Online evil: Indonesia’s cyberbullying problem

In my primary school days, one of my classmates pushed me headfirst into the gutter as we lined up for our morning ceremony, the author writes.

Anindito Ariwandono

Anindito Ariwandono

The Jakarta Post


Under fire: Victims of cyberbullying would undergo significant emotional distress, rendering them more vulnerable (M/Unsplash)(Unsplash/M)

March 28, 2023

JAKARTA – Understanding the psyche of cyberbullies and the distress of the victims

On July 2022, an 11-year-old boy in Tasikmalaya, West Java, suffered from severe depression, which led him to commit suicide after falling victim to bullying by his classmates. The boy was coerced into engaging in a sexual act with a cat and was filmed by his classmates – who then posted the video on social media. The boy, who could not take anything to eat or drink days after the incident, passed away on July 18, 2022.

Am I not a human like you?

The sight of the article’s header triggered my gag reflex. Memories of being bullied in my childhood came overflowing and I found my hand trembling for the next few minutes. I remembered burying my head under my neighbor’s sofa, crying, while their son threw anything he could get his hands on at my lower half, extending outside from under the couch. “Monkey!” he cackled.

In my primary school days in South Tangerang, Banten, one of my classmates pushed me headfirst into the gutter as we lined up for our morning ceremony. Again, the person on the giving end seemingly took joy in the incident as he guffawed heartily. Emerging from the gutter with blood trickling from my head, I was rushed to the nearest clinic on a motorcycle. The doctor there gave me six stitches afterward. It was 1996.

The advent of the internet gave rise to more complex issues related to bullying, and the behavior can be dichotomized mainly into two, traditional and cyber. The latter is not a new thing, mind you. Internet trolls have been around ever since the medium was invented.

Textbook internet trolls would hide behind a combination of enabling factors, mainly anonymity, which “allows people to separate from in-person identity and moral agency, thereby freeing them to express hostility and criticism without any effect to the psyche,” according to Christopher Terry et al.’s 2016 article, “The Emerging Issue of Digital Empathy”.

Combined with the primarily asynchronous nature of communication on the internet and plain lack of understanding, they contribute to something that Terry described as an “online disinhibition effect”, which traces even further back to Festinger et. al.’s 1952 theory of deindividuation. “[They] negatively impact the likelihood that empathy will be expressed in digital environments,” wrote Terry.

Beware of trolls: ‘Trolls’ are a term used to refer to an Internet user whose aim is to provoke others online (Mark Konig/Unsplash) (Unsplash/Mark Konig)

While these are not the only driving factors, they are the very soft grounds where bullying could take root.

Given that all the supporting conditions are fulfilled, it is simply easier to have our combative side take the wheel and tip us more toward intentionally harmful, mischievous behind the safety of anonymity. It is harder to empathize with others when their physical presence is reduced to a mere string of letters.

“The digital world has created a much quicker path to the dehumanization of the target – and dehumanization is the horror we are trying to avoid,” groundbreaking book Bully-Proof Kids author Stella O’Malley said in a March 2022 interview with The Guardian.

The descent

A 2019 study conducted by Polling Indonesia in collaboration with the Indonesian Internet Service Providers Association (APJII) highlighted that 49 percent of Indonesian internet users had experienced bullying on social media. It is a ubiquitous phenomenon.

One of the most-heated debacles online in Indonesia lately might be about YouTuber Gita Savitri Devi. In which the internet persona was bashed on social media platforms Twitter and Instagram after voicing her views on being in a voluntarily childless marriage—or simply being childfree—on Feb. 4.

Hailing from a country with a collective cultural perspective that demands adults be in a married relationship and also have children, Gita’s views are against the prevailing social structure—which also happens to be generally patriarchal. Responses to healthy criticism did not take long to descend into a culture of aggression and mockery.

Indonesian netizens were obsessed with shooting her down for weeks. A barrage of hateful comments streamed into her Instagram posts and she got into the trending topics on Twitter multiple times. On Feb. 8, Gita and her husband, musician Paul Partohap, went live on Instagram and openly challenged people to express their hateful comments face-to-face.

People also started following her everywhere online, replying to Gita’s comments on other people’s accounts. On March 15, her comments on celebrity Rachel Vennya’s post, in which she expressed support for the celebrity after being the subject of another case of bullying, received more than 190 unfavorable remarks.

In Rachel’s case, the celebrity has been a target of online harassment after posting a photo of herself attending the all-girl K-pop group Blackpink’s concert in Jakarta. Rachel was slammed by the group’s fans, questioning whether or not she was an actual fan and accused her of merely jumping on the bandwagon.

Stand-up comedian Kiky Saputri and actor/YouTuber Boy William have also been in a similar puddle over comments they made about Blackpink’s concert in the capital during one of their podcasts. Boy referred to Jennie Kim’s performance as “malas [somewhat lethargic]”, followed by Kiky likening the situation to a child unwillingly forced to go to a Qur’an recitation.

Boy and Kiky faced repercussions afterward, with the former losing his Instagram account on March 17 and the latter being under a barrage of hate comments online. Some of her posts’ comment sections even reached as many as 7,900 comments.

Kiky retaliated and is now seemingly unbothered by what is going on on social media as she continues her holiday in Japan. While the comedian was able to shrug off such confrontations, it comes without saying that not all people are able to overcome such hostility in their life.

Anonymous, no more

Bandung, West Java-based musician Denny (not his real name) handled a similar situation differently. The guitarist/vocalist of a local band, Denny was the center of a fiasco after a photo showing a banner of him being nominated as the legislative candidate for his hometown Blitar, East Java, went viral.

The photo surfaced online on Feb. 27 and pictured Denny on the center of the banner along with a photo of a politician charged with corruption and money laundering, and Denny’s father who is also a politician. The Nusantara Awakening Party (PKN) nominated Denny, a political party declared on Oct. 28, 2021.

While it initially drew some valid criticism toward the contradictory idea of a punk band frontman running for a legislative chair in the government, the topic again descended fast into pure harassment after a while.

Part of the pack: Author O’Malley noted that bullying behaviour tends to be very animalistic, driven by human’s base instinct to join the pack and wanting to fit in as a social and status-seeking animal (Mika Baumeister/Unsplash) (Unsplash/Mika Baumeister)

“I was shocked by the people’s reactions. I cried on the first day,” Denny spoke to The Jakarta Post on March 13. “Some of the comments even told me to commit suicide or that it would be better if I just die.” Someone even tweeted that they would shoot Denny in the head and throw Molotov cocktails at him should the band appear on stage again.

“I didn’t expect [the reaction] to be that massive,” continued Denny. He locked himself in his room for days, recoiling from people’s comments about him online. “Because I was just terrified to go outside. Afraid that people might recognize me, or just scared of meeting people and afraid of what they might do to me.”

People who knew Denny personally then openly condemned him. Even those who Denny had worked with in the past. In his case, the anonymity of the ones doling out the beating online was less apparent. The wave of the online movement against him was so significant that even people around Denny were forced to take sides.

Amidst all the chaos, the subject then became dehumanized. People partake in the beatings for the sake of the joy of ganging up on the helpless. An example of mob mentality justified by the idea of fighting for a threatened ideal. But at what expense?

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