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26. Thoughts on the symposium “Internet in Southeast Asia: Power and Society”

December 8, 2015

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This is the twenty-sixth post in the freedom technologists series

See also the Directory of freedom technologists 

This past 3-4 December 2015 I was at the Bandar Sunway campus of Monash University, near Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) for the first “Internet in Southeast Asia: Power and Society” symposium, superbly co-organised by Tan Meng Yoe and Julian Hopkins with support from colleagues and students at the School of Arts and Social Sciences. The aim of the two-day event was

to gather scholars, including early career researchers and PhD candidates, who are doing work in the area of internet studies in Southeast Asia to present their research, network, and explore avenues for future collaborations.

This was a highly successful event, with a coherent rationale, impressive line-up of presenters, well prepared papers and effective deliveries, as Professor Kuah Kung-Eng, the Head of the School, pointed out.

Owing to constraints of time and space, in these brief symposium notes I won’t be able to cover every single paper or discussion (with apologies to those presenters whose work I may have left out). Instead I’ll merely arrange some of my preliminary reflections into a number of sections in no particular chronological order. Needless to say, my own biases and interests will be apparent throughout the exercise. As always, feel free to send me corrections or your reaction to this post via the comments section or some other channel. For more information about the event, see the symposium website.

Internet struggles in Southeast Asia

To break up the programme into more manageable chunks, the co-organisers wisely scheduled my keynote address, ‘Internet struggles in Southeast Asia: an ethnographic account of RightsCon 2015, Manila’ not at the opening of the event but rather after lunch on the first day.

My talk was based on a conference report I published on this blog in March 2015. I argued that at the forefront of current struggles over the internet in Southeast Asia (and elsewhere) there is a new class of political actors I call ‘freedom technologists’ (Postill 2014), that is, techno-politics nerds keenly interested in the democratic and emancipatory potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Largely absent from their discourse and actions, however, is a sustained engagement with the issues of growing inequality and environmental degradation.

My notes on the Q&A are sketchy, but I will try to convey here the gist of the discussion we had after the lecture. One question had to do with the different understandings of freedom in Southeast Asia and Silicon Valley. If I recall correctly, I referred to my earlier point about a possible divide running through the digital rights space between an anarcho-libertarian global North (with hubs in Silicon Valley and Berlin) vs. a secular-rationalist global South where progressive activists seek protection from the state against the online and offline violence of religious fanatics. After the session one participant made the point that most SE Asian civil society actors, including freedom technologists, are chronically ‘down and out’, at the mercy of changing funding priorities by foreign donors, and at risk of moving to the state or private sector.

Another question was about the role of journalists in the net freedom battles (in my current model, journalism is one of four key forms of expertise in the techno-political space, along with IT, law and politics). Someone said that the mainstream media ignored the Manila event. Meanwhile they are complicit in the ongoing structural inequalities and lack of freedoms in the region. I agreed, and gave the example of the recently signed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which the transnational corporate media under-reported as they stand to benefit a great deal from it in advertising revenue.

On a more hopeful note, I also mentioned that recent research by Kubitschko (2015) on the Chaos Computer Club, a hacktivist group from Germany, demonstrates that a long-term strategy of building close working relationships with the media can yield substantial civil society dividends. Another participant wondered about the ability of civil society freedom technologists to work with the respective national governments in the region. In the Philippines, she added, ‘they seem to be very good at it’. I replied it is still early days of my fieldwork in Indonesia but I think this varies greatly from group to group and that translating civil society lobbying into new internet legislation is very hard. The next big struggle in Indonesia, I suspect, will be over the forthcoming, and much delayed, Communication Act, which has already brought together internet and broadcasting activists previously working separately.

Although delivered at the very end of the two-day symposium, the excellent paper by Bridget Welsh (Ipek University, Turkey) and A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi (Habibie Centre, Indonesia) titled ‘Beating, hacking and joining: varied controls of the internet in Southeast Asia’ nicely complemented and expanded on my lecture. This paper is an ambitious comparative effort to track state efforts to gain control over the internet across the region. It proposes a tripartite conceptual scheme whereby regional states seek to control the net through three main practices: beating (the use of legal, physical or some other force), hacking (cyberattacks, espionage) and joining (influencing the social media ‘conversations’).

In the Q&A, I asked the presenters about non-state actors. Bridget Welsh responded that they were coming on to this in the talk but ran out of time. At any rate, she added, the opposition to these tactics by civil society actors is an area of the model that needs more development. With hindsight, this makes me think that we need more multi-directional, and multi-actor, models of internet struggles than the ones we usually find in the literature, where, as Bridget pointed out, the focus tends to be on civil society actors. This would include the partly overlapping practices and actions of  state, corporate and civic actors, e.g. in the latter case hacking, whistleblowing, joining, and lobbying (see also my blog post on Occupy digital practices, adapted from Boler et al). I see exciting collaborative work ahead here, an area ripe for further theorisation and empirical research in SE Asia and elsewhere.

Working on a related problem, Arnoud Schwemmer – a PhD candidate from Amsterdam University – gave a paper on ‘the state in cyberspace’, or digital nationalism, in the context of Malaysia. It is now clear around the globe, he explained, that the internet is becoming ever more Balkanised along national lines, with China, Iran or Russia as clear examples. Also apparent is that the idea of a free/open internet is increasingly looking like an ‘historical aberration’ of the 1990s and early 2000s. Halfway on the freedom-authoritarianism continuum (with Iceland at one end and China at the other) lies Malaysia’s semi-authoritarian regime. Schwemmer’s research took an unexpectedly historical turn as interviewees kept referring to the legacy of Dr Mahathir’s 1990s Multimedia Super Corridor ambitions, part of his vision of a fully developed Malaysia by 2020. Nowadays we find a conflict in Malaysia among state actors between an old ‘freedom guard’ from those days and new(ish) ‘hawks’ who seek more state control of the internet in the name of ‘national security’. Following the work of anthropologists of the state, says Schwemmer, we must disaggregate the state into rival interests if we wish to understand these conflicts. Thus from 2004 onwards internet policy was no longer centralised around MIMOS (Malaysia’s national R&D centre in ICT), so today we find that ‘ICT people’ are scattered across ministries, which creates information silos (and echo chambers), whilst the civil society contribution has fizzled out.

Adding another dimension to the discussion, Ross Tapsell (Australian National University) demonstrated the importance of not dismissing radio, TV or the print media in our theories about the ‘digital age’. Taking Indonesia’s media oligopolies as his case study, Tapsell reminded us that despite the country’s post-Suharto process of reformasi very little has changed in Indonesia’s political economy. Whilst large media conglomerates continue to grow larger and larger, middle-sized news organisations such as Tempo or Kompas languish in their shadow. Because of the economies of scale of the present transmedia landscape, these organisations have no choice but to set up their own TV stations but lack the deep pockets to secure licenses and run them at a profit.

The good news for Tapsell is there are digital counter-oligarchic forces at play in Indonesia, most spectacularly seen during last year’s successful presidential campaign by Joko Widodo, a non-elite candidate supported by a huge grassroots and digital campaign reminiscent of Obama 2008. Tapsell took issue with my freedom technologists idea for distracting us from the fact that the pro-Jokowi movement was highly inclusive and heterogeneous – it was made up of countless ‘ordinary citizens’, not merely technology nerds. Sometimes all it took was for ‘someone’ to start a Twitter hashtag for others to share and make a contribution to the campaign.

I didn’t have time to respond to this point at the time, so I shall do so now. In my existing work on freedom technologists I don’t claim that they are the only political actors that matter. For instance, during the Tunisian uprising of 2010-2011, in addition to freedom technologists (e.g. WikiLeaks, Nawaat.org, Anonymous, Al Jazeera etc.) we must weave into our explanatory narratives other key players such as protesting youths, the Association of Tunisian Lawyers, the trade unions, and the military.

Moreover, as Wasisto Jati (IIS, Indonesia) noted during his presentation, many campaign volunteers (relawan) went on to secure posts in the Jokowi administration. I would be surprised if the notion of ‘ordinary citizens’ merely sharing information and mobilising were able to stand closer scrutiny. Meanwhile, Julian Hopkins (Monash Malaysia) wondered why the role of Silicon Valley corporations such as Facebook, Google or Twitter in Indonesia’s digital landscape was not mentioned. Ross Tapsell said these organisations only have small offices in Jakarta but he would look into this. I concur with Hopkins: we must transcend the old media vs. internet studies divide when mapping today’s media/digital landscapes.

Still in Indonesia, we also had a paper by Leo Epafras who spoke about ‘Religion, governmentality and civility in the Indonesian cybersphere’ via the civil society organisation ICT Watch, created in 2010. A year earlier, the country’s Ministry of Communication and Information, Kominfo, started requiring that all ISPs filter content for a ‘safe’ internet as well as blacklisting sites deemed to be rocking the official SARA (ethnicity, religion, race, and ideology) boat. Epafras also discussed Indonesia’s draconian UU ITE cyberlaw which in his view smuggles nonmedia/internet defamation criteria into the digital realm. For example, an Indonesian citizen who announced online his atheism found himself on the receiving end of UU ITE. As a result of these harsh measures, by 2013 Indonesia had regressed from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ on the Freedom House internet index. For Epafras, SARA is not a Habermasian public sphere, but rather a site of Foucaultian governmentality.

To conclude this section, it seems to me that we need a unified theory of internet power struggles in Southeast Asia that integrates insights from a range of studies on both state and non-state actors operating within and across the region’s national ‘hybrid media systems’ (Chadwick 2012).

Cybertroopers, flamers, and other smart citizens

Niki Cheong, a former blogger/journalist and currently a PhD candidate at Nottingham University (UK), presented his work on Malaysia’s ‘cybertrooping’ (known elsewhere as ‘astroturfing’), i.e. ‘calculated efforts to influence public sentiment through staged movements’. His case study was the campaign by UMNO (the country’s leading ruling party since independence) cybertroopers against the Bersih 3.0 anti-corruption movement in 2012. In the Q&A, Bridget Welsh advised him not to underestimate the opposition’s own cybertroopers, whatever name they may go under, and to be careful with being overly definitional.

We then learned from Dang Nguyen (a PhD student at Oxford University, UK) about memes, humour and long-term social change in Vietnam. This was a paper based on materials gathered from three Vietnamese Facebook civic groups between 2011 and 2015. Nguyen stressed the importance of studying everyday, non-contentious politics (see also Kubitschko 2015 above) which may not be as spectacular as the politics of protest movements but deserve attention nonetheless. Memetic humour ‘unearths an often overlooked authoritarian political life that exists prior to and apart from episodic moments of contentious politics’. This includes making fun of the regime’s online commenters for their servility and stupidity. The meme commenters’ sense of superiority vis-à-vis the state’s online army reminded me of a paper by Oren Livio (Haifa) to the recent media anthropology workshop on media and conflict held in Vienna, in which he identified a similar hubris among Israeli social media commenters who used condescending humour towards Palestinians they met online. In both cases, the result was a reinforcing of boundaries of class and ideology, with ethnicity and nationality added to the mix in the Israeli context.

Other papers dealing with practices native to the internet included a presentation by Revathy Amadera Lingam (Universiti Utara Malaysia) on YouTube flamers in Malaysia. Although this was an interesting paper, I felt the 15-strong flaming typology could be reduced to 3 or 4 items to make it more manageable. The question of online hate speech, which I touched upon in my keynote address, resurfaced again in a paper on Malaysia by Sandra Hanchard (Swinburne University, Australia) and Pauline Leong (UTAR, Malaysia). One audience member was concerned that the paper may be reproducing rather crude ethno-racial divides (Malays vs. Chinese) and I suggested that given that ‘hate speech’ is a legal term that is not vernacular to the internet, it may be an idea to find out how net users themselves talk about it on their own terms.

Most papers in the two-day symposium hovered at the nation-state level of analysis (the problem of methodological nationalism was raised a couple of times). One exception to this rule was a presentation on the Makassar City kota cerdas (smart city) project by Ishaq Rahman (Hasanuddin University, Indonesia) — one among 98 such initiatives launched across the Archipelago in recent years.

Rahman discussed some of the entanglements of social media platforms with important local issues in Makassar such as safety (#makassartidakaman) and cleanliness. Having worked myself on internet and local politics, this was a refreshing paper in its local-level pitch. It also touched, like other papers, on the question of ‘monitory democracy’ (Keane 2009), more specifically, on the use by both state and non-state actors of digital media to keep a watchful eye on others.

Digitised socialities

Julian Hopkins (Monash Malaysia), whose background is in the media anthropological study of personal blogging in Malaysia, has now moved to the study of social media. In his talk he introduced the working concept of ‘algorithmic socialities’ to refer to the growing mediation of human sociality by algorithms. Interestingly, Malaysia’s most popular social platform at present, Whatsapp, favoured by all manner of closed groups (e.g. families, peer groups, leisure groups), is not particularly algorithmic, argued Hopkins. He also made intriguing reference to Van Dick’s (2012) distinction between platforms, protocols and interfaces and to Latour’s (2005) mediators (actants) and intermediaries.

Another familiar bias in this symposium – and of internet studies generally – was the relative inattention to the internet lives of the poor. The exception here was an empirically rich study by Cheryll Ruth Soriano and Ruepert Cao (De La Salle University, Philippines) on how children and adolescents living in Metro Manila’s urban slums use ICTs (one third of Manila’s residents live in slums).

The paper compared young people’s ICT practices in three different contexts: computer shops, pisonets (slum net access points) and mobile devices. Pisonets are located at the heart of the slum, typically along an alley. They are ‘jukebox’, coin-operated computers that are often shared among many young people during the day. At night adults take over and share the cost of feeding the jukebox, e.g. to watch sporting events communally. Given the flimsy structures where they are located, pisonets are subject to disruption during episodes of heavy rain or floods. By contrast, computer shops are sturdier and consist of a set of networked PCs suited to gaming and far more regulated than pisonets. Run by a manager, they typically forbid certain contents (e.g. porn) and practices (streaming). Finally, the ‘mobile’ net is not that mobile for these young slum dwellers, many of whom cannot afford to own a phone. Facebook is ‘free’ but has strictly limited functionality and users must pay if they wish to read hyperlinked content outside the famous platform.

The Malaysian and Philippines papers worked very well in tandem, for they both dealt with the comparative question of mediated sociality in different socio-technical contexts. There is potential here for collaboratively reworking the classic sociolinguistic distinction between ‘code mixing’ and ‘code switching’ as ‘media mixing’ and ‘media switching’ in everyday life, e.g. whilst playing games in a slum computer shop or simultaneously interacting with middle-class friends on Whatsapp and Facebook, etc.

Finally, Camellia Webb-Gannon (UWS, Australia) presented her research on online music and pro-independence activism among West Papuans (Indonesia). She argued that the advent of the digital age has meant a shift from an ‘analogue hydra’ model of resistance to today’s ‘digital swarms’ (Negri). One area that could be developed in future versions of this work, I felt, was an engagement with the large anthropological literature on Melanesian forms of exchange and sociality and how they may – or may not – shape the West Papuan exchange of digital and other media contents over the years.

Next steps

The organisers of the event hope that it will lead to a special journal issue on internet and power in Southeast Asia. They are also in the process of setting up a Southeast Asia Internet Research Network.

For more information, please contact:
Dr Tan Meng Yoe or Dr Julian Hopkins at isaps.monash@gmail.com

About the author

Dr John Postill is Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne, and Digital Anthropology Fellow at University College London (UCL). His publications include Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice (2015, with Sarah Pink, Heather Horst et al), Localizing the Internet (2011), Media and Nation Building (2006) and the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Practice (2010, with Birgit Bräuchler). Currently he is conducting anthropological research on new forms of digital activism and civic engagement in Indonesia, Spain and globally. He is also writing a book on the connection between techno-politics and new citizen movements around the world, as well as the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Change (with Elisenda Ardèvol and Sirpa Tenhunen). His Twitter handle is @JohnPostill

 

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