Tweeting About Politics

BY WAYNE PALMER
Oct 09, 2012

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

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?’

1267 The Transjakarta Busway lane that the Welfare Minister was photographed driving in illegally. PHOTO: 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 is a Postgraduate Teaching Fellow in the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney.

Source: Inside Indonesia