Netizens’ responses to the banning of a popular slang word raise questions about the moral character of public communication
Indonesia’s National Committee of Child Protection (KPA) recently released a formal statement banning the word anjay in social media conversations . Anjay is a colloquial version of anjing (dog). This word is frequently used in casual conversation – online as well as offline – to express emotions. In normal usage, it is a form of swearing, but it is also widely used to express feelings like awe, surprise, happiness, shock, and disappointment. The popular use of anjay is not a new thing in casual Indonesian communication.
In late August of 2020, an Indonesian YouTuber named Lutfi Agizal made a video expressing concern about the term. He claimed that the word is a form of verbal violence, and pointed out that even young children were using it. According to him, the increasing use of the word by children ‘threatened to degrade the morals of the younger generation’.
Lutfi’s video went viral and was widely discussed on social media. The KPA responded by releasing a statement purporting to ban the word. The Chairperson of KPA, Arist Merdeka Sirait explained that if the term was used to express praise or admiration, then there was no issue. However, if used to insult or harm the feelings of another, use of the word could be considered an act of violence or bullying. Its use would be a crime, and anyone using the word to verbally attack another should be prosecuted under the provisions of Law No. 35/2014 on Child Protection.
The KPA statement received strong reactions from Indonesian netizens. They rejected the idea that the use of particular words should be restricted in online conversations. In conveying their responses, Indonesian netizens created memes to mock the banning, the KPA and Lutfi.
One meme, for example, used a scene from the Spongebob Squarepants cartoon. In the scene, Spongebob attempts to destroy a clock, while the character Squidward Tentacles looks upon a cupboard full of similar clocks. He is not concerned about Spongebob's effort to destroy a single clock because he has an abundance of clocks. The message from the creator of this meme is: the KPA may ban one word, but this won't stop netizens expressing themselves using other terms.
Another person posted a YouTube video of someone saying the word anjay for two hours. Others Twitter users sarcastically recommended words and phrases that they felt ought to be banned instead of anjay. The general tone of the response from Indonesian internet users was that the banning was unnecessary, and that prosecution over the use of a particular word in social interaction was excessive. The original complainant, Lufti, was labelled as a ‘party-pooper’ and ‘attention-seeker’.
Lutfi’s idea that a slang word poses a threat to the nation’s morals was generally rejected by the Indonesian internet community. Nevertheless, this case is useful for exploring the tenor of online discussion in the country. It captures public disagreement about what constitutes appropriate communication, and also reveals the belief of many Indonesians that the Indonesian public sphere ought to have distinctive characteristics of a moral kind.
Public sensitivity over jokes
Disputes about social media behaviour are not new in Indonesia. During the presidential election of 2019, a number of memes circulated on Twitter mocking the election candidates. Ma'ruf Amin, Jokowi’s running mate and former Chairman of Indonesian Muslim Scholars’ Council (MUI), was targeted. Memes were created that made humourous reference to his quality as an election candidate.
In one meme appearing on Facebook, a user captured a picture of Ma’ruf Amin while participating in an election debate and put a computer error notification over the picture. This error notification – ‘Application.exe has stopped working’ – conventionally informs a PC user about interruptions affecting the Microsoft Windows computer operating system, such as those caused by corruption of a file, improper or incomplete installation processes, or compatibility issues.
The meme’s creator intended to illustrate Ma'ruf Amin 's underperformance in the first of the 2019 presidential election debates. During the debate, Ma'ruf Amin hardly said a word. He did not present a speech, nor did he respond to rival candidates. The meme represents Ma'ruf Amin's performance in the debate as a computer glitch.
Another meme was created in response to the third of the 2019 election debates between the vice-presidential candidates. A Twitter user mischievously compared the physical appearances of Ma'ruf and his rival Sandiaga Uno with the characters of the Spongebob Squarepants cartoon.
Some users laughed at the memes, but some others expressed their disagreement, considering the jokes about Ma'ruf Amin to be inappropriate. One reply below the Spongebob meme reads: Hey, elderly people should not be made fun of.
Memes are a platform for expression in which humour, sarcasm and mockery are central. In Indonesia, however, memes thrive in a culture where religious and spiritual values are prominent in communication. For many, these provide parameters that ought to constrain participation in the public sphere. When responders challenge the propriety of memes about Ma’ruf Amin, for example, they illustrate how those values are also employed to judge the appropriateness of social media expressions.
Indonesian cultures place high importance on showing courtesy and respect to elderly people, scholars, and religious leaders. Ma’ruf Amin is one of the most influential Muslim figures in the country, so it was inevitable that memes about him would be deemed by some to be inappropriate and disrespectful. Likewise, the word anjay is not automatically considered offensive, yet internet media reaches a wide audience that includes many children. For some Indonesians, this is equated with threats to the younger generation’s moral condition.
Jokes democratise culture
As crude and ill-mannered as they often can be, jokes on social media should not be lightly dismissed. The element of humour in memes enables them to serve as a platform for public discussion of otherwise difficult topics. With little or no narrative context, memes can connect people and involve them in light, humorous conversation about shared concerns.
During the 2019 election debates, for example, people went to Twitter to keep up with the latest memes and to learn what happened during the debate, without having to watch the broadcast. Whilst it did not amount to deliberation of important issues, through the constitutive power of the humour in the memes - their clever phrases and punchlines - they helped audiences generate some level of engagement with the debate.
Social media enable everyone to create media content using whatever style of speech they prefer. In this way, memes and other forms of internet jokes provide a lingua franca of a democratic culture.
This feature of online media use is starting to draw support from Indonesian observers, setting up a counter perspective to the overtly moral framing of public communication. Activist Alissa Wahid sees jokes as an effective means of resistance, while media researcher Dedy Afrianto perceives humour as the fuel for democracy. According to him, humour is a form of freedom of expression and criticism, thus a challenge to humour can also mean a challenge to democracy.
Internet humour often foregrounds a tension between freedom of expression and behavioural appropriateness, like the examples we encounter here. However, banning forms of online expression on the grounds of safeguarding the morals of the nation does little to resolve the tension, since technologies do not occur, develop, and operate in a vacuum. There are perpetual interactions between technologies and the existing social, political, and cultural structures, and the potential benefits of the media created out of these interactions ought not be overlooked.
Pratiwi Utami (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD Candidate at the School of Media, Film and Journalism, Faculty of Arts, Monash University.