Last Saturday, I received a rather disturbing chain message from a friend on my BlackBerry. It essentially said that in light of the government’s fuel price hike plan, there would be mass demonstrations on Friday, March 27 that would be as severe as the May 1998 riots.
Not long after the message, I received more of the same, from a dozen or so of my BlackBerry contacts. I then learned, using an analytical tool, that hundreds of thousands had clicked on the same message.
But the rumor about the March 27 riots did not end there. There was another message, not as widely spread, that was much worse. The message, which was in the form of a blog entry, claimed that it was written on behalf of a radical religious group, perhaps insinuating that the writer had inside information.
The author wrote that at least two well-known organizations notorious for their unruly conduct, including his group, were ready to commit systematic attacks on an atrocious scale against a particular ethnic group.
The entry contained threatening words like raid and rape. As we all know, both messages turned out to be bogus. The police said that there were about 127 demonstrations across Indonesia on Friday, involving close to 88,000 protesters but the nation was hardly paralyzed and it was nothing like 1998.
While there were scattered clashes between protesters and police, Friday was relatively tame. Such viral messages, though, create a dilemma for society. On the one hand, people like to know if something big is going to happen and Friday’s protests were definitely something big. Many people believed the scary messages going around and stayed home as a precaution.
However, such messages also create an unnecessary feeling of unease. With information traveling faster than light, it is very easy for people to spread false news, and it is easier than ever for people to receive it. Rumors get amplified quickly and uncertainty results.
The March 27 text claimed that public anger over a possible fuel price increase was on a par with the atmosphere of crisis and panic that occurred in 1998. This is just not true.
First of all, the nation took to the streets at that time because they were propelled by the 1997 economic crisis.
Secondly, students back then were trying to overthrow a dictator who had been oppressing the country for 32 years.
Combined, the people were united with the student movement, and thus the protesters were seen as heroes willing to risk their lives to change the fate of the nation.
The current demonstrations are of a different nature.
To start with, the economy is much better than in 1998, despite the evident disparity between the rich and the poor. There are those who support the movement, and there are those who oppose it — this is the reality.
Secondly, the students claim that they’re trying to topple a government because it has failed to make the country prosperous three years after coming into office.
I say three years because these students probably were happy with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during his first five-year term. While the students of 1998 forced the change that brought democracy to Indonesia, the current student activists are trying to hinder democracy by not respecting the terms set by elections, a democratic process.
We live in age of instant communication. While this is a major benefit for all of us, the destructive rumor mongering of the past week proved that we’re also one click away from information chaos.
This was a completely bizarre claim because that movement then were born out of different causes than today’s issues. The message sent through the BlackBerry even said that the March 27 movement was inspired by the Egypt revolution that brought down former dictator Hosni Mobarak.
Again, this is somewhat misleading. We had that about 14 years ago, the day the brave students toppled Suharto. So the March 27 messages did not only create a short-term scare, but also could mislead one’s perception about the bigger theme.