|     |  
11.9.2009 Facebook people power

By Sara Schonhardt

JAKARTA - Thousands of Indonesians have taken to the streets in the past week to protest the arrests of two anti-corruption commissioners and demand that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono take a stand against graft in a nation with a long history of bribery and political shenanigans.

The demonstrations are a stark reminder of those that occurred more than 10 years ago, when Indonesians rallied to demand the ouster of dictator Suharto. This time, the weight of remonstration is digital, in the form of a Facebook group.

The popular social networking site claims a small but rapidly growing market in Indonesia, the world's seventh-largest Facebook community with 8.52 million users, according to data compiled by Google Trends. The growth rate is fast - 8.23 million joined in the past 12 months alone.

After two members of the Corruption Eradication Commission, better known as KPK, were arrested last Thursday, more than 350,000 people joined a Facebook page in support of the deputies. Thousands more signed up throughout the day and new comments have been posted to the wall almost every second. Public demonstrations have since been held, but they've drawn nowhere near the support seen on Facebook.

By Friday morning, a week after the site launched, it was well on its way to reaching one million members, with more than 925,000 people having signed up by 9am. Wall posts have ranged from outrage toward the police - "Confess now, then ask forgiveness later", wrote Agus Sutragus - to pleas for the president to "defend the people's struggle" and to root out corruption for the good of the country.

The site's main goal, according to creator Usman Yasin, is to push for law enforcement reform in Indonesia. The corruption scandal continues to swirl, raising daily intrigue and conspiracy theories. But what many analysts here are now discussing is how people have democratically responded to an event that has created mass public dissatisfaction and could, they say, significantly undermine the social and political stability that recently re-elected Yudhoyono struggled to rebuild during his first five years in power.

"Now we have a new model on how to control our government," said Teten Masduki, the secretary general of Transparency International in Indonesia and a part of the team summoned by the president on Sunday to advise him on an appropriate response to the uproar. "With new technology it's easy to share our dissatisfaction with the president: just update your status."

Teten also highlighted the importance of a change in election laws that saw politicians directly elected by voters for the first time in the 11 years since democracy has taken hold in Indonesia. He remains sanguine about the potential for Facebook and other on-line social networking sites to mobilize public opinion.

"People want to say we support the KPK and we believe justice will win. Facebook has become a political indicator of that," said the anti-corruption activist, who worked with a popular Indonesian band to release a ringtone Wednesday in support of the KPK. In the first few hours after its release, more than 40,000 people had used the jingle.

After decades of authoritarian rule under Suharto, which included a stranglehold on independent media, Indonesia now enjoys greater freedom of speech and more open political debate in the news arena.

The Internet increasingly plays a critical role as a platform for independent debate, "so much so that mainstream media are left with no choice but to start reporting issues that are causing waves in cyberspace," Jakarta Globe columnist Karim Raslan wrote on Thursday. He believes that the pushback from civil society shows people are not as complacent as they seem, and this could prove a challenge that will keep Yudhoyono on his toes throughout his second term.

Many politicians also have recognized the importance of the Internet, and several took their campaigns online during the July presidential elections as a way to win over young voters. New information minister, Tifatul Sembiring, says he sends out daily tweets on Twitter, a site that allows people to post short thoughts or questions.

'Game-changing' agent

Some see Facebook users as a strategic segment of society and believe a presence on the site increases their access to Indonesian youth as well as high-level bureaucrats and businesspeople who can influence public information. Other analysts say the latest Facebook showing is more proof of digital media's power, not only among Indonesian youth, but also among those who lost faith in the independence of mainstream media during the Suharto years and now prefer the Web for independent news and analysis.

"The Internet is a 'game-changing' agent even in a polity such as Indonesia where the media is relatively free," wrote Karim.

But whether online activism translates to political action remains to be seen. Some suggest it may be just a passing fad, pointing out that the majority of Facebook users in Indonesia are already well-educated, well-informed members of the middle class. That automatically makes them more likely to take an interest in politics and seek to influence politicians through outlets outside of Facebook.

Others say the swelling support seen on Facebook pushed Yudhoyono to assemble a fact-finding team into the allegations on Monday. But it was ultimately the public dissemination through court hearings of wiretapped conversation indicating that senior police and attorney general's office officials may have been complicit in a plot to undermine the KPK that led to the two commissioners' release on Tuesday.

This is not the first time Facebook has played a role in public protest in Indonesia. In July, thousands signed up to support Prita, a mother of two who was accused of criminally defaming an international hospital in an e-mail that criticized the facility's treatment. Whether or not the Facebook support made a difference, it did draw attention to Prita's case, with nearly 60,000 supporters signing up to the Facebook group calling for her freedom. When she was eventually released from jail, many social activists credited the campaign sparked by Facebook.

Other on-line protest groups include an anti-polygamy coalition started after a controversial global polygamy club launched a branch in Indonesia in mid-October. Indonesia Unite, which launched a page as a way for Indonesians to take a stand against terrorism following the Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotel bombings in July, has since participated in a blogging conference and launched its own T-shirts, pins and stickers in an effort to gain a presence outside the Web.

While Facebook has become a prime way of coordinating people and promoting public awareness campaigns, the Internet still only reaches around 10% of Indonesia's 240 million people. Mobile connectivity is greater, with nearly 60% of Indonesians owning a cell phone, and the explosion of portable Web devices such as BlackBerrys have given more people access to Facebook and Twitter, allowing them to update their status on the go.

The low cost of such devices also opens Facebook to a wider swath of society, giving more citizens access to tools that help them shape not only the news but also the way the government responds to their demands. Public arguments on the social networking site have also raised debate about how the country's draconian electronic information law can best be applied in the new digital age.

After one week of solid support for the KPK deputies, in democratic fashion, one Facebook user posted a comment that backed the other side: "Go Indonesian police, swallow those geckos alive," wrote the user, referring to a derogatory term used to describe the KPK. Hundreds of angry comments followed the post, while others reminded members to the group that Indonesia is now a country that embraces free speech.

But the corruption scandal and the online response has revealed a rift in society that Transparency International's Teten said is becoming more polarized. "You can see the president is behind the police and the attorney general while the people are behind the KPK." It's an expression of popular dissent that wouldn't have been possible under the authoritarianism of Suharto, or before the advent of Facebook.