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Tweeting about politics

Indonesian politicians want to raise their public profile but don’t want the criticism

Wayne Palmer

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An image circulated on Twitter in support of the Jokowi-Ahok duo
Anton Kurniawan

As the first round of the Jakarta gubernatorial elections in July showed, the Twittersphere can sometimes provide a better sense for who is going to win than the nation’s leading pollsters. Prior to polling day, micro bloggers talked about Joko Widodo and Ahok Basuki as frequently as they tweeted about the incumbent Fauzi Bowo and his running mate Nachrowi Ramli. But a sentiment index showed that the Jokowi-Ahok duo came up in conversations that used more positive language than their competitors. In fact, the difference in sentiment was so stark that a politicawave.com observer declared that it was obvious who was going to win well before the election even took place. The quick count only confirmed that prediction.

Using social media to gauge public opinion is certainly the beginning of something quite new in Indonesia. Politicians themselves have been quick to recognise its capacity to spread information and shape public opinion. Some have taken the bull by the horns. Others have steered clear, partly because they are yet to learn how it works, but also because a misplaced word here or there can come back to haunt them. The ease with which the public can openly express their opinions via social media complicates matters for Indonesia’s political elite, many of whom, among other things, have a reputation for the way in which they handle public complaints – ranging from defensiveness to outright petulance. Nonetheless, with all its opportunities and traps, social media has reshaped the playing field in Indonesian political life for those with their sights set on power.

Twitter savvy politicians

Indonesia’s politicians have employed social media, and Twitter in particular, for a wider range of purposes than to simply net more votes. Savvy politicians encourage public servants to use Twitter to disseminate information about government programs but avoid interacting with it themselves. The Minister for Education, Mohammad Nuh, requires the notoriously corrupt Directorate-General for Higher Education to tweet information about foreign-funded scholarships for study overseas. This directive was made to stop those with connections inside the Ministry hearing about opportunities too far in advance or cutting out the competition by not passing on the information to the public at all. The state-owned enterprise that produces electricity – affectionately referred to as the government’s candle company – is also a fan of Twitter, which uses it to warn followers of power outages due to damaged infrastructure. Some of the public utility’s most popular tweets were promises to guarantee a stable flow of electricity in Bali, Java and Aceh during the 2010 World Cup in recognition of the fact that (they and other) Indonesians love their football.

Head of the National Agency for the Placement and Protection of Overseas Indonesian Workers, Mohammad Jumhur Hidayat, also uses Twitter to keep the public informed about his daily activities. More often than not he posts an update about visiting this or that office. But between 2008 and 2010 he tweeted criticisms of the Minister for Manpower, Erman Suparno, for taking away his authority. Hidayat’s messages were read by followers who then re-tweeted them to their subscribers. Twitter complemented Hidayat’s other networks, such as the team of reporters who worked hard to build up his credentials and expose the Ministry’s grim track record on migrant workers. Suparno may have won the battle for control, but, in the eyes of the public, he certainly lost the war for legitimacy in the contest between the two agencies.

Twitter’s victims

Politicians loved the good old days when it was only word-of-mouth and the odd news report that spread details about their misdemeanours have a lot to adjust to. These days, anyone in the right place with a mobile phone and a data connection can be a reporter. And the fact that Twitter and other social media allow users to embed images, voice and video recordings into their micro blogs helps to broadcast the misbehaving politicians’ faux pas far and wide.

It was just another day in the office for the Welfare Minister, Salim Segaf Aljufrie, in 2010 when he ploughed along the dedicated laneway of the TransJakarta Busway between Mampang Prapatan and Buncit Indah en route to the Presidential Palace for a meeting. But, that morning, an annoyed commuter sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic snapped a shot of his car. Only a week had passed since the police announced that only fire engines and other emergency vehicles could enter the bus lane. The commuter tweeted the image to her followers with a tongue-in-cheek message praising the Minister for the fantastic example he was setting for Jakarta’s millions. The post did the rounds of the micro blogging network and within hours Indonesia’s online media had picked the story up. The National Police resisted pressure to investigate, at first claiming that an officer had to witness the infringement. But the very next day a fine was delivered to the Minister’s office and his chauffeur was told to be in court the following day. It was a symbolic act, but one that showed how Twitter could be used to force the government’s hand.

Social media has also put officials who waste public money under the spotlight. Early in 2012 the Indonesian Students Association tailed lawmakers on a shopping spree in Berlin with their families, buying up goods in elite fashion stores. The pictures the students shared through Facebook and Twitter gained traction in Indonesia almost immediately. In places like Jakarta, viewers expressed their disgust at yet more evidence that the people’s so-called representatives used state business overseas as a junket and an opportunity to have an all-expenses paid holiday for the family.

Lawmakers on another such study trip in 2011 to Melbourne were supposed to be studying poverty and welfare. When the Indonesian Students Association asked why Australia was chosen over more comparable countries for the study, the spokesperson avoided providing an answer by promising to continue the conversation after returning to Jakarta. But when asked for an email address, not one of the lawmakers could provide one. A staffer eventually chimed in with a yahoo address, which someone tested and found to be either defunct or fake. The panic and flurry of activity as the lawmakers attempted to salvage the situation by offering their personal contact details was recorded, uploaded to YouTube and broadcast through social media. Indonesian Facebook and Twitter users sighed collectively in disappointment, with one user sarcastically adopting a Ministry of Finance slogan designed to shame the public into paying income tax: ‘In this day and age? What will the world say?’

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The Transjakarta Busway lane that the Welfare Minister was photographed driving in illegally
Anton Kurniawan

In other cases, politicians who use social media become victims of their own actions. Information and Technology Minister, Titaful Sembiring, was one of the first to seize the opportunity Twitter offered to raise his public profile. After the normal wheeling and dealing for appointments were over, this foresight scored him the techiest portfolio in the President’s cabinet. But he progressively sullied his reputation as Indonesia’s social media sweetheart with policy directions that alienated millions, blocking up to one million websites that he thought contained pornographic content, including Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute’s website about research on sexual health. In another controversy, Titaful tweeted that the American First Lady, Michelle Obama, forced him to shake her hand during President Obama’s first state visit to Indonesia. No one was truly surprised because the Minister has the PKS (the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party) and its voters to thank for his career. But most Indonesians who could see no problem with such a ceremonial duty harnessed the tweet to have their say, leaving Titaful reeling at how Indonesian Twitter users transformed a simple tweet into public criticisms against him.

Social media in mainstream politics

Since the rise of Twitter, political leaders in Indonesia have watched social media besiege public figures over and over again. Major parties like Golkar have announced plans to integrate the technology into future campaign strategies. The President’s own Democratic Party admits that they and their candidates must verse themselves in the language and ways of social media if they want victory. Looking back on their electoral defeat in July, Democratic Party strategists now understand the formidable role Twitter played in organising public opinion against incumbent governor Bowo and his running mate. The experience has left a bad taste in their mouth, with Ramli going as far as to describe Twitter as a battlefield in the war of information. It is here that they planned to invest resources in the lead up to the final round of elections in September. They certainly tried, but public opinion proved hard to shift and the duo was decisively defeated by their more social media savvy opponents.

Social media has made an indelible print on Indonesian political life. Yet the technology remains out of reach for the majority. It is hard to imagine the urban poor in a provincial capital like Pontianak having the resources to have their say on Facebook or Twitter. It is even harder to imagine social media picking up the opinions of people living in areas of West Papua that have no electricity or roads. This harsh reality certainly blunts any claim that observers may make about the degree to which political conversations online represent popular sentiment in Indonesia.

Having said that, though, social media does at least give an indication of what better-off Indonesians think about the current state of affairs. And, though politicians may not be happy about it, the ‘likes’ and tweets of the Indonesian middle class are increasingly having an effect.

Wayne Palmer (wayne.palmer@sydney.edu.au) is a Postgraduate Teaching Fellow in the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney.


Inside Indonesia 110: Oct-Dec 2012