IO – In October 2017, the public was surprised to witness the arrest of DKA, a 29 y. o. woman, for having produced a “derogatory meme” concerning the former chairman of DPR, Setya Novanto. DKA was charged with violation of Article 27 Paragraph 3 Law No. 11 year 2016 concerning Electronic Information and Transactions (Informasi dan Transaksi Elektronik – “ITE”). The police did not stop with DKA, but also targeted 32 other social media accounts (15 Twitter accounts, 9 Instagram accounts, and 8 Facebook accounts).
This arrest caused pros and cons among the public. Those who believe in absolute freedom believes that the arrest will cause a bad precedent for the democratic climate. The people should be allowed freedom to express their ideas, thoughts, and inputs to public officials. Those who believe in responsible freedom feel that the arrest of meme-makers who have gone too far is part of civic education on the skills of using the right to expression of opinion in a qualified and dignified manner.
However, the arrest of these meme creators has not deterred the digital community. As proof, when the former DPR RI Chairman suffered an accident that forced him to return to the hospital for treatment, meme production proliferated in the virtual world. Threat of imprisonment cannot repress the public’s desire to make themselves heard using memes as a means of visual representation.
Brand (2014) states that the term “meme” first occurs in a 1976 book called The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins defined “meme” as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation and replication”. Meme itself can be in the form of words, phrases, actions, videos, images, sentences, and ideas that can be transmitted by imitation.
Memes and the People’s Struggle
In the 21st century, memes, which are mostly an integration of visual images and phrases that jointly have a humorous context, have an accelerated impact as a process of social change, due to the massive use of internet (Huntington, 2017). Huntington’s studies (2017) demonstrate that by using memes, individuals may involve themselves in public discussion about political situations that occur around them, in a humorous way. Furthermore, the entertainment value of memes cannot be ignored, because it is the way that ensures memes’ widespread ability to influence public opinion, ideas, and even action.
Humor has been well known as a means of fighting back against any form of repression. Pearce and Hajizada (2014) provide a long list of actions driven by humor-encased political propaganda, as in a current case that was reported from Egypt. At least one-fifth of Twitter posts in 2011 are humorous in nature. Political humor was actually second in rank to the news consumed by Egyptians through social media during the insurrection. In the digital era, when the content of messages is easily and cheaply produced and distributed, humor has an even bigger strategic role that can be exploited by opposition as a means of fighting back against authority in society (Peck, 2017).
A meme’s humor doubly serves as an anesthetic that dulls the sting of the critique, as well as lubricant that makes it easier for the meme’s messages to be transmitted to other virtual communities. The anonymity offered by internet technology makes the public feel protected even from the clutches of the law (Yoon, 2016). The herd instinct of distributing memes without thinking causes many authorities to feel threatened and use force to enforce draconian laws in the land of social media. Such fears are actually reasonable: first, technology enables funny memes to have a wide reach of the public, even to those who do not like political issues. Second, the virality of internet technology renders formal authorities like the Government helpless to control the distribution of political messages they way they used to in the era of conventional technology.
Pearce and Hajizada (2014) state that during the heyday of print technology, the government allowed a measure of tolerance for opposition voices, as the print media did not have such influence with the public. Past technological limitations mean many regimes worldwide still allow opposition through newspapers, magazines, and radio. In specific situations that are deemed to be dangerous, the elite can easily repress public spaces, for example by sealing or closing down media offices (Copeland, 2011).
A community’s social structure also influences the dissemination of memes. In the past, the media was controlled by elites, both political and professional. Only a small part of society held a monopoly on knowledge. In the digital era, the common people have the same access and capability as the elites to influence public spaces through the internet. The people are no longer passive consumers, but now they are active producers of content. They are a hybrid of both message users and producers (Wilkins, 2014). Another interesting finding is that apparently, the dissemination of political messages is much faster among non-elites, because common people are adaptive to change (Mazambani, 2015). This situation encourages an uncontrollable and continuous dissemination of memes in the public’s informational pockets.
The Elites Strike Back
The argument that message distribution must be controlled using strict formal laws to prevent public riots is the main card played by elites who feel that their public credibility is being threatened. Pearce & Hajizada (2014) state that in communal and family-oriented communities, “honor” becomes the highest public value. The distribution of memetic messages that shame individuals is construed as a direct attack on the person’s “honor”. This is the situation that causes political elites like Setya Novanto to strike back by reporting the meme maker to the authorities.
Art forms like pictures, poems, and songs are weapons in a struggle that the authorities find hard to handle. “Street actions” like protest marches are much easier to shut down. The presence of technology has turned common visual artworks like memes into lethal image destroyers in a digital era. The circulation of a meme’s political message is uncontrollable, because memes are constantly reproduced, reframed, and even juxtaposed with other works in order to elaborate and sharpen the message. The collaboration of words and pictures in a humorous context allows memes to harvest “likes”, “shares”, and “re-tweets”. These three major digital activities symbolize the struggle of the common people against political situations that they might find repellent.
The elites are feeling intense pressure from memetic social activities (Ding, 2015). Lombard (2014) finds that a persona in the digital world affects one’s real-life persona, and both are affected by, among others, the memes that circulate in the virtual world. On the other hand, individuals may build a positive digital image by using memes to obtain good repute, both online and offline. Unfortunately, in the context of Indonesia, most elites are not digital natives. Therefore, they use counter-productive approaches, such as brute legal force, in their effort to defend their public image and reputation. The legal approach is not only useless, but it backfires, because the public then increases their symbolic grassroots attack using digital technology against the elites.
Digital Media Literacy in a Post-Truth Era
Threats to image shadow all individuals, not just politicians and elites. These threats should be taken as a way to live a good life and not fake a good reputation, because one’s good name derives from good behavior and honesty. The ability to live a moral life in actuality is the key to success in establishing reputation, both real and digital. Public evaluation and expression of opinion should be responded to in proper proportions. On the other hand, the digital public must also remain ethical in expressing their opinion.
Digital media literacy should not be focused on the technical skills of operating various types of technology, but it should be focused on embedding the philosophy of living harmoniously in both worlds. Criticism of officials or other members of the public should be based on human morality, i.e. focusing on the inappropriate and/or unproductive actions only – there should be no attacks against an individual’s tribal, religious, or racial identity. Corrective isolation should be imposed against the individual object only, not on their families or friends. Finally, public correction using common visual media like memes should be based on reliable data. A dignified digital community is the ideal description of our national life in the future.