All Those Setya Novanto Memes Are More Powerful Than You Think

Lulz for justice.
October 3, 2017, 11:45am
Image via  

Does the power of Setya Novanto know no bounds? In the past few weeks, the speaker of the House has dodged multiple attempts by anti-graft investigators to question the Golkar Party politician over his alleged role in what's shaping up to be the biggest corruption case in the country's history. He then dodged the case entirely, getting his charges thrown out by a lower court on a technicality. The memes, it seems, were right.


Setya's legal team successfully argued that the underlying allegations used to charge their client had yet to be proven in court. It's the latest in a long-string of controversial decisions by the South Jakarta court— The Jakarta Post called it a "travesty of justice."

The pressure is still on Setya. The Corruption Eradication Comission, or KPK, is fighting the court ruling, promising that they will charge Setya again at a later date. But there's also something else at work here, another form of pressure that is increasingly becoming an important tool in holding Indonesian politicians accountable. I'm talking, of course, about the memes.

"SetNov proves to be 'powerful' because he always gets away," explained Nukman Luthfie, a social media expert. "That's the only way people can express their disappointment—through sarcastic tweets. These tweets come from a place of deep disappointment."

Indonesia is a pretty corrupt place. It ranks 90th on Transparency International's "Corruption Perception Index." This means that Indonesia is more corrupt than Turkey, Malaysia, and South Korea, but less than the Philippines, Thailand, and Russia.

The country has one of the most-active anti-corruption agencies in Asia. But Indonesian politicians are remarkable adept at avoiding, or delaying, prosecution. Corrupt politicians have fallen ill with a "forgetting disease," suffered from insane bouts of diarrhea, and vanished overseas to avoid jail time.


So when Setya was suddenly hospitalized for some kind of diabetes and vertigo related illness right when he was supposed to appear for questioning, people were justifiably suspicious. His supporters tried to respond to the criticism by sharing a photo of Setya resting in a hospital bed while he was hooked up to some kind of breathing machine.

This image was shared by some Golkar WhatsApp groups, then republished everywhere.

But people quickly noticed that things looked off in the photo. The EKG machine that charts a person's heart rate was flat—suggesting that either Setya was dead or he wasn't hooked up to the machine at all. They said his respirator looked like something from Dragon Ball Z. Then the Photoshops started to hit the internet.

When he beat the court case the memes continued. It wasn't the first time Setya danced his way around a corruption charge. Setya allegedly tried to extort billions of US dollars in shares from Freeport Indonesia, siphoned money off national rice imports, and illegally imported hazardous waste from Singapore. He avoided prosecution each time. No wonder was declared the most-powerful man in Indonesia. He's a man who, regardless of his alleged crimes, just can not get arrested.

It's easy to dismiss these memes as people having a laugh, but anti-corruption expert Lalola Easter told VICE that these kinds of jokes play an important role in keeping the pressure on politicians and political parties under investigation. They may be able to avoid the KPK's summons, but they can't hide from the wrath of the internet.

"Those kind of jokes actually bother politicians," said Lalola. "At least they have to prepare a clarification. After the memes went viral, Golkar released a statement to explain their stance."


In Indonesia, a trending hashtag is as important as a front page headline when it comes to a politician's reputation. A meme keeps an issue relevant and reaches more people than even the most-read newspaper. Social media attention also keeps the conventional media focused on an issue, and the subject of controversy in the hot seat longer.

"So even though it might seem insignificant, if you capitalize on the content a meme is an interesting weapon to drive resistance," Lalola said. "In this instance, it's resistance against a corruptor."

But Lalola cautioned against reading too much into the role memes play in bringing about change. While memes may keep the conversation alive, it takes real life protests out in the streets and elected officials enacting more just policies to affect any kind of real, lasting change.

"Many people assume that social media is more influential than other actions," Lalola said. "This sets a bad precedent. People feel like they've already participated simply because they liked and shared something.

"But that's not how it works. Social media is merely a tool. The ability to use a tool shouldn't be considered an achievement."

So keep on sharing those memes. But, if you really want to see some change you're going to have to put down the smartphone and pick up the megaphone.

"It's important to create awareness," Lalola said. "So that way one day, when someone's rights are being violated, people wouldn't stay quiet or say, 'that's the way the government is.'"