Social media for social purpose

Examples and lessons from Indonesia can help us convert social activism unto civic action

Ibu Prita Mulyasari is your average Indonesian homemaker. A mother of three, she was hospitalised in 2008 for a minor illness. Omni, the upmarket corporate hospital she was in, did not quite treat her well. She had complained about the poor treatment meted out to her to a few friends, via email (a translation can be read here Omni, owned by a powerful set of people, got wind of the complaints and hauled the lady to court for libel. In Indonesia, like India, some people are more equal than the others.

The police and prosecutors threw the rule book at the hapless housewife. First jailed, then dragged through courts and then fined an absurdly high 204 Million Rupiah (about $20,500), Ibu Prita Mulyasari’s plight exploded onto social media platforms. A campaign called “Koin Untuk Prita” urged Indonesians to donate coins- in particular one coin- to its cause. Indonesia has a population of about 240 Million. In the end, 800 Million Rupiah were raised making this initiative particularly memorable. The campaign was conducted via Facebook and amplified on every social media channel. Media, both global and national, latched on to this case. 2009 being an election year, helped. The lady was first accused, that verdict was overturned on appeal and then the Supreme Court released her for civil libel but sentenced her for criminal libel.

This campaign is a vivid example of how Indonesians use the power of social media, to quickly publicise issues and then rally forth as volunteers to take these micro-movements to real life, on the streets. Prita Mulyasari represented the Indonesian citizen, oppressed and marginalised by the rich, the powerful and the corrupt.

Corruption has been a strand of Indonesian public life for decades. The Suharto era has been characterised as a kleptocracy – business, legislators, executive, police and judiciary colluded to loot and pillage national resources. Indonesia created its Corruption Eradication Commission , KPK (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi) and has progressively armed it with “extraordinary powers to challenge an extraordinary crime- corruption”. KPK is the darling of the Indonesian public, who see it as a rare force for good, especially in their country where corruption seems to be the major factor holding it back.

Photo: toprankonlinemarketing

KPK has been under relentless attack from various parties accused by it – in Parliament and by the various apparatuses of state power, usually the fountainheads of corruption. When a feared senior police officer was hauled up by the KPK, he characterised it as a fight between “a gecko and a crocodile” – with the KPK being the gecko in a fight that could only go one way, the crocodile’s way. Overnight, Indonesians rallied together to support the ‘gecko’. Playing on the Indonesian word for gecko, the movement called themselves CICAK or Cinta Indonesia Cinta KPK (Love Indonesia, Love the Commission for Eradication of Corruption). Their slogan, expressed as a symbol, states “I am a gecko. I am bold to challenge a crocodile”.

An alleged plot to frame the KPK’s suspended deputy chairmen, Bibit Samad Rianto and Chandra M Hamzah was the next salvo fired by the crocodiles. The fact-finding team appointed by the President hinted at the possibility of a connection between the case and the bailout of Century Bank. Bibit-Chandra became celebrities when a Facebook campaign for their reinstatement garnered 1.3 Million supporters. They also became an instrument of major confrontation between arms of the government, bureaucracy and parliament. The Attorney General’s Office, saw it fit to dismiss the case “in public interest”.

Social action is a part of the Indonesian ethos. In a nation that is uniquely vulnerable to natural calamities and a state that is at best inadequately equipped to cope with natural disasters, communities have long depended on themselves to manage and carry on. Extending a helping hand to the other only reinforces this behaviour. Perhaps the best known example of community-technology-volunteers getting together to help is when Mt. Merapi erupted in October 2010. The Jaringan Informasi Lingkar Merapi (Merapi Circle Information Network), or Jalin Merapi a group of villagers, managed @jalinmerapi, a Twitter account which connected people with live updates about Mount Merapi’s eruptions. Relying upon direct observation as well as a variety of sources, critical information was continuously relayed – the movement of hot clouds and volcanic ash, status of evacuations and refugees, aid, the number of injured and death toll updates, the activities of the search and rescue teams, appeals and government action. These helped direct refugees to temporary shelters, hospitals, police offices, and aid stations. Trained volunteers drove much of the search and rescue efforts before the official response swung into action, directed by Jalin Merapi. Information was relayed through community radio, telephones and of course TV and Internet. Here is a succinct description of all the tools used (

It is tempting to anoint social media as the fount of all these activities. The fact is social activism can bring about social change only through feet on the streets or helping hands reaching out to those in need. Social media can help gather like-minded people, mobilising them to march onto a physical location to achieve ends in the real world.

Indonesia and India are very alike. Both countries deal with post-colonial mind-sets, both have a ruling class which is at best negligent and self-centred, both endure slothful bureaucracy, both deal with massive corruption and loot of public resources by crony capitalism. Indonesians have proven that social media is not just a place for people to befriend each other, follow and applaud celebrities, and vent; but also a powerful channel for change. What seems to be remarkable in Indonesia is the official response to movements launched and sustained via social media. That attitude is best encapsulated by the Indonesian President, in an address to ASEAN foreign ministers, where he urged greater usage of social media.

“Being the world’s second largest Facebook nation and third largest for Twitter, Indonesia knows the value of social media”, said President Yudhoyono. “For the first time, and in contrast to just four decades ago, we are facing a reality where the frequency and depth of contacts between our citizens – through cable television, email, Twitter, Facebook – far exceed the formal contacts between government officials,” he said. “ASEAN must “get into the act” and be “creative and open-minded in harnessing the power of technology to promote people-to-people contact”.

So must India and Indians.