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Victims, volunteers and voices of the digital age

December 6, 2016

Figure 1. A widely shared campaign image calling for the release of Prita Mulyasari, one of Indonesia’s best known ‘ITE Law victims’ (korban UU ITE). Source: Hadin (2013).

Victims, volunteers and voices of the digital age: personifying digital issues in contemporary Indonesia [PDF]

Draft chapter to the volume Digital Indonesia. Singapore: ISEAS.
eds. Jurriens and Tapsell

John Postill (RMIT Melbourne)
Kurniawan Saputro (ISI Yogyakarta)

23 November 2016


In this chapter we draw from recent ethnographic and archival research in Indonesia to explore how digital activists in that country translate or ‘modulate’ (Kelty 2008) key digital issues – which are sometimes highly technical and abstract – to reach diverse publics, often with remarkable success. We argue that Indonesia’s digital activists have developed an effective pedagogical folksonomy in which three particular digital personas stand out, namely victims (korban), volunteers (relawan) and voices (suara) of the digital age. Each of these complexly mediated personas is endowed with unique attributes and located within a specific corner of Indonesia’s digital activism space, and each is integral to efforts to educate diverse publics about the digital issues at stake. These three ‘digital keywords’ (Peters 2016) may seem both familiar and mundane, but we suggest that the work of personification that they enable has significant consequences for the framing of ongoing civil society struggles in post-Suharto Indonesia. We conclude that whether a certain individual or group is labelled a digital ‘victim’, ‘voice’ or ‘volunteer’ makes a difference to the evolution and eventual outcome of a given techno-political contention.

Keywords digital issues, digital activism, digital politics, media advocacy, digital rights, human rights, volunteers, voices, victims, Indonesia


In early 2015 the British comedian John Oliver travelled to Moscow to interview the exiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden for a TV show. In the interview, which soon ‘went viral’, Oliver reacted to Snowden’s laborious attempts at explaining the privacy implications of the US government’s mass surveillance programmes by exclaiming: “This is the whole problem. I glaze over. It’s like the IT guy comes into your office and you go, ‘Oh shit — don’t teach me anything. I don’t want to learn. You smell like canned soup!”. The comedian then proceeded to ask Snowden a series of questions about the hypothetical fate of shared pictures of his – Oliver’s – penis under the NSA’s digital surveillance regime. By using his own private parts to explain privacy, his aim was to bring to life Snowden’s dry discourse (whilst extracting comedic value).

This hilarious exchange raises three intriguing questions. First, John Oliver correctly identifies a fundamental problem at the heart of today’s increasingly digitised power struggles: digital activism ‘nerds’ like Snowden are often not the best translators of key technical issues for a general public. For this reason, they frequently rely on intermediaries such as journalists, filmmakers and even comedians to communicate their political views (see Chadwick and Collister 2014). Second, and more problematically, Oliver’s gag reproduces the lazy popular stereotype of digital activists as young, white, male, Western ‘geeks’ (or hackers). In reality, this is a highly diverse constituency made up of women and men of all ages, races, nationalities and technical abilities, including people with no knowledge of coding or hacking (Postill 2014). Finally, it follows that the expanding transnational space of digital activism epitomised by WikiLeaks, Anonymous, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or Global Voices is itself highly heterogeneous. Therefore we must differentiate among its various sub-spaces, or fields, of political action, e.g. digital rights, data activism, social protest, institutional politics (Postill forthcoming).

In this chapter we take these three observations as our guiding lines. Drawing from recent ethnographic and archival research in Indonesia, we explore how digital activists in that country translate or ‘modulate’ (Kelty 2008) key digital issues – which are sometimes highly technical and abstract – to reach diverse publics, often with remarkable success. We argue that Indonesia’s digital activists have developed an effective pedagogical folksonomy in which three particular digital personas stand out, namely victims (korban), volunteers (relawan) and voices (suara) of the digital age. Each of these complexly mediated personas is endowed with unique attributes and located within a specific corner of Indonesia’s digital activism space, and each is integral to efforts to educate diverse publics about the digital issues at stake. These three ‘digital keywords’ (Peters 2016) may seem both familiar and mundane, but we suggest that the work of personification that they enable has significant consequences for the framing of ongoing civil society struggles in post-Suharto Indonesia. We conclude that whether a certain individual or group is labelled a digital ‘victim’, ‘voice’ or ‘volunteer’ makes a difference to the evolution and eventual outcome of a given techno-political contention.

The chapter is organised as follows. We first discuss the personification of a key digital rights issue in Indonesia – the struggle over online freedom of expression – through the case of the controversial Information and Electronic Transactions Law (ITE Law) and the successful creation of a new category of digital personhood to oppose it: ITE Law victims (korban UU ITE). We then consider a second process of digital personification around the Indonesian presidential election of 2014, in which a small team of technologists strategically employed the notion of ‘volunteers’ (relawan) to mobilise over 700 fellow Indonesians in order to data- monitor the vote count so as to prevent electoral fraud. Our third case study is the transnational initiative Papuan Voices, whose aim is to empower ordinary citizens from Indonesia’s most marginalised and oppressed provinces through video production and distribution. We then compare of all three forms of digital personification by means of a set of variables, including their location within Indonesia’s digital activism space, the main forms of knowledge they draw from (IT, media, law, project management, etc.), their ‘media ensembles’, and their timescale (short-term vs long-term). We end with a recapitulation of the main argument and with suggestions for further comparative research.

Victims of a notorious cyberlaw

The social construction of victimhood never takes place in a historical or cultural vacuum. Different societies at specific historical conjunctures will identify and institutionalise certain categories of victim in distinct ways. The digital realm is no exception. Thus in recent years, a new social category and group of ‘victims’ (korban) has been added to Indonesia’s political and media lexicon: korban UU ITE (ITE Law victims). This neologism refers to those citizens (or ‘netizens’) deemed to have been negatively affected by the country’s controversial Information and Electronic Transactions Law (ITE Law). An increasingly common scenario in Indonesia is to find powerful individuals and organisations filing lawsuits against ordinary citizens for allegedly defaming them on social media, or even through private communications such as email or messaging. As a consequence, the number of charges filed under the defamation clause increased from 10 in 2012 to 78 in 2014 (see below). According to a recent report by Freedom House (2016):

Prosecutions under the ITE Law, often [used] to intimidate and to silence critics, continued [in 2016] with high profile cases drawing widespread public outrage. People frequently use the law for their own agenda, misguidedly mixing public and private digital space. A promised revision to the ITE Law had yet to materialize in mid-2016. Without proper training for Indonesian law enforcement and the judiciary, prosecutions are likely to continue to serve as retaliation for online speech.

Compared to the penalties established by the penal code for offline defamation, the ITE Law’s penalties for online hate speech, criminal defamation and inciting violence are draconian. Thus Article 45 of this law contemplates prison sentences of up to six years, whereas the maximum penal code sentence is four years, and then only in special cases. The discrepancy is even greater when it comes to financial penalties. For instance, while the penal code fines are paltry for both spoken and written libel (US$0.37), those under the ITE Law can reach the equivalent of US$80,000 (Freedom House 2016).

But how did the new persona of ‘ITE Law victims’ (korban UU ITE) come about? The making of this social category and group unfolded in two phases. First, there was a spectacularly effective online mobilisation in support of an early victim of the law, Prita Mulyasari. Then came the more routine, sustained work by digital activists and victims, including Prita herself, of recruiting and mobilising further victims whilst consolidating the new category of ‘ITE Law victim’ through a series of public and private interventions. Let us consider each phase in turn.

Phase 1: Coins for Prita

In August 2008, the Tangerang housewife Prita Mulyasari, a mother of two, complained through a private email about the treatment she received at Omni International Hospital in Jakarta. She claimed to have been misdiagnosed and not given an adequate explanation or monetary compensation. Her email found its way into numerous mailing lists and inboxes and eventually reached the hospital management. On 8 September 2008, the hospital put out a half-page advertisement responding to Prita’s email. They then sued her for Rp 500 million (US$37,000) for defamation (Hadin 2013). The hospital’s lawyers argued Prita had violated Indonesia’s ITE Law and the Tangerang High Court ordered her to pay Rp 204 million (US$15,000). She was then arrested and detained for three weeks in May 2009 (Lim 2013).

While an older demographic of social and political bloggers had been posting about this case since May 2009 (Eliswati 2010), it only caught the attention of younger Indonesians when it spread to Facebook and other social media sites.

Once the Facebook support page was setup with the idea of contributing 500 Rupiahs (~ US5 cents) to the fine – the “Coins for Prita” – the movement took off and many more Facebook pages emerged. Posters were created and disseminated online and many Facebookers made the poster their profile picture. Some YouTube videos showcasing sentimental ballads for Prita also emerged (Lim 2013: 641).

Although the movement was born online, the legacy media played a crucial amplifying role, particularly commercial TV networks. By 14 December 2009 organisers had gathered some US$90,000, an amount that far exceeded the fine. When the court declared Prita not guilty on 29 December 2009, the raised funds were transferred to a charity with the aim of helping other ‘Pritas’ (Lim 2013: 641). The saga did not end there, though, for on that same day the prosecution deemed Prita guilty of violating the country’s ITE Law by writing and sending the defamatory emails, a charge accepted by the defendant. Eventually, on 7 May 2013, she was cleared of all charges by Indonesia’s Supreme Court (Hadin 2013).

How can we explain the remarkable success of a mass mobilisation related to a topic as seemingly arid as a new cyberlaw? First, for most Indonesians this was not really a digital issue at all. Instead, Prita represented an ordinary woman, a mother of two, taking on a much stronger adversary who had wronged her: the hospital. As someone who described herself as a housewife put it: ‘She is just like us. If this could happen to her, it could happen to me, to any one of us’ (quoted in Lim 2013: 644-645). This perception was sustained by the most commonly shared image around the case, showing Prita in a headscarf – a symbol of religious piety – with two young children on her lap (2013: 645). A prodigious amount of amateur digital artwork in the form of cartoons, songs, videos, posters, etc. arose around this issue, with the key icon being a headshot of Prita in countless variations. This familiar David vs. Goliath ‘victimisation frame’ (Lim 2013, cf. Sell 2013) came with Indonesian strings attached. As Hadin (2013) notes, middle-class hopes that the post-Suharto era would bring about a fair society were soon dashed, with health and education becoming increasingly costly, consumer rights routinely ignored and corruption more rampant than ever.

The Prita case was a transmedia cocktail in which the digital and non-digital ingredients were thoroughly admixed. By simplifying the problem and allowing the public to show their support through ‘low-risk activism’, the coin campaign transformed ordinary citizens into problem fixers who could make a difference merely by contributing a coin to the cause (Lim 2013: 646). Her success story stands in stark contrast with numerous other issues that failed to capture Indonesians’ imaginations. For example, the Lapindo and Ahmadiyah issues – involving low-income people and a religious minority respectively – failed to attract much mainstream media coverage or popular mobilisation, partly because they did not lend themselves to simple explanations (Lim 2013: 648).

The same goes for other ITE Law victims with less culturally appealing traits than Prita’s. For instance, in 2012 a Sumatran public servant named Alexander A’an started a Facebook page for Indonesian atheists. He was then assaulted by an irate mob of religious conservatives and given a 2½-year jail sentence under the ITE Law for ‘disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hatred or hostility’ (Jurriens and Tapsell 2016). In a country where it is compulsory to officially declare one’s religious affiliation, atheism in not a legal option, nor is it a popular ideology with most Indonesians. As a result, and despite the case drawing the attention of the international media and secularist activists, as well as that of Jakarta’s digital freedom activists, A’an’s plight garnered little popular support in Indonesia.

Phase 2: Making a social category and group

On 27 June 2013, only two months after Prita was finally cleared of all charges, a new initiative named Safenet was launched in Bali by a group of 15 activists, bloggers and lawyers. Standing for Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network and based in Jakarta, its stated goal is to monitor freedom of expression violations across the region and advocate for those in need of help. By 2014, Safenet had recorded 78 victims of Indonesia’s ITE Law, mostly on charges of defamation (92%), the rest being on religious blasphemy (5%) and intimidation (1%) (Juniarto 2014).

Although Prita Mulyasari was not Indonesia’s first ITE Law victim, she was undoubtedly the most popular and ‘iconic’ of all (Muhajir 2014). Far from disappearing from the scene after her case was resolved, Prita became a vocal champion of other existing and potential victims. Thus she started a petition on calling on all her social media contacts to support her campaign for the repealing of article 27, paragraph 3 of the law and to help her spread the word. She also co-founded a victims’ association (paguyuban para korban) aimed at fostering solidarity with other victims, explaining that ‘victims need the support of friends, especially from people who have had the same experience and understand the law’ (Muhajir 2014).

In late 2014 the Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Rudiantara, announced a three-pronged approach to resolve the issues raised by the ITE Law: reduced sentences for those convicted, the appointment of knowledgeable law enforcers and educating law enforcers on how to assess such cases (Cosseboom 2014). This drew a sharp response from digital rights activists like the Safenet coordinator, Damar Juniarto, who argued that victims demanded not reduced sentences but rather that article 27, paragraph 3 be repealed (Widiartanto 2015).

Upon its creation, Safenet singled out the fight against the ITE Law as its Indonesian focal point. Indeed, this law has become a galvanising issue for participants across the country’s digital activism space. Thus when Safenet, ITC Watch, and other groups inaugurated the Forum Demokrasi Digital (FDD) in December 2014, the plight of ITE Law victims took pride of place on their agenda. At a February 2015 FDD event devoted to its revision attended by one of the authors of the present chapter, the newly formed victims’ association was identified as one of the four key stakeholders (pemangku kepentingan), alongside policy makers, digital democracy observers, and civil society organisations, present on the day (Forum Demokrasi Digital 2015).

This process of institutionalisation of victimhood was reinforced through a savvy media strategy involving sympathetic media actors and organisations. For instance, following the event just mentioned, Juniarto and three victims were interviewed on the award-winning Metro TV show Mata Najwa. Juniarto repeatedly made the point that the government was using the ITE Law to criminalize internet users for merely sharing information, including private exchanges. The show’s famous presenter, Najwa Shihab, faithfully reproduced the activists’ framing of the problem around the category of ‘ITE Law victims’.

The sustained efforts by Safenet and other FDD members to construct and promote the collective category of ITE Law victims are reminiscent of those of a much older non-profit from Europe: Germany’s Chaos Computer Club (CCC). Kubitschko (2015a) describes the interactions between CCC’s hackers and other stakeholders in Germany (e.g. politicians, policy-makers, judges, journalists) as ‘interlocking arrangements’ leading over time to ‘a virtuous circle’:

Politicians, legislators and judges learn about the organization’s activities and expertise through the Club’s multilayered media practices related to diverse media environments – self-mediation across alternative media and popular platforms, coverage by and different styles and modes of access to mainstream media (2015a: 399).

Like the CCC, Indonesia’s FDD is both ‘directed inward to civil society by supporting emancipatory practices related to communicative infrastructures’ and towards institutional politics (Kubitschko 2015b). In the case of FDD, the civil society actors include LGBT activists whose websites have been shut down for being ‘pornographic’, whereas its institutional engagement has centred to date on the Ministry of Information and Communication (Kominfo). Similarly, the FDD ‘politicizes issues that otherwise might be understood as solely technological and are part of defining the predominant conception of what is understood as political’ (Kubitschko 2015b). In the Indonesian case, the key to successful politicisation was personification. The political was made personal (and vice versa).

Volunteers for digital democracy

The financial crisis of 1997 triggered massive social unrest and political turmoil across much of Asia. In Indonesia, the student-led reformasi movement put an end to Suharto’s authoritarian regime, ushering in an ongoing – and uneven – process of democratisation. One important strand of this process is the continued civil society struggle against corruption and electoral fraud. Whilst Indonesian citizens’ efforts to monitor the elections were already in evidence during the country’s first post-Suharto democratic elections in 1999 (Hill 2003), the internet only became fully integrated into ‘monitory democracy’ (Keane 2009) initiatives during the 2014 presidential elections. Those elections pitted a ‘clean’, grassroots candidate, Joko Widodo (commonly known as Jokowi), against the ex-army general Prabowo, who served under Suharto. In 2014, a range of digital initiatives sprung up to monitor the voting process, all part of a wider narrative of reformasi and open governance.

Immediately after the closing of the ballot boxes, the quick count results created tension because of their discrepancies. Whilst 7 pollsters declared a Jokowi victory, 4 pollsters declared exactly the opposite outcome: a Prabowo win. The blatantly partisan TV channels did not help to clarify the confusion, merely supporting their favourite candidates’ claims to victory. The confusion stoked rumours of vote rigging and fraud.

The most successful electoral monitoring initiative to emerge out of this chaos was Kawal Pemilu (Election Guardians). Set up by three Indonesian technologists living abroad, it swiftly recruited around 700 volunteers who inputted the results of every voting station and successfully checked most of the votes within one week. Given the atmosphere of generalised distrust, it was critical to be perceived by the public as being motivated more by public interest (a clean and fair election), rather than personal interests (the victory of their preferred candidate). Our interviews and observations confirmed that the onus was on Kawal Pemilu volunteers to demonstrate their impartial stance in words and deeds. The volunteers were keen to reassure the Indonesian public through media interviews and their own Facebook and Twitter stories that they were not being paid for their work and were in fact self-funding.

The problem was that virtually all volunteers were pro-Jokowi, and this conflicted with the non-partisan requirements of their voluntary work. To manage this dissonance, they strictly separated their public communication channels (via Facebook and Twitter) from their private communications (WhatsApp) in which they revealed their identities as Jokowi supporters. They also removed any visual markers on their social media accounts that could identify them as Jokowi voters. To further show their nonpartisan stance, they celebrated their volunteerism through exchanging, and publishing, their personal stories about how they sacrificed their personal time and comforts for the sake of their selfless data activism.

The use of volunteer personas during the electoral campaign suggests that the election was perceived, at least on one level, as the abuse of ordinary people by powerful political players rather than as a fair competition between electoral programmes. Therefore no one candidate was regarded as being free from hidden motives and self-interest. Accordingly, volunteers connected the voters with the political elites through a moral framework rather than through formal political processes or contracts. Under a moral framework, the intrinsic virtue of a candidate is what makes their message effective and moves the public to join their campaign. The public, on the other hand, can only rely on their own moral evaluation to guide their decision. They cannot establish an organisational apparatus to ensure that their candidate honours their trust, because organisations will inevitably be caught in political dealings and manoeuvres that cannot be fully moral. Volunteers in Indonesian electoral politics provide candidates with a moral high ground to stand on. However, their involvement will last only as long as the campaign itself. Kawal Pemilu’s choice of social persona was crucial to the task of avoiding the charge of self-promotion, or of being political operatives, thus earning public trust.

Digital voices from afar

In 1992, the musician Peter Gabriel joined forces with the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights to found a non-governmental organisation named Witness. The new NGO distributed video cameras to human rights activists around the globe in the rather naïve hope that they would record abuses ‘and demonstrate to the world the validity of their claims against their government’ (McLagan 2006: 192). This initiative was premised on the inherently problematic assumption that ‘seeing is believing’ – problematic in that visual evidence ‘can hold a deceptive immediacy and tends to overwhelm purely verbal arguments’ (2006: 192). Over time, video activists began to suspect that their repeated ‘mobilisation of shame’ was contributing to ‘compassion fatigue’, a malaise reportedly afflicting audiences in the global North (Moeller 1999, Gregory 2006).

Eventually Witness and similar organisations developed more sophisticated forms of video activism. The earlier appeals to an undifferentiated global audience were replaced by ‘smart narrowcasting’ to carefully targeted publics (Gregory 2006). Video activism was now part of a transnational ‘circulatory matrix’ with its own ‘dedicated communications infrastructure’ and circuits of events organised around human rights violations (McLagan 2006: 192). This audiovisual media practice was now inseparable from an increasingly savvy global ‘reprioritization of local voices in local contexts’ (Gregory 2006: 202).

In June 2012, Witness partnered with the non-profit EngageMedia to create the network Video4Change – a worldwide alliance of video activism organisations. EngageMedia was launched in March 2005 with main offices in Australia and Indonesia and a lighter presence in other Southeast Asian countries. Their mission statement was to ‘work with independent filmmakers, video activists, technologists and campaigners to generate wider audiences for their work’. As this self-description suggests, EngageMedia specialises in brokering civil society partnerships involving digital media. Thus in the 2006-2008 period, they brought together software developers and video activists through a series of events across Europe and Indonesia in order to develop ‘online video distribution tools for social justice and media democracy’ (Wikipedia 2016). More recently, in March 2015, they co-convened RightsCon – a large gathering of digital rights activists and other civil society actors from across the Asia-Pacific region (Postill 2015).

One of EngageMedia’s flagship projects is Papuan Voices, funded by the Ford Foundation and organised in collaboration with Catholic Church groups in West Papua, Indonesia. The aim of this initiative is to enable Papuans to ‘tell their own stories’ by training them in the production and distribution of short videos, thereby empowering them as they come to understand their human rights and how to defend them. The objective is not to tackle head-on the issue of Papua’s protracted struggle for independence from Indonesia but rather for Papuans to tell the stories ‘behind the conflict’ in their own words and images. For Alexandra Crosby and other members of Papuan Voices, this form of ‘citizen journalism’ is indispensable in places like Papua where foreign journalists are barred from entering and the domestic media fail to report on the actualities on the ground (McDonnell 2012).

For the Papuan Voices filmmaker and workshop trainer Enrico Aditjondro, it is crucial that these stories reach audiences beyond the world of activism: ‘We don’t want activists from NGOs making films for fellow activists’ (Noviello 2014). Similarly, the local video maker Wensi Fatubun (2015) argues that media activists often make the mistake of ‘telling the issue, and not a life story’. For this reason, he wants his films to establish an ‘emotional connection’ with the viewers and regards his video making as merely one aspect of a broader human rights strategy developed jointly with the villagers. The intended outcome is always ‘a story about human rights’.

Wensi’s life trajectory helps to explain his political stance and commitment to Papuan Voices. At 12, he witnessed the arrival of a South Korean lumber company in his West Papuan village. Unlike other youngsters his age, he was more interested in the Koreans’ cameras – which they had never seen before – than in their bulldozers. He was particularly fascinated by the delighted reactions of fellow local people on seeing the photos taken of them. After some years spent studying philosophy in Sulawesi, Wensi returned to Papua to take up a post at the Office for Justice and Peace in the archdiocese of Merauke:

I began to write reports and use a camera to speak out on the rights of native peoples and environmental issues. This is how the project Papuan Voices started. [..] I wanted this to be an advocacy and cultural project to permit the people of Papua to tell their own stories in films. So other people could learn about them together with them (Fatubun 2015).

Like Wensi, the activist Asrida Elisabeth, originally from the island of Flores, also found her way to Papuan Voices through a local church. In 2011, she joined a politically-minded pastor to undertake human rights work in Papua. She soon noticed that video ‘resonated strongly’ with local people, yet most videos were produced outside Papua. She wondered whether it would be possible to make their own videos and show them locally. On hearing about Papuan Voices, she acquired basic filmmaking skills from them and went on to produce two videos independently. She then gained funding to make a documentary on the lives of women living in poor communities. The result was the critically and popularly acclaimed Tanah Mama (2015) which won the prestigious Yogyakarta Documentary Film Festival award in December 2015 (Wits 2016).

Since its inception, Papuan Voices has organised numerous film screenings in Papua, other Indonesian provinces and overseas. These are public events that help to promote the initiative and raise awareness about life in Papua among diverse audiences. In January 2015, one of the authors of the present chapter attended a screening in Yogyakarta, a major cultural centre and university town in Java with a sizeable student population from Papua. Over 300 people attended, about a third of them non-Papuans – a larger proportion than expected by the organisers. Eight short documentaries were shown, followed by a lively Q&A discussion. There were also opportunities for intermingling with other attendants after the discussion. This gave many non-Papuans their first chance to converse with Papuans.

Overseas events such as film festivals and academic meetings extend the reach of the project and are integral to its ‘circulatory matrix’ (McLagan 2006: 192). For instance, on 27 November 2015, a seminar devoted to Papuan Voices was held at Leiden University, in the Netherlands. One of the films screened was Love Letter to a Soldier, winner of the South to South Festival 2012 award for best documentary. The film is a video letter to Samsul, an Indonesian soldier stationed in the village of Bupul, near the border with Papua New Guinea, by a woman named Maria ‘Eti’ Goreti. The two had an intimate relationship but Samsul left the area when Eti was five months pregnant and never contacted her again. Eti begs him to come back for the sake of their now three-year-old daughter, Yani. For the director Wenda Tokomonowir, Eti is but one of a growing number of local women ‘courted, impregnated and abandoned’, and in some cases raped, by Indonesian soldiers. For Wenda, the plight of these ‘victims of the border control soldiers’ deserves to be known so that it can be addressed (Aditjondro 2012).

Despite this mention of victims, the focus of Papuan Voices is not on victimhood but rather on empowerment through the ‘voicing’ (menyuarakan) of local issues. Audience reactions to another short film shown in Leiden, Pearl in the Noken, demonstrate this point. This documentary follows the Papuan doctor Maria Rumateray as she travels to remote areas by helicopter. As one audience member remarked, the film ‘is unique and interesting as it does not focus on a “victim”, as most advocacy films do’. Another participant, of Papuan origin, was ‘impressed’ that it showed ‘an example of a Papuan success story’ (Pratiwi 2016). Even in the case of Love to a Soldier, the audience noted that although it had ‘a strong political message’, this was subtly conveyed (Pratiwi 2016).

The media theorist Nick Couldry (2010) has highlighted the political importance of voice in a neoliberal age. More than merely giving people a voice, he argues, we must also find ways of valuing voice as a process that matters in its own right. In other words, we should privilege ‘the act of valuing, and choosing to value, those frameworks for organizing human life and resources that themselves value voice (as a process)’ (quoted in Tacchi 2012: 228). Papuan Voices is a clear example of precisely such a processual approach to valuing voice. Thus for Egbert Wits of EngageMedia,

[h]uman rights activists or organizations will achieve greater impact if they can go beyond letting people tell their own stories and move towards actually enabling people to tell their own stories. [This is a] much more long-term and process orientated approach, acknowledging not all outputs can be predicted from the start. …Only then will more Asridas be given the opportunity to surface and address the world in more meaningful and impactful ways than any human rights organization can (Wits 2016, emphasis in original).

Speaking during a November 20102 video workshop in Sorong, West Papua, the programme manager Ade was tearful as she recounted how much she had learned from the experience. For Ade, video is ‘the most effective medium for voicing (menyuarakan, from suara, voice) an issue’. However, this faith in the empowering potential of video as a medium does not mean that the Papuan Voices team are believers in the naive ‘technological solutionism’ (Morozov 2013) routinely denounced by critics of digital activism, or that they subscribe to the over-optimistic video advocacy of the 1990s. Instead, as we can see in the above quote, they emphasise that their chosen approach is long-term, messy, and challenging – ‘a slow and tricky process’ (Alexandra Crosby, quoted in McDonnell 2012).

As the media anthropologist Jo Tacchi (2012: 229) has noted, citing Appadurai (2004), the world’s poor ‘lack resources to voice their concerns’. In the field of ICT for development, adds Tacchi, voice entails access, but this is more than a physical or technological challenge, for it includes ‘cognitive, affective, political, economic and cultural domains [of action]’. Aware of this complexity, the stated ambition of Papuan Voices is to overcome ‘political, geographical and financial barriers – as well as lack of technology – to bring important Papuan stories to the world’. Again, there are no signs here of technological determinism (or solutionism), for technology is seen as one among several interlinked barriers to overcome.

Like sister initiatives around the globe, Papuan Voices seeks to ‘circumvent governments, armies, corporations, or other entities that are violating rights and to connect with supporters abroad’ (McLagan 2006: 191). For both scholars and activists, case studies such as this offer valuable insights into ‘the processes through which human rights categories are constructed through [digital] media’ (Gregory 2006: 192) – in this case the personification of political issues via the metonymic notion of voice. As we have just seen, in contrast to the anti-ITE Law campaign reviewed above, Papuan Voices regards the digital as a means towards an end (human rights) rather as an end in itself (digital rights).

Narrating digital personas: fields, skills, media and scales

Having reviewed three rather different digital personification cases (ITE Law, Kawal Pemilu and Papuan Voices) we are now in an ideal position to sketch a multidimensional model of such processes in the context of contemporary Indonesia. The political personas analysed above did not materialise ex nihilo. Instead, four key variables shaped the concrete ways in which they were narrated into being: activist fields, specialist knowledge, media ensembles and time-space scales.

By activist fields we mean the specific sub-spaces within Indonesia’s overall space of digital activism wherein each personification is located. Thus the ITE Law victims inhabit the sub-space (or field) of digital rights activism. This domain has experienced rapid growth in the region in the current decade, with the digital rights conference RightsCon, held in Manila in March 2015, as a recent milestone (Postill 2015). By contrast, the Kawal Pemilu volunteers belong to the neighbouring sub-space of data activism. In this dynamic field, whose most famous global representatives are WikiLeaks and Anonymous, agents speak data to power by whistleblowing, hacking or data monitoring – the latter being Kawal Pemilu’s modus operandi. For its part, Papuan Voices exists in yet another corner of Indonesia’s digital activist space: the field of media advocacy. This domains occupies a rather ambiguous position in relation to the other two sub-spaces in that it seeks to draw attention away from the digital so as to disintermediate the relationship between Papuans and non-Papuans through the assumed immediacy of storytelling. This is a paradoxical strategy, analogous to that of religious practitioners in many parts of the world who are driven by ‘desires for immediacy’ (Eisenlohr 2009: 278), e.g. ritual who healers seek to connect directly with supernatural agents through new media technologies such as PA systems or mobile phones. These efforts predate contemporary media technologies, yet today’s digital media are often integral to the search for ‘technical solutions’ to the mind-boggling problem of how to mediate immediacy (2009: 278).

The dominant forms of specialist knowledge that went into constructing the various personas also differed in substantial ways. Not surprisingly, the process of ITE Law victimisation enjoyed considerable input from legal experts, particularly from Indonesia’s small but active community of internet law specialists (often self-taught). It also benefited from the journalistic know-how of influential media personalities including Najwa Shihab of Metro TV. In contrast, Kawal Pemilu was first and foremost an IT project, but it would not have succeeded had it not recruited media-savvy volunteers from across the social media vs. legacy media divide. Finally, Papuan Voices relied not only on video-making and distribution expertise; it also depended on the advanced project management and pedagogical skills of both its Papuans and non-Papuan team members.

As for the particular sets of media technologies, or ‘media ensembles’ (Bausinger 1984, Monterde and Postill 2014), employed in each personification project, here we find once again significant contrasts as well as some parallels. All three initiatives combined online and offline (meetings, screenings, workshops) practices, yet under very different circumstances. Thus while the anti-ITE Law activists astutely exploited the viral publicity generated by the plight of Prita Mulyasari, Kawal Pemilu’s volunteers had no choice but to keep a tight rein over their media usages in order to protect their crucial private communications from potential cyberattacks from their political enemies. Meanwhile Papuan Voices opted for a more gradual, non-viral, sustained growth through a combination of online videos, physical DVDs, public screenings and word of mouth.

This leads us to the fourth and final variable: temporal and spatial scaling. Here a clear distinction must be made between Kawal Pemilu and the other two endeavours. Whereas Kawal Pemilu was an ephemeral, time-bound intervention that responded swiftly to what its participants perceived to be a national emergency, both Papuan Voices and the ITE Law campaign are long-term, open-ended ventures. In terms of spatiality, all three are multi-sited and transnational, though that is where their similarities end. Kawal Pemilu was the brainchild of a small group of Indonesian technologists, young ‘rooted cosmopolitans’ (Tarrow 2005) living abroad who recruited over 700 volunteers over the internet. Theirs was a textbook demonstration of ‘the strength of weak ties’ (Granovetter 1973) via telematic media. The other two initiatives, by contrast, are more firmly anchored to domestic geographical locations in that their lead organisations are headquartered in Jakarta (Safenet) and Yogyakarta (EngageMedia) respectively. Both Kawal Pemilu and the Prita campaign experienced a robust expansion during the early stages of their life courses, only to decline almost as rapidly in their terminal phases. In contradistinction, Papuan Voices, as just noted, grew more slowly and over a longer period of time.

The devil in the digital

Effective collective agents such as the Indonesian digital activist groups reviewed in this chapter make strategic use of their chosen personas. These digital personas, which can be thought of as actors on a public stage, were identified and brought to life through the groups’ master narratives and supporting stories. Yet the stages featured in our examples are not physical settings but rather social issues directly or indirectly linked to the digital realm.

One core task in any social struggle is to gain supporters and solidify the movement’s group identity (Gerbaudo and Trere 2015). Personas can help to draw the boundaries between insiders and outsiders, e.g. between victims and abusers. Victims are the offspring of perceived injustices. They may be different from non-victims in many regards, but they are still an integral part of our shared moral universe. As members of the public we are expected to side with the victims and challenge the perpetrators. When they are presented before a public, victims’ identities are inseparable from the injustices perpetrated against them. The victims’ persona developed by ITE Law activists shaped how they argued their legal case to the public, the focus being on how concrete individuals were personally affected by this controversial law. However, not all victims struck a chord with the general population, including the Sumatran atheist assaulted by a religious mob after publicly declaring his atheism on Facebook.

Volunteers are partly us, but they are not exactly us. For example, they can actively help a candidate win an election so that he or she can serve the public (us). The Kawal Pemilu volunteers entered Indonesia’s national stage at a time of acute need, when the Republic’s hard earned democratic order seemed under threat. Their collective persona inserted itself into public discourse because of a strong desire among a vast swath of the Indonesian population, and especially its urban middle classes, for a transparent election. This desire was rooted in the fear of the country regressing to authoritarianism (as seen, for instance, in nearby Thailand). Their hastily crafted persona managed to focus society’s attention not only on what they did, but also on who they were, namely selfless volunteers.

Meanwhile the metonymic persona of Papuan Voices was created through a complex, open-ended series of interventions to break their domestic and international silence. What makes giving voice to the unvoiced a worthwhile enterprise is precisely the deafening silence. The voiced persona is not one of us since it connects us (the public) with them (the historically voiceless). Without voice to relay the stories of Papuans, we denizens of other areas of Indonesia and overseas, could not even begin to confront those who prevent them from speaking. This shared premise drives the voicing efforts of its team members and local participants.

To return to the exchange between John Oliver and Edward Snowden that opened this chapter, it should be amply evident by now that popular Western representations of digital activists as white male IT ‘nerds’ with poor communication skills are in need of urgent revision. As the Indonesian materials presented above testify, digital activism and its personifications can take on myriad forms. These initiatives are often imaginative, sophisticated, courageous and by no means confined to famed activists in the global North. More detailed research in Indonesia and elsewhere is required to take further these preliminary observations and ideas. After all, the devil is in the digital.


Image credit: Canting Candrakirana


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