Mining Indonesian Tweets to Understand Perceptions about Fuel Subsidies

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Why does a nation which has pledged to curb greenhouse gas emissions, lacks investment in basic infrastructure, and whose capital suffers from chronic traffic jam — spend an annual 20 percent of central government budget on keeping the price of fuel artificially low? And why is it notoriously difficult to remove this paradoxical subsidy?

During the last decade, Indonesia has seen the growth of a ‘new middle class’: a segment of the population which Andy Sumner and I termed the ‘Scooter Class(1). This middling group of people, who are neither poor nor rich, live in accommodations made of solid building materials and in households in which at least one person owns a motorcycle and one has completed a secondary education. The burgeoning mobile ‘Scooter class’ is a visible sign of Indonesia’s economic success after the end of the Asian financial crisis. It is also a group which has grown accustomed to low fuel prices and motorized transportation and it is dominating the contemporary city scape of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta: The city’s streets, once crowded by rickshaws (which were banned in the 1970s), are now congested by car and motorcycle traffic. Vehicles have advanced from a means of transport to a status symbol that many strive for.
Fuel subsidies in Indonesia date back to the first oil price shocks in the 1970s. Only in the aftermath of the financial crisis and, especially, throughout the last decade has the government made efforts to phase out the increasingly costly subsidy — with mixed success and occasional social unrest. Today, fuel subsidies are a central development problem in Indonesia, which has become a net oil importer: they are fiscally unsustainable, environmentally damaging and regressive. According to estimates of the World Bank, two thirds of poor and near-poor households(2) do not consume any gasoline at all. Conversely, 40% of the direct price benefit is captured by motorcycle drivers. It is hence understandable that, with a burgeoning ‘Scooter class’ feeling entitled to low fuel prices, it is hard to reform this policy(3), the more so as subsidy removals are usually accompanied by temporary price hikes of consumer goods.
And yet, Indonesia has committed to reducing fuel subsidies in the context of the G20 and APEC. The outgoing administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made several attempts in phasing out the subsidy while providing compensatory cash transfers to the most vulnerable households. President-elect Joko Widodo announced that the new administration taking office in October would further reduce the subsidy. This time, the government will not allocate compensatory cash transfers but, instead, will roll out a universal social safety net (which could arguably be attractive to the new middle class, as well).
The co-occurring phenomena of a rising ‘new middle class’ and a policy of cheap fuel in Indonesia raise a series of interesting questions: How does this growing group perceive fuel subsidies and their reform? How do people get active about subsidy removal and organize pressure? What networks and channels do they use? What concerns are raised and why? What are the determinants of public sentiment and discourse about subsidy reform? How do conversations spill over between media?
There is hardly a better way of finding out answers to these questions than analyzing conversations on Twitter, a highly popular social media platform in Indonesia and, arguably, a mouthpiece of the new middle class. Twitter is an influential medium where information and news gets published, shared, diffused and spinned, where sentiments emerge and opinions can turn into activism. Conversations on Twitter do not neutrally reflect attitudes representative of the whole population; they often are generated by educated, middle-class opinion leaders who set trends which spill over into various domains and can have a significant impact on public discourse in Indonesia. Only last week the outgoing administration of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, after passing a contentious piece of legislation, was faced with a ‘twitter storm’ which had international reverberations and propelled the hashtag #ShameOnYouSBY into the globally ‘trending’ Twitter topics(4).
Social media have played an underresearched role in fuel subsidy reform even though recent examples point to their significance: Two years ago in Nigeria, for instance, an increase in the fuel price after a subsidy cut “sparked nationwide #OccupyNigeria protests, driven largely by young people mobilising themselves via social media, mobile phones and word-of-mouth”. And only last month, a number of citizens in Yemen “turned to social media to vent their anger over fuel hikes” after a subsidy cut and organized mass demonstrations in the capital city Sanaa.
Will Indonesia turn into  #OccupyIndonesia when the new middle class feels the pain of fuel price hikes later this year? Or are the new social policies an adequate compensation?
Big data analysis allows us to shed light on these and the above questions. Using text mining algorithms, I have started to mine conversations on Twitter, and other social media, for content related to fuel subsidies. The content will then be analyzed by subject, polarity, popularity and underlying sharing patterns. (Semi-)Automated sentiment analysis accompanied by key informant interviews can give us a big picture of who the people are who talk about fuel subsidies in Indonesia and how they talk about it, which dynamics conversations show over time and how topics and sentiments are correlated. An online survey will help to better understand the demographics of Twitter users.
For a social scientist, the wealth of user-generated content on Twitter is a gold mine. With the help of Pulse Lab Jakarta — an innovation lab of UN Global Pulse with expertise in big data which previously used Twitter data to understand food price crises — I have started explorations and extraction of this figurative gold mine.
I welcome feedback and opinions on all aspects of the research. The current project forms a part of my dissertation at King’s International Development Institute. If you are interested in it, please email me or get in touch via Twitter
Lukas Schlogl is doctoral student at King’s College London researching the impact of ‘new middle classes’ on subsidy and social policy reform in Indonesia and Brazil. He graduated from the University of Vienna and worked on issues related to international development assistance and policy coherence. You can follow him on Twitter at @LukasSchlogl
(1) In contrast to English, the term “Scooter” is used predominantly for a specific brand of Vespa machines in Indonesia. To avoid misunderstanding, the term should be read as meaning ‘motor bebek’ class.
(2) Indonesia’s official poverty line was Rp 233,000 per month in 2011 (less than 1 dollar a day at nominal exchange rates) while the near-poor line was defined as 1.2 times of that amount.
(3) While car owners benefit even more disproportionally, car ownership is still quite low with only over 10 mil. passenger cars in 2012 vis-à-vis a population of around 250 mil. in that year. Car drivers are thus arguably not the main political constituency to be worried about.
(4) According to Jakarta Post, the hashtag later “suddenly disappeared’ from Twitter’s ‘trends’ after suspected government intervention.
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