This article is part of Transposing Emblem: Instability Exhibition held in The Deep End, 1080 Wyckoff Avenue, Queens, NY
In mid-2016 a riot in the North Sumatra province of Indonesia saw several Buddhist temples set on fire. The riot was provoked by a hoax disseminated through social media. Someone began spreading lies that a Buddhist immigrant complained about and insulted the adzan (Muslims’ call to prayers). It infuriated people and led a few to burn several temples in the neighborhood. Ironically, a police investigation showed that the guy who started the rumor didn’t even live there: he was from Jakarta.
With 259.1 million population, Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world after the US, China and India. A country with more than 546 languages, 1300 ethnic groups and 6 officially acknowledged religions is bound to experience instabilitas toleransi (instability in tolerance) between different groups. These days tolerance can be destabilized even for the tiniest of reasons and is easily fueled by unethical social media usage.
Social media allows us to get news about things happening in other parts of the world in (almost) real time. Attacks at the Bataclan concert venue in Paris, outside the Istanbul soccer stadium or Christmas market near Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, were discussed by Indonesian social media users not long after the incidents. Information travels easily, turning the world into one big global village.
Yet social media is not only about technology and communication. It also portrays behavior, the embodiment of humans’ desire to socialize and share experience. Studies show that we tend to choose content suitable to our liking and surround ourselves with those of the same mind. Instead of looking for a new opinion or point of view, understandably, we tend to look for support online (Pew Internet’s 2014 study: “Mapping Twitter Topic Networks from Polarized Crowds to Community Clusters”). This, coupled with users’ immaturity and anonymity behind the screen, has been creating instabilitas toleransi between diverse groups in Indonesia, especially in big cities.
The ease of social media access is also (intentionally) used by groups with a certain agenda. Based on Techinasia’s report published on January 2016, Indonesia has 88.1 million active internet users and 79 million active social media users. In Indonesia, we can easily find videos promoting calls to join ISIS. Personal blogs or community websites publishing articles provoking intolerance are also easy to find. This will make intolerant people feel like they are being supported and given a platform to do as they wish.
Another interesting example of instabilitas toleransi started by/on social media in Indonesia can be found in Jakarta’s gubernatorial election in February 2017. Just like young people in general, Indonesian youngsters basically don’t care about politics. But this election campaign for governor brought about a change in this phenomenon. The race between three candidates never felt so personal. Social media enables supporters of each candidate to unite openly and ‘fight’ against their rivals. The phenomenon of social media may be something virtual, but whatever is written on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram can feel real, especially when it comes to things we don’t necessarily agree with. People have opinions, they throw in their arguments. When arguing, supporting facts are assumed, and both supporters and opponents often don’t bother to check the validity of the presented facts and numbers. Somehow a lot of people (choose to) believe that if you can find it on the internet, then it is legitimate.
There are also people who are very creative with their memes or photoshopped pictures, meant satirically, but used by people with a hidden agenda or poorly understood by those who don’t get the satirical meaning behind the memes or pictures. The anonymity of being unseen behind the screen makes it easy to say whatever comes to mind, without regarding ethics or other people’s feelings. Rules and ethics in real life are often easily ignored on social media and may even result in violations of the law.
Multicultural Indonesia is a source of great power, but it can easily turn into a weakness when not approached properly. Apparently the sentiment of us against them is still very easy to sell. Especially when it comes to religion. And then there is majority against minority. Indonesia is not an Islamic state, yet Islamic principles often influence political decision-making. If you live in Indonesia, you’ll see for yourself that some extreme Muslim groups have been able to influence political decisions by (barking) violence. A recent example of this absurdity is the candidate for governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, being put on trial for blasphemy.1 And how do these groups gain followers? Don’t let their somewhat naive appearance fool you, their social media usage is just as advanced as yours and mine.
A lot of Indonesians will say that they grew up in (what they believe was) a very tolerant Indonesia. The way things are going these days makes many people feel uneasy. The instabilitas toleransi driven by (among others) unethical use of social media has become real. Also due to the nature of social media, information travels fast, which means that uneasiness also travels fast. The hope, however, is that these dynamics will encourage people to act to turn the instabilitas around or ensure peaceful instability between various groups.
Balea, Judith. “The latest stats in web and mobile in Indonesia.” Techinasia. January 2016.
Lamb, Kate. “Jakarta governor Ahko’s blasphemy trial: all you need to know.” The Guardian. Dec. 11, 2016.
Photo: Ruud Bruls