) was launched after the two Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) deputy chairmen were arrested in late October on suspicion of abuse of power. The lesson for the National Police, which brought the charges against the two, was to be careful in messing with the KPK. The page easily passed its target and has given birth to a spate of imitators.
The face-off between the police and the KPK over Chandra and Bibit became the most gripping event in the nation in the weeks following their arrest, forcing Yudhoyono to step into the fray and “suggest” that the police and the Attorney General’s Office drop the case, which they did.
Fans of the antigraft officials left messages of support on the page and called on the government to take action. They heaped scorn on prosecutors and turned Susno into a whipping boy for allegedly conspiring to undermine the commission.
Bibit and Chandra were released on bail after a dramatic court hearing in early November, during which hours of wiretapped phone conversations appeared to indicate that members of the National Police and AGO conspiring with the brother of a graft suspect to frame the KPK officials. The president has since vowed to devote his first 100 days in office to eradicating Indonesia’s so-called “judicial mafia.”
Bibit and Chandra are back in their old jobs. Susno has lost his post as chief detective.
Score another victory for Facebook.