Authors: Teddy Farhan and Alifia N. Sumayya*
Recently, the Rohingya issue in Indonesia resurfaced following their arrival on the coast of Aceh, such as Sabang, Pidie, and Bireuen, in mid-November 2023. The continuous influx of refugees has not been balanced with local resources in Aceh, particularly concerning the overcrowded conditions in the shelters, leading to widespread rejection in the region.
In addition, this rejection is based on perceptions and experiences that label many Rohingya ethnicities as having poor morals. It is also evident on various social media platforms, where Rohingya are portrayed and demonized through negative narratives. They are often depicted as disrespectful, ungrateful, and not adhering to societal norms. Hence, this article will discuss how these negative narratives function as a form of demonization and examine their impacts.
The Analysis of Demonization of Rohingya in Indonesia
The demonization of the Rohingya in Indonesia began with the circulation of videos and content depicting Rohingya refugees displaying alleged disrespectful behavior, such as wasting food aid. Additionally, social media and online news created a narrative that Rohingya came to Indonesia illegally, and worsened by their non-compliance towards local customs, regulations, and norms. Moreover, various platforms of social media and online news label them as unclean due to careless defecation, and lack of personal hygiene which has caused some people to incite hate speech through social media. The narrative and hatred further influence people to form a movement to prevent them from entering Indonesia.
Essentially, this technique of demonization of Rohingya can be analyzed through the pattern of The Hype Machine by Sinan Aral. The presence of three technologies such as smartphones (the medium), machine intelligence (the hype loop process), and digital social networks (the substrate) created three trends in the form of hype machines: hypersocialization, personalized mass persuasion, and attention economy (Aral, 2020).
Hypersocialization describes the process by which social media constantly bombards us with new digital social signals from our friends, family, and the crowd, connecting our thoughts, behaviors, and actions with those over 3 billion people in a new hive mind (Aral, 2020). This term reflects how quickly the Rohingya narrative spread: when your friends or family interact with this news on social media, it appears on your timeline due to the social media algorithm. Subsequently, your thoughts, behaviors, and actions are affected by this exposure.
The second trend is personalized mass persuasion,creating a new targeted, individually tailored persuasive messaging designed to influence our behaviors (Aral, 2020). In the Rohingya case, this trend was evident when someone created negative narratives that impacted the behavior of the audience. For example, many people on social media posted mockery videos impersonating Rohingya refugees rejecting food aid.
Moreover, there was a TikTok movement that incited violence against the Rohingya ethnicity by spreading posters. On top of that, a circulating video on X depicted students violently disbanding the Rohingya refugee camp in Banda Aceh. Consequently, the extensive dissemination of disinformation, misinformation, and hoaxes on social media significantly influences our reactions by evoking emotions in its audience.
On the other hand, Michiko Kakutami argues that massive misinformation occurs because social media networks prioritize more popular or trending news, over accurate and essential information. Additionally, there is an issue with the “asymmetry of passion” on social media. Renee DiResta contends there is an imbalance, where most people cannot dedicate hours to create content reinforcing evident facts. This is exploited by those against truth and passionate extremists who generate extensive content to “wake up the sheeple.”
This is evident in how individuals lacking knowledge about the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the events in Cox’s Bazar quickly express hatred based solely on unsubstantiated content. Consequently, content containing negative narratives and hoaxes can ultimately influence people’s perspectives and seep into public policy debates.
Also, according to Aral, the spread of hoaxes occurs due to an intriguing symbiosis between bots and humans, with bots playing a significant role in disseminating content from low-credibility sources. However, in Indonesia, buzzers played a significant role in spreading low-credibility content compared to bots, which were primarily engaged in retweeting.
Moreover, influential accounts on platforms like X, Instagram, TikTok, and others also shared such content, collectively reinforcing and legitimizing the information. Consequently, the exposed audience perpetuates and disseminates these negative narratives, contributing to the propagation of misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech.
How Social Media and Online News Portrayed Rohingyas
Social media is more prone to disinformation, as depicted by Aral’s analysis in 2016, which revealed that fake news on Twitter was more viral than real news. This trend is evident in X’s analysis from December 2nd to 8th, where the social media analytics institution, Drone Emprit, reported 47,672 mentions of Rohingya on X compared to 4,421 online news mentions. However, the majority of X’s numbers are not organic, published by automated anonymous accounts which increased the volume of mentions. Simultaneously, there has been an insurgence of hoaxes and harmful narratives circulating on TikTok.
If people base their decisions on hoaxes and fake news, any hope for logical public discussion is lost, leaving the field open for political buzzers who weaponize misinformation to manipulate public opinion. Specifically in this matter, social media platforms play a dual role, serving as both communication tools and spaces for abuse and online persecution, where harmful narratives and misinformation are exploited to undermine the credibility of their narratives and spread xenophobic sentiments.
The massiveness of the hatred against the Rohingya emerged from a combination of various social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. Numerous hoax videos spread by buzzers portrayed the Rohingya as unable to recite the “shahada,“ which is known to be the baseline of the Islamic religion, and this leads to the Rohingyas being portrayed as undevoted Muslims. Furthermore, an Indonesian YouTuber residing in Mecca legitimized the negative narrative about Rohingya people’s problems by posting a video of refugee tents outside the city, implying that Rohingya people’s misbehaviors are the reason why they are rejected everywhere.
The negative framing assumed Rohingya as perpetrators of vandalism at a flat in Sidoarjo. However, investigations revealed that only five Rohingya refugees lived in the flat and they were not involved as perpetrators. Furthermore, online news highlights the Rohingya individual in a suspected harassment case, leading to the victim being assaulted by a mob. Upon deeper inspection, the assault on the Rohingya individual occurred due to misleading information conveyed by the victim. Notably, the negative framing stemmed from a previous case of harassment among Rohingya refugees in Pidie, Aceh.
There is a video that showed Rohingya individuals fake IDs when entering East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), a province of Indonesia. Subsequently, police authorities clarified that the individuals apprehended with fake IDs in Aceh were not Rohingya but foreign nationals. The negative media narrative emerged due to Rohingya being perceived as illegal refugees. The other news that the media gives fear-mongering by creating a hoax video depicting Rohingya, allegedly, seeking land ownership. The original video portrayed Rohingya protesting against violence in Malaysia. This was further exacerbated by influencers disseminating negative narratives to attract audiences.
On the other side, the sentiment towards the United Nations and its body UNHCR fell victim to the generalization from the public, due to the recent bad reputation of the organization seeing the unsatisfactory way it has been dealing with the genocide in Gaza. UNHCR is considered an organization that supports Rohingya refugees, this leads to the creation of multiple fake accounts impersonating UNHCR that urge Indonesian citizens to accept them to provide citizenship and also to allocate an empty island for them to live on.
Additionally, due to UNHCR’s assistance to Rohingya refugees, there was a negative framing to undermine UNHCR. There were videos on TikTok claiming leaked conversations among UNHCR members stating that the Rohingya were being used as tools. This narrative explains that UNHCR is not fully responsible for the Rohingya, for instance, during any conflicts between the locals and the Rohingya.
The Impact of Demonization of the Rohingya in Indonesia
Seeing the demonization of the Rohingya in Indonesia brings forth several perspectives. Firstly, the horizontal conflict emerges. For instance, the bias of Indonesian Muslims on social media views Palestine as a special nation for choosing to defend its land and having good morals (akhlakul karimah) compared to Rohingya, who fled their land and are perceived to have bad morals. Consequently, people from different religions view Muslims as too selective in their issues. However, this is more about misinformation and the uneven, opaque, and unfair distribution of content.
Secondly, the rise of xenophobia and nationalism, where Indonesian society is framed to fear Rohingya ethnicities “colonizing” Indonesia. There is a perception that refugees live luxuriously, eat, and sleep for free in Indonesia, and this is compared to Indonesia’s underdeveloped state yet having to accept refugees. This sentiment also comes from a resident in Aceh named Rizal, who expressed fear that the Rohingya people might take over the land in Sabang if they stayed too long. He obtained this information from misleading social media posts falsely claiming Rohingya in Malaysia were protesting for land.
Thirdly, the disruption of democracy, where the Rohingya refugee issues are visibly being used as political tools, in a way where the stances of the Indonesian presidential candidates on the matter are polarized between those who ‘accept’ and ‘reject’ the refugees. It is reflected by the circulation of a video of presidential candidate Anies Baswedan allegedly stating his stance on accepting the refugees, which led to backlash from the public. But in fact, the video was cut and taken out of context, as it was originally discussing Palestinian refugees. As an effect, it lowers the electability of Baswedan.
On the other hand, the vast majority of the public who rejects the refugees expressed interest in the nationalism of Prabowo Subianto, who is also running for office, whose stance is to indirectly reject the refugees. Subianto reasoned that Indonesia’s economic condition is unsuitable and that the Indonesian citizens should be prioritized. Thus, this standpoint garnered attention and appreciation from those against the acceptance of the Rohingyas, especially on fanbase account forums on social media.
Is Expelling Rohingya a Viable Solution?
Forcing the Rohingya people to return to their home country is not the right solution. It’s true that Indonesia still faces a lack of resources. However, sending away those fleeing persecution and genocide does not solve the problem, instead, it puts these people’s lives at risk.
It is important to note that while Indonesia has not ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees or its Protocols, it has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Indonesia recognizes the right to seek asylum abroad under Article 14(1) of the UDHR. Importantly, Indonesia remains bound by the principle of non-refoulement, a cornerstone of customary international law, which prohibits the return of refugees to a country where they face a credible risk of persecution. Indonesia has established Presidential Regulation No. 125 of 2016 on the Handling of Refugees, which was a legal instrument created to tackle the growing refugee crisis in the country.
However, the Regulation itself prioritizes administrative procedures over human rights considerations, leaving crucial protections for refugees inadequate. This glaring gap becomes even more concerning in light of the recent surge, with over 13,700 refugees now stranded and the system demonstrably failing to address the core challenges Indonesia faces.
On the other hand, the emergence of this demonization is due to the lack of government presence in Aceh in handling refugees. What occurs is that the locals directly receive these refugees, to the extent of overwhelming numbers, without being adequately supported by local resources.
Furthermore, there is a lack of communication between the government and local people. For instance, the dialogue, socialization, and education towards local people, in general, to inform them about the Rohingya’s traumatic experiences and disrupted socioeconomic conditions, which might lead to potential criminal activities or their attitude that makes them unsettling. This approach also echoes the strategies adopted by the European Union (EU) in handling refugee cases.
Also, in situations of rejection like this, marginalized groups such as refugees and migrants, along with detainees and gender or sexual minorities, tend to have higher crime rates and lower social trust. This is due to feelings of frustration, loss of homes, being stranded, separated from family, and feeling alienated, pushing refugees to a point of desperation that might lead to rash actions.
The emergence of Rohingya demonization in Indonesia is not baseless; it stems from the significant number of refugees arriving in Indonesia, which is not balanced by resources in Aceh. Additionally, governmental collaboration has led to misunderstandings. Traumatized refugees arriving in Indonesia face persecution immediately, placing them among the most marginalized groups.
Moreover, the demonization poses a security threat in Indonesia, aiming to blur reality. It deflects the target of accountability and weakens people’s capability of toppling and holding the ruling class accountable for the economic hardships faced by the people. Structural flaws in the state and capitalism lead to resource distribution injustices and economic disparities.
It is also noteworthy that the number of Rohingya refugees in Indonesia makes up 20% of the 13,000 refugees in Indonesia. Also, previously, Indonesia accommodated around 250,000 refugees from Vietnam between 1975 and 1996. The presence of xenophobia and nationalism eventually incited hatred towards the Rohingya, with some even envisioning the Rohingyas to act similarly to Israel if they stayed long in Indonesia.
The demonization through social media utilizes the Hype Machine technique, where false information and narratives of hatred against Rohingya refugees are disseminated by buzzers and bots, later legitimized by fan-based accounts, verified accounts, and influential figures. Buzzers and fan-based accounts, often anonymous, craft narratives of hatred. With their substantial following, these narratives spread rapidly, provoking significant responses that amplify into national discussions. This indirectly fuels online persecution.
Hence, Aral argues that the improper use of social media eventually leads to real-life losses, such as disrupting elections, undermining democracy, spreading misinformation, and inciting hatred (Aral, 2020). The disruption of democracy can be observed through political manipulations. Thus, the presence of demonization Rohingya in Indonesia falls within the negative aspects of social media and establishes the Rohingya ethnicity as a “false enemy”.
*Alifia N. Sumayya (Final Year Law Student at Universitas Syiah Kuala, Researching on Refugee Law)