Tweeting for West Papua during the Pacific Islands Leaders Forum

by David Leeming

Coverage by Radio New Zealand International

Coverage by Radio New Zealand International

West Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea, is a disputed territory which was annexed by Indonesia from the Netherlands in 1968. West Papua is now a province of Indonesia, and its history parallels that of neighbouring Timor Leste which was also annexed by Indonesia a few years later, but which won independence in 2000 following an epic campaign of resistance during which at least 100,000 people were killed. For West Papua, the struggle continues with worrying incidents reported as recently as March 2015.

Unlike Timor, West Papua is ethnically close to the Melanesian countries of the south west Pacific, comprising Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. These four countries are members of two regional blocks, the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) and the wider Pacific Islands Forum. Taking the lead from the Melanesian countries, whose publics feel a sense of kinship and common heritage with the Papuans, the issue has increasingly been a top item on the agenda at meetings of both organisations.

Solomon Islands has found itself as the kingmaker at recent events. Historically, mobilisations of the grassroots in support of political issues have been very rare. It is not uncommon to see marches in the capital, but these are usually organised by churches or official campaigns, and on occasion have been in reaction to ethnic tensions. However, the West Papua issue has seen rallies of “hundreds of people” calling for political leaders to “bring back West Papua to the Family”.

With the debate firmly established offline, it also generated a lot of critical discussion online, especially in the public Facebook group, Forum Solomon Islands International. This forum has made a real mark in the Solomons by opening up a new space in the public sphere. With 15,000 members and a coordinating committee that not only mentors the discussions but carries forward summaries of collective opinion to the government and the offline media, the forum has had considerable success in raising issues of public concern that the authorities are unable to ignore. Indeed, government and public service officials are frequent contributors in the discussions.

West Papua has been hotly debated in the FSII Facebook page [David Leeming]

West Papua has been hotly debated in the FSII Facebook page [David Leeming]

 Politically, leaders have swayed between regional human rights concerns on one hand, and relations with Indonesia on the other, which has been trying to increase it’s sphere of influence eastwards as discussed here. The previous NCRA government of Gordon Darcy Lilo had been embroiled in controversy over funding of its diplomatic missions to Indonesia. When the DCCG government with Manasseh Sogovare as Prime Minister was elected in 2014, observers watched closely for the direction the DCCG would lean. A key point of contestation has been membership (either with full or observer status) of the West Papuan liberation movement in the MSG and the Pacific Islands Forum. Consequently a lot of lobbying took place around the time of the June 2015 summit of the MSG in the Solomons capital Honiara.

Car with West Papua campaign stickers, Honiara, Solomon Islands [David Leeming]

Car with West Papua campaign stickers, Honiara, Solomon Islands [David Leeming]

Initially, campaigners were cautiously hopeful. Matt Gale, from Solomon Islands, is quoted as saying:

“West Papuans are our kin, estranged through no fault of their own in 1962, and we want them to return to the Melanesian family. When we talk about indigenous cosmologies, ontologies and epistemologies, this is what it’s all about. It begs our humanity to support their application to join our unique organization”.

In the event, the MSG voted to admit not the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), which had applied to join, but Indonesia as an associate member. The decision was widely pilloried by activists and in discussions groups and the media around the Pacific Islands.

However, a different dynamic allowed Solomon Islands to champion West Papua in an apparent turn-around of regional diplomacy a few weeks later at the 46th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Meeting, which was held in Port Moresby, PNG in September. The Forum announced that it was “the will of all the Pacific Islands leaders and their people, including Australia and New Zealand and PNG as Chair”, to take forward a request to the Indonesia government on a fact finding mission on human rights in West Papua. Sogovare as his Special Envoy to West Papua, Mathew Wale, were treated as heroes in the social media.

A post on the ULMWP Facebook Page

A post on the ULMWP Facebook Page

In the context of new media and activism it is interesting to ask the question whether social media played a role in influencing this turn around. From the literature we know that the success of social media campaigning follows certain logic and conditions. For instance, Merlyna Lim [1] has recently studied social media activism in Indonesia, and finds that campaigns can be most successful if they fit in with consumer culture, coming with a “light package, headline appetite and trailer vision”. By appealing to emotions through simple narratives and calling for low-risk actions, they can attract mass support. However, this does not always happen if the actions are not congruent with dominant meta-narratives such as nationalism and religiosity.

Social media activism targeting the support of the Pacific Islands with headline messages such as “bringing back West Papua to the Family” certainly seems to align with this logic and the meta-narrative of transnational Melanesian identity.

On the other hand, researchers would need to analyse the Indonesian context too, where the activism would have to contend with a strongly nationalistic meta-narrative. In fact, the official motto for the Indonesian province of West Papua is Cintaku Negeriku (My home my country). One might also investigate offline and clandestine networking, which was shown to be such a successful strategy of the East Timor resistance, as described by Braithwaite [2]. The offline dynamics at work in mobilising support in Solomon Islands is therefore of great interest.

Analysis of Tweets on West Papua at the Pacific Islands Forum Meeting

In order to gain insights into social media activity concerning the West Papua issue, I used to download 1984 Tweets containing the key phrase “West Papua” for a two-week period around the time of the Forum meeting.

My brief interrogation of the data was not a rigorous content analysis. That would take considerably more time and would need to be accompanied by other strategies such as ethnographic research. Despite these limitations, this exercise was fascinating and I was astonished by what I found.

The peaks in this graph correspond to the Forum Meeting

The peaks in this graph correspond to the Forum Meeting (

The 1984 tweets were generated by 597 different accounts. Although only 14% were geo-tagged, those that were showed high diversity with 32 countries being represented. Australia and New Zealand generated the most of this subset, with 35% of the geo-tagged tweets. This was followed by Great Britain and 11 European countries (19%), five Pacific Islands countries (15%) and Indonesia (10%). There were none tagged as being from Solomon Islands, which could mean that people did not use phones with GPS, or tweeted using computers, or there were few people using Twitter in Solomon Islands. The only conclusion we can make is that the interest in the issue and the Pacific Islands Forum meeting was truly global.

Geolocation of the sample tweets

Geolocation of the sample tweets (

Secondly, we can look at the density of tweets per user. Studies such as Democratic Dialogue in 140 Characters which looked at social media use around the 2014 Indonesian Presidential elections, revealed a high level of automatic tweeting generated by “twitterbots”. Such accounts typically are “following” many, but are “followed” by few. They may be only retweeting, and may have a frequency that can often exceed what is humanly possible. In my sample I found that there was only one account (110 tweets) that appeared to be automatically broadcasting. This account’s content was entirely RTs.

On the other hand, the account sending the most tweets (@PurePapua, 163 tweets) had genuinely mixed and original content. The average number of tweets per user over the two week period was 3.

When examining the content, a typology from Guo and Saxton [3] is useful. This describes the “form” of communication in three categories; information, community and call for action. Furthermore, it lists a set of 12 advocacy tactics observed in Twitter content.

I used this approach to examine some of the content. I found that there was a rich diversity in the advocacy tactics used. For instance, the PurePaua account, despite having broadcast an average of 10 tweets per day over the 2 weeks, shared original content as well as RTs demonstrating several of Guo and Saxton’s advocacy tactics. Critical questions were asked referring to colonial history, the role of the UN was questioned, photographs were shared and direct appeals made to Pacific countries (the leaders of Fiji, New Zealand and Australia).Tweets were also directed across networks – for instance to appeal to black activism (@trueblacknews, #BlackLivesMatter).

Other advocacy tactics included:

  • Appeals to identities (such as the “Pacific family”);
  • The use of headline friendly catch phrases such as “The Forgotten Bird of Paradise” (which is also the title of a documentary by British film maker Dominic Brown),
  • Direct appeals to celebrities;
  • Appeals to shared cultural identities, through sharing video clips of traditional dance and sharing of cultural music mp3 files from West Papua;
  • Alerts regarding incidents and infringements by the Indonesian security services;
  • Calls for community actions such as a “Walk for Freedom” organised in Port Moresby at the time of the Forum Meeting;
  • Sharing Youtube footage of protests such as one held outside the Indonesian Embassy in London;
  • Attempts at viral distribution of highly visual messages such as a photograph of an Indonesian soldier assaulting a young man;
  • Alerts of new discussions being started on an email list where specific incidents, strategies and ideas are debated more deeply;
  • Sharing of general news regarding politics, international organisations, research and events relating to West Papua.

The range of interests represented was highly diverse. It included media activists from the Pacific, for instance PNG and Maori TV from New Zealand. The influence of Fiji’s FEMLink was evident with 29 tweets sent through 3 accounts representing Fiji women and youth.

It also included Australian and New Zealand mainstream media such as ABC and RNZI and their correspondents.The independent media were represented by several groups including the Papua Press Agency. The sample included tweets from acclaimed academics, for instance journalist and media educator David Robie.

A number of West Papua activist networks were represented, including PurePapua, West Papuan People, and others. As might be expected, international activists were also present in the sample, especially from Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

International NGOs were perhaps noticeable by their absence. There were no tweets with the key phrase “West Papua” from organisations such as Oxfam, World Vision, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch found in the sample. Was the issue too politically charged, especially with the regional leaders about to discuss it at the Forum? Or was the issue off the radar? It would be interesting to probe into this a bit more.

One interesting identity represented in the sample was associated with the international surfing community. The sport of surfing is high profile in Indonesia, with major events being held on the island of Bali, for instance. Surfers are an internationally mobile, tech-savvy community who are used to going off the beaten track. It was interesting therefore, to see an account @Surfers4WP and tweet stream #Surfers4WestPapua. One advocacy tactic used by this group was to publicise the film Isolated, a drama documentary about surfers who “stumble on stumbled headlong into an alarming conflict that would radically upend their priorities”. This genre might be a powerful way to inform and appeal to people’s emotions and to support the cause. More on this film from the PNG perspective here : Emmanuel Narakobi of the Masalai Blog.

Concluding words

An article in Islands Business claims that that the marketing and awareness campaign by the ULMWP has drawn a lot of public sympathy from countries around the Pacific, and that the campaign was largely based on social media.

Technically, West Papua was on the Forum meeting agenda because it had been prioritised as one of the five items selected for discussion under the newly operationalised Framework for Pacific Regionalism. As discussed by Matthew Dornan and Tess Newton Cain in the Dev Policy Blog, the framework aims to broaden the conversation beyond that of dominant regional agencies and had set the agenda for the Port Moresby meeting based on a process that allowed for public submissions. The Framework also aims to “bring back the politics” of regionalism, pushing back against the technocratic agency-led discourse, and perhaps it was this that created new freedoms in diplomacy regarding West Papua, especially in the case of Solomon Islands.

Although my analysis has been very cursory and limited to Twitter, it illustrates a richness in the data, diversity of the actors and their advocacy tactics and hints at motivations. It reflects the nuanced and complex nature of the issue. One might presume that the public opinion fed into the Forum agenda-setting process through the official channels had been projected, to some extent at least, through the new media.

This exercise supports the notion that new media has had an impact on Pacific Islands regional diplomacy over West Papua. However, further research is needed to demonstrate causality. For instance, ethnographic methods could be used and a parallel analysis conducted on the Indonesian “side of the coin”. It would also be useful to look at other social media especially Facebook, where more critical debate can be captured.

[1] Merlyna Lim (2013) Many Clicks but Little Sticks: Social Media Activism in Indonesia, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 43:4, 636-657

[2] Braithwaite, B., Charlesworth, H. and Soares, A. (2012 ed.) Networked Governance of Freedom and Tyranny; Peace in Timor-Leste. Australian National University Press

[3] Guo, C & Saxton, G. D. (2014) Tweeting Social Change:How Social Media Are Changing Nonprofit Advocacy Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 2014, Vol. 43(1) 57–79

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1 comment

  1. Very educational and informative post about the West Papua, David, I really enjoyed reading it, and learned a lot from it, as I did not know too much about this region earlier. I took some additional time to read a bit more about the region and its history in order to understand the complexity of the Papua-conflict. The links provided in your post helped greatly with exploring the topic further.

    As well, I had a look in the book South Pacific Islands Communication: Regional Perspectives, Local Issues (Papoutsaki & Sundar Harris (eds), 2008) that deals with earlier scholarly work on communication and media by researchers that works across the region, which provided some additional perspectives to this discussion as well. Even though I did not had the chance to read the book as much as I would have wished, it basically explores how one can establish a better understanding of what affects the communication, media and information flow in smaller nations, and how these influence on development, governance and the formation of more interconnected societies.

    It is clear that this region has an intricate history that adds further complexity to the contemporary context of the West Papua, and I am intrigued to learn more how media works within this area, not only social media. I agree with that it is relevant to see how social media’s role, or new media in general, might influence political issues of these kinds, and your detailed content analysis provides with many insightful viewpoints on the use of social media activism within this setting.

    The meta-study “Social Media Use and Participation: A Meta-analysis of Current Research,” (Boulianne 2015) is additionally interesting when one wishes to see how social media may influence political participation. In brief, Boulianne (ibid) explores 36 different studies that deal with the connection between social media use and everything from public engagement to concrete actions such as protesting and voting. Even though various factors were examined in all of them, the meta-research conveyed that 82% showed a positive link between social media use and some form of civic / political participation or engagement, which strengthens the statement that social media can be a significant factor for impacting political issues.

    Nevertheless, as you state in your blog post, it could be very beneficial to do several studies such as yours, in order to really understand social media’s impact on diplomatic and political processes in the South West Pacific Region, and whether the relationship in between the two is causal and transformative, which is also noted in Boulianne’s meta-study. It is important to note that the collected metadata also demonstrated that social media use had an insignificant impact on participation in election campaigns.

    Thanks again for an interesting read!


    Boulianne, S. (2015). Social media use and participation: a meta-analysis of current research. Information, Communication & Society. Special Issue: Communication and Information Technologies Section (ASA). Volume 18, Issue 5.
    Papoutsaki, E, & Sundar Harris, U. (2008) South Pacific Islands Communication: Regional Perspectives, Local Issues.