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Jakarta. The recent case of a young woman’s bitter outburst via social media against the city of Yogyakarta — which triggered widespread outrage, online bullying and later a brief stint in a local jail for the university student who started it all — has brought to the surface questions regarding Indonesians’ tendency to turn vitriolic at the drop of a hat and the best ways to deal with increasingly common Internet conflicts.
Florence Sihombing, 26, a post-graduate law student in Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University (UGM), grabbed the attention of the archipelago’s 67 million social media users after she posted an offensive comment about Yogyakarta on Path, calling the people who hail from the city-province “poor, stupid and uncultured.”
Florence later explained she had uploaded her frustrations after she was barred by a local gas station officer from attempting to queue in the much shorter line reserved for cars.
Her resulting tantrum on Path — which spread through other social media platforms like wildfire — soon earned the law student relentless online harassment. A Yogyakarta-based non-governmental group, however, brought the issue to a whole new level by reporting her to police for defamation.
Florence was briefly detained at a Yogyakarta police station before UGM representatives arrived to plea for her freedom.
She is still facing charges of defamation and inciting hatred, and is obliged to report to the authorities twice a week. Meanwhile, the tide of public opinion changed from seething condemnation of Florence and her social media blunder to censure of the police for its excessive actions.
But Florence is far from being the only Indonesian to have invited controversy through insensitive online comments. Before the verbal attack on Yogyakarta — and very likely after it as well — a myriad of Indonesian Internet sites have fallen victim to the rage of the nation’s Internet users, whose penchant for leaving malicious comments and posting spiteful status updates have turned the initially harmless world of Twitter and Facebook into an outright war of words.
According to psychologist Amanda Margia, the recent furor surrounding Florence represented the tip of a rapidly growing phenomenon in today’s social media era. After years of repression under the weight of both political and social pressures, Indonesians have finally been presented with an avenue to release all their frustrations. And with a simple click of a button, the irrational rants raging through one’s head are forever etched online for the entire world to see.
“Long ago, we didn’t have the media through which we can talk freely about our feelings or opinions. People used to simply chat, face-to-face, with their friends or neighbors,” Amanda told the Jakarta Globe on Wednesday. “But with the rapidly growing technology that allows people to easily post every thought online, we now have this instant and easy means to channel negative emotions.”
The psychologist warned, however, that such outbursts should not be characterized as the behavior of an entire nation; ultimately, any emotionally charged situation is created by one individual who must take responsibility for their actions.
“This is not a collective issue,” Amanda said. “It’s true, though, that people these days easily get angry due to pressures from school, from work or traffic. Potential triggers are all around us.”
With the exhilarating amount of freedom social media has to offer, she added, users must be able to impose self-control and start differentiating between comments and photos that could be consumed publicly and those that should remain private.
Legal expert Uli Parulian Sihombing from the Indonesian Legal Resources Center (IRLC) agrees that Indonesians have yet to learn proper Internet etiquette and are known to lose control once they access social media platforms.
“It is important for each individual to show some etiquette even in social media, just for the sake of avoiding undesired conflicts, like what happened to Florence,” Uli said, adding that the university student’s arrest, though, was an excessive course of action on the part of the police and the group who reported her to them.
Florence’s detainment, however brief, reflected local authorities’ disregard of the citizens’ rights to freedom of speech, according to Uli. The defamation charge Florence still faces indicates a weak sense of respect for individual rights in the world’s third-largest democracy.
“Situations like these should be left up to society. Let [the people] be the judge,” Uli told the Globe on Wednesday.
“People should be able to express their opinions in any media [platform] and they shouldn’t be banned with the implementation of such an ineffective regulation,” he added, referring to an outdated Electronic Information and Transactions (UTI) law, which may slap Florence with a hefty Rp 1 billion ($84,700) fine and a six-year prison sentence for her comments on Yogyakarta. The 2008 law, Uli commented, has been unsuccessful in acting as a deterrent to social media users.
“There could be more violations in the future, but exactly on what basis will these [insensitive comments] be considered a legal violation? What are the substantial parameters for something to be called an alleged defamation? In what context?” he argued. “Rather than charging people who are simply expressing their anger on social media, law enforcers would do better protecting the freedom of expression of Indonesian citizens.