Malcolm Smith

Copyright 2007-2012
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Krackatorium: Hashtagbattle

This essay arose out of a series of conversations between Sukma Smita, Rjo Rahardjo and Malcolm Smith in the development of Krack's work "Krackatorium: #Hashtagbattle" for the exhibition “Evolutionary Tradition, Asian Contemporary Printmaking” at Szechuan Museum of Fine Arts, Chongqing, China, in March 2019 (More info here)

This project started out called ‘Promises’. We wanted to collect all of the strange, unlikely and impossible promises that candidates made in their campaigns for the upcoming Indonesian election . We sent out a call to our friends and colleagues across the archipelago to send us photos of election posters. Our plan was to catalogue and analyze the promises made on these posters.

However, as our collection of images grew it became clear that while a few candidates did make wildly strange promises, the majority of candidates were very vague and general about their promises. Indeed, some parties issued instructions to their candidates not to make promises; arguing that individual candidates did not have the right to act beyond their parties’ mandate.

While there were not many promises on these posters, they all used very strong signifiers of identity. These posters were designed to target specific demographics within the electoral community; some addressed women voters, or religious voters, or ‘millenial’ voters, or nationalist voters, low income voters and so on. We became curious about this phenomenon. We wanted to know why these election posters were designed to appeal to very specific identity groups, and what this could tell us about democracy in Indonesia.

Political ecologies

Back in the old days (the 1980s) there was a fairly clear separation between civil society, the state and the media. Political leaders dictated their messages to the media, who then passed these messages down to the people, who then decided who they wanted to vote for. These days it’s not so simple. Consumer society, media, business and the State can no longer be separated, and are better understood as a complex ecology that has multiple centers of power, clusters of identity, diverse stakeholders, divergent actors.

For example, whereas in many western countries where there is a ‘left’ and a ‘right’ of the political spectrum, in Indonesia this is not really the case. This election is very much focused on the leaders of the PDIP (Jokowi) and Gerindra (Prabowo), who have ‘horse-traded’ political favors with a multitude of smaller parties in the hope of winning a majority of seats in the DPR. Jokowi cannot really be considered ‘left’ because he is supported by conservative parties like the PPP and Golkar. Similarly Prabowo cannot really be considered ‘right’ given the range of interests under Gerindra’s umbrella.

If the Indonesian DPR is a complex ecology, the media is even more so. In Indonesia there are a small number of very wealthy and powerful oligarchs who own almost all of the traditional media businesses (such as print, tv or radio) . Not only are these oligarchs able to demand political favors in return for biased coverage, but in the 2019 election many also are candidates, or have family members who are candidates . In 2018 the Indonesian press was ranked only “partly free” . Journalists continue to be restricted, particularly in Papua. Laws that have been recently introduced have also severely limited the power of the journalists to investigate corruption or to criticize politicians.

Given the perceived bias of ‘traditional’ media, Indonesian consumers are increasingly turning to social media for their news . In this environment there is virtually no regulation. Social media platforms implicitly encourage narcissistic, antagonistic and xenophobic posts by their users because these kinds of posts increase traffic, and therefore profits. In this context we see an increase in horizontal conflict and identity politics. Echo chambers or filter bubbles cause people with like-minded political views to read and to reinforce each other’s views, leading to the adoption of more extreme views, and an increasingly fragmented civil society.

The point is that politics, the media and consumer society can no longer be understood as separate fields, but rather as a vastly complex, de-centered ecosystem in which power, ideas and money flow in different directions. There is no longer the sense that democracy is about seeking a universal solution, in which individual interests are sacrificed for the common good. In the contemporary political ecosystem, conflict is horizontalised as increasingly segmented communities fight to defend their individual interests. In this context “identity” emerges as the key to understanding how contemporary elections operate.

Social Media

In most contemporary democracies, media campaigns for elections are generally described in three phases; the pre-election phase, the pre-campaign phase and the campaign phase . The first of these is the period that spans the years between elections. In this time, most voters develop an allegiance to certain parties based on their class, education, employment or religious identity; which party they consider to represent “Us” and who represents an “other”.

One way of understanding how identities work in the 2019 Indonesian election is by looking at the hashtags that the election has generated. Hashtags can’t tell the whole story of an election. For example they can’t really convey complex ideologies, or election policies. However they are important because they allow us to track how clusters form around specific discussions or 'narratives', particularly through social media.

The standout hashtag in this election has been #2019gantipresiden. Originally coined by the PKS , it quickly became the most popular hashtag of the opposition movement. At one point Jokowi attempted to downplay it, claiming a hashtag can’t dislodge a president; “Only God and the people can do so.” But this reference only increased the hashtag’s popularity from 7000 to 37000 mentions per day .

It’s interesting to note how hashtags also indicate the focus of election narratives. While hashtags relating to Jokowi (both positive and negative) amount to 1.6million posts on Instagram, hashtags relating to Prabowo only amount to 500,000 posts. What this suggests is that Jokowi’s opponents are more focussed on attacking and undermining him than they are on supporting Prabowo. This election is all about Jokowi, but whether that will work for or against him is yet to be seen.

The second election phase happens in the months before campaigning begins, when media and political parties begin to share stories that exploit and manipulate pre-existing notions of identity. While some issues fail to provoke much discussion, others will become the key election narratives.

Not all election narratives are about the presidential candidates. To take just one example, hashtag wars have broken out over the term “emak emak” meaning “housewives” or “mothers”. Women are an important demographic in this election; they outnumber male voters, and are much more likely to vote than men . In mid 2018 a group of women calling themselves Barisan Emak-Emak Militan Indonesia (Militant Indonesian Mothers) protested in Jakarta about the rising cost of household items. This group were a faction within the #2019gantipresiden movement. A month later, a group calling themselves Emak Militan Jokowi (Jokowi’s Militant Mothers) emerged within the Jokowi campaign. Since them, a plethora of Emak emak groups and their hashtags have emerged in social media on both sides of the campaign. This cant just be seen as a top-down attempt by the parties to win women’s votes, nor can the emak emak really be ascribed to feminism. Their various demands range from the cost of groceries, to sexual violence, to workplace equality , to how sexy they find (vice presidential candidate) Sandiago Uno .

The emak emak hashtag wars are good example of how election narratives in social media and take on a life of their own. “Emak emak” is ambivalent, transgressive and problematic, and it is precisely because of this that is has provoked such a sustained discussion. Women find themselves identifying with groups on both sides of the campaign, and that is why this discussion has the potential to change the outcome of the election; making it a key election narrative.

The third election phase happens in the final months before the election, when candidates start actively campaigning. In this phase, voters are more focused on specific issues that affect them directly. For example they want to know how each candidate will respond to a particular policy that affects them, or a specific ideological issue, or how their vote will affect their personal income and savings.

As consumers of traditional media (tv, print or radio) we are mostly passive, but in social media we are both consumers as well as active producers of content. One way of thinking about our social media persona is that it is like a handpuppet that resembles us, but is not us. What we want is for our handpuppet to be seen as a star; the centre of the drama, not a bit-player in someone else’s drama. The way we do this is through signaling identity and self-narrativisation.

This is where clusters like #makmak, #milenial, #belaislam, #rakyat , #komando and so on begin to make more sense. When we include these hashtags in our social media posts we are signaling our online identity, implicitly positioning ourselves in defense of “Us” by opposing “Them”. Over time, through our episodic postings, we develop an autobiographical narrative about how we are struggling to defend the interests of “Us” in the hope of achieving “our freedom”; a utopian state in which we will finally be able to be “authentic”. Inevitably, we become invested in this narrative, and we must commit to follow it through, or be seen as inauthentic.

At this point echo chambers begin to form. Social media platforms encourage narcissistic and transgressive behaviour because this attracts more attention and hence more traffic. For users, transgressive and narcissistic behavior means we may lose some friends who don’t identify like us, but we win new friends who do. As echo chambers form around us we are encouraged to take more and more extreme positions.

Recent research has also explored how participants with more extreme views are more likely to share fake news . In January a rumor spread that seven containers of fake ballot papers marked in favor of Jokowi had been discovered at Tanjung Priok port. Before the rumor could be officially declared fake, it had been shared 17,000 times on twitter. Fake news was the central factor in deciding the 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial election, and extreme views and fake news have potential to become a crucial factor in the 2019 Presidential election.

Phenomena like “fake news”, “identity signaling” and “self narrativisation” can’t simply be dismissed as aberrant phenomena that can be regulated to ensure a return to “proper democracy”. Rather, they are implicit in the technologies through which we engage in civic discourse in late-capitalist societies. Welcome to “cyberdemocracy”. The big winners in this scenario are the people who own the media through which we perform our narratives of self. The big loser is the idea of the “common good”.

Conclusion

The “self” that we perform in social media is different to the “self” we construct in our daily dealings with friends, colleagues and general public. In real life, most of us understand that our good fortunes and the fortunes of our neighbors are largely determined by structural factors; class, ethnicity, gender, ability and so on. These factors determine our access to education, healthcare, justice or mobility, which in turn determine the lives we lead and the kind of person we are. While the State can’t control all of these things, we vote for a government who we think will create a reasonably fair and equitable structure for everybody.

But online, our virtual lives are determined more by narrative factors. We choose identities, we claim to defend “Us” from “Them”, we transgress boundaries and demand attention. In our online narratives, issues like poverty or discrimination are often no longer seen as the State’s responsibility, but are reframed as narrative flourishes; “hardships” that we must individually overcome in order to achieve “authenticity”.

This phenomena is not exclusive to Indonesia. Around the world in recent years the discourses surrounding elections have drifted towards narratives of self and identity. Increasingly, the decisions we make at the polls are based not on the structural issues that affect society as a whole, but the issues that appeal to our individualistic and narcissistic narratives of self.

So perhaps the important question we need to ask is which version of our “Self” will head to the polling station on April 17 this year? Our real-life Self, who is empathetic, solution-focused and civic-minded? Or our social-media Self, who is transgressive, controversial and narcissistic?

Malcolm Smith

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