Digital democracy: Bintang Emon, buzzers and the itch to express

Comedian Bintang Emon became the target of an online character attack after posting a video criticising the light sentence demanded for the attackers of Corruption Eradication Commission investigator Novel Baswedan. Image by Bintang Emon/Twitter.

 

Last week’s ‘Bintang Emon vs Buzzers’ controversy was an interesting example of how Indonesians articulate freedom of speech on online platforms, how those in power react to being challenged, and what a thriving democracy looks like – and how it might fail – in the digital era.

 

Like many others that have gone viral online, this case will have a ‘post-viral’ life. Archived in perpetuity on YouTube, Instagram and other platforms, it will continue to feed into online discussions and debates, which unfortunately tend to degenerate into binary oppositions and simple categories – ‘Karens vs Millennials’, ‘Millennials vs Boomers’, ‘Woke vs Sheep’, and, in the case of Indonesia, ‘Tadpoles’ vs ‘Bats’ or ‘Geckos vs Crocodiles’, with self-identifying group members shouting at and across each other.

 

But media technologies are an important part of our complex lives in the digital era, and when division is rife in Indonesia, the worst thing we can do is allow the various voices and perspectives that we are now hearing fall into simplified categories and feed into the division. There are more lessons we can draw from this case than simply taking sides.

 

To summarise the case: on the same day that prosecutors asked for a lenient jail sentence of only one year each for two police officers involved in the case of an acid attack on anti-graft worker Novel Baswedan, arguing that it was ‘accidental’ (ga sengaja) and that the perpetrators were only out to ‘give Novel a lesson’ (memberi pelajaran), the phrase ga sengaja trended on Indonesian Twitter, peaking at 67,219 mentions on 13 June.

 

That’s when a 24-year-old comedian by the name of Bintang Emon got involved. He posted a humorous video on Instagram and Twitter calling out the absurdity of the prison sentence: “They say [the acid attack] was accidental, but then how did it hit his face? We live on the planet Earth, right? And gravity pulls down. If they splashed his body there’s no way it could trickle onto his face. Unless Pak Novel Baswedan was walking while doing a handstand.”

 

Fans appreciated the deadpan take on the issue, but a day later slanderous images of the comedian began circulating on Twitter, claiming that he was a drug user. In a country where drug crimes carry severe sentences, including capital punishment, the potential damage of the slander was significant. The obviously photoshopped images showed Bintang smoking, laughing and posing with a bag of crystal meth, with the captions “ADDICTED TO METH” and “BINTANG EMON ADMITS TO KEEPING HIS STAMINA UP BY USING ILLEGAL DRUGS”.

 

The name ‘Emon’ then began trending on Twitter, peaking at around 233,000 mentions. The case truly went viral when some of the largest online media companies in Indonesia reported on the case. The viral nature of the story was mostly driven by to reactions to the slander. Many Indonesian comedians and netizens defended Bintang, with some saying that the online attack was carried out by buzzers paid by the government. The government, on its part, claimed innocence.

 

The young comedian eventually fought back by posting his negative results for a drug test taken at a Jakarta hospital. The three Twitter accounts that originally posted the photos of him have since been deleted, lending credibility to theories that the character attack was led by buzzers.

 

So is this the end of the story? Clearly not.

 

Bintang’s case reveals a tension between the possibilities for freedom of speech on social media, and the potential dangers of a public backlash. By dividing participants into binary camps, the nature of online debate – especially in this case, where one side appears to be a straw man constructed by unknown figures in power – can have the effect of stifling nuanced discussion and silencing critical voices. The opportunity for democratic debate, allowing space for various voices and perspectives, instead becomes a mud-slinging match that fuels social divisions.

 

Over the last decade, Indonesian comedians and entertainers who push social boundaries have found their audiences on social media. But in the last few years, some of them, like Bintang, have hit against opposition.

 

One way to explain these increasingly common cases of viral content and backlashes is that the ‘traditional TV’ audience and ‘social media’ audience in Indonesia are now beginning to overlap. In a YouTube interview, comedian Tretan Muslim said that when he first started his channel in 2014, YouTube in Indonesia was still largely a platform for marginalised entertainers who could not find a place in mainstream media.

 

But in 2020, many established Indonesian television celebrities have now joined YouTube, and for Tretan and many other content makers, this has changed the game. They are now finding, and being found by, more and more people who might not ‘get’ what they are trying to achieve and have different expectations about what comedy looks and sounds like.

 

This bears out in my research since 2016 into horror content made by Indonesian YouTubers. YouTubers who started their channels with cheap smartphones are now competing with television celebrities who came to YouTube with television production skills, aesthetics and management styles. Meanwhile, amateur YouTubers are also beginning to enter traditional media by appearing on television or starring in films.

 

But what is it that comedians like Bintang and Tretan want to achieve on social media? Of course, there’s money to be made and fame to be won. But a word that I keep hearing, about this case as well as throughout my research, is keresahan. In English, keresahan translates to various meanings depending on the context: anxiety, disquiet, a sense of restlessness. Usually, the word keresahan contains in it a feeling of inaction and inadequacy – a feeling that there is a problem in one’s society that is being inadequately handled and that one could, or must, do something about it.

 

In an interview with the YouTuber and podcaster Deddy Corbuzier, Bintang said that his job as a comedian is to menyampaikan keresahan masyarakat (to express society’s anxieties). That could be why, when he picked up on the public disquiet over the prosecutors’ demands, he decided to satirise it through his comedy. Having the freedom to express this disquiet over social media is an important test of a thriving democracy. But this time, it appears, he hit close to the bone.

 

We do not know yet who was behind the attack on Bintang. But it is clear that someone did not like that he publicly challenged the Indonesian justice system, and decided to do something about it. The resulting smear campaign appears to indicate a failure of those in power to react responsibly to criticism.

 

With their challenging content that often comes from marginalised voices, YouTubers, Instagrammers and other social media stars are playing an important role in shaping what democracy looks and feels like in the digital age in Indonesia. It is now up to Indonesians whether online debate continues to degenerate into name-calling and simple categorisations, or whether democracy and creativity are allowed to thrive with a complexity and diversity of voices.

 

Tito Ambyo is an Indonesian/Australian journalist, writer and researcher, and a lecturer at RMIT University.