PanaJournal – The case of the regional elections (Pilkada) bill has brought the Democratic Party and its chairman President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono into the spotlight. On Sept. 25, 130 members of the party walked out of the plenary session before voting began on the bill.

AS A RESULT, only 135 lawmakers agreed on direct elections for regional heads, while 226 others wanted all regional heads to be chosen by local legislative councils. At 2 a.m. the next day, the House of Representatives passed the now controversial law on regional elections.

Although later the Democrats’ Sutan Bhatoegana claimed that the President’s instruction was originally “all out” instead of “walk out”, the people already felt cheated.

Earlier, Yudhoyono publicly broadcast his support for direct elections through his party’s YouTube account, “Suara Demokrat”. Hashtags like #shameonyouSBY, #shamedbyyou, and #SukaBohongYa (you like to lie eh?) enliven the Twittersphere. On Sept. 29, the latest hashtag #shamedbyyouagainSBY had been tweeted 40,025 times by 6:40 a.m.

Are those hashtags forms of digital activism, or merely representations of middle-class fussiness? For the recently resigned Communications and Information minister Tifatul Sembiring, the second possibility is more plausible.

Tifatul even accused the majority of Twitter users of being teenagers; which means their voices are irrelevant and unimportant. Tifatul also thought of the possibility of the government banning Twitter, just as the governments of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt did.

Funnily enough, he voiced this thought through his own Twitter account, @tifsembiring.

From this case we learn that the separation of the real world from the virtual world is no longer relevant. If the Internet is not seen as a valid form of another reality, the elites of the Democrats would not need to respond to any news emerging from cyberspace.

If the President is not afraid that his image — which he has taken very good care of for the past 10 years — could be destroyed simply because of Twitter hashtags, he would not bother to clarify. And if indeed Tifatul believes Twitter users only comprise teenagers, why should he think of banning it?

There is something bigger than middle-class fussiness in the case of the Pilkada law and hashtags that attacked Yudhoyono’s image. Currently, Indonesia has surpassed the era where people sit back and watch the elites fight for power. People want to do something, even if it is just to write a 140-character status or to push the “like” button on someone’s Facebook page.

The scholar W. Russell Neuman writes that the public’s affective intelligence in political communication is affected by both anger as trigger and fear as repressor. Anger increases when people realize they have been treated unfairly by the ruling elite.

They want to do something about it, but are afraid of what might happen to them as a consequence of their actions. This condition causes anxiety. One way to cope with that is to gather, share, strengthen and inspire each other to fight together. And this is where social media plays its biggest role.

What happens now is this: people are angry because the ruling elite took away their democratic rights and are fed up because they feel cheated constantly by the President.

They meet and share thoughts with each other on social media. People start to realize that they are not alone. Many are angry, disgusted and ashamed of the government. And this encourages taking action.

On Sept. 28, people gathered to collect photocopies of their IDs on Sunday morning’s Car Free Day session at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle in Central Jakarta. It was part of a social movement called “Indonesian people challenge [regional] election law”. In the book Networks of Outrage and Hope (2012), Manuel Castells mentions some characteristics of social movements.

Although mostly beginning on the Internet, a movement becomes social when people start to occupy urban space, whether it is a public area or street demonstrations. It is precisely that hybrid between cyberspace and urban space that Castells called “the space of autonomy”.

So, it is not appropriate to regard the hashtags phenomenon as mere political euphoria, in the same way that we should not define “digital activism” as being extremely talkative on social media.

Social movements have to occupy both channels, especially considering that during President Yudhoyono’s second term, our Gini Coefficient (a measure of a country’s level of inequality, O meaning perfect equality and 1 meaning perfect inequality) has increased to 0.41 in 2011 from 0.3 in the Soeharto era. There are people without Internet access, and the middle class should be able to embrace them.

Finally, whether digital activism eventually becomes nothing more than a bunch of tweets and Facebook statuses, or even a form of social change, will depend on two things. First, the extent to which people realize their potential power and are willing to fight for it, and second, the extent to which the government will listen to, and humbly engage, the voice of its people. ***

As published in The Jakarta Post, October 2, 2014.


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