Tension between Indonesia and Vanuatu at the United Nations General Assembly spilled over into an ugly show of hatred by Indonesian online trolls, who flooded an official Instagram account of the South Pacific Ocean nation with racist comments.
At the general assembly on Saturday, Vanuatu Prime Minister Bob Laughman called on Indonesia to address alleged human rights abuses in Indonesia, which prompted Indonesian junior diplomat Silvany Austin Pasaribu to reply, "You are not a representation of the people of Papua so stop fantasizing about being one" while accusing the island nation of having an "unhealthy obsession about how Indonesia should govern itself."
That moment has stoked the fire of nationalism in many Indonesians, but some (many of whom appear to be bots) strayed way too far when they left racist messages on the Instagram account for Vanuatu Tourism Office. Some of the most heinous comments made liberal use of the N-word and called Vanuatuans cannibalistic slaves.
The Instagram account has since turned off the comments feature on all of its photos.
That said, many Indonesians have slammed the racist comments whichever side of the Papua issue they're on.
Vanuatu's tourism page on Instagram right now just because their Prime Minister spoke up for West Papua. Fucking disgusting #freewestpapua #papuamerdeka pic.twitter.com/aHCSrbj2Hx – ?? (@cookedlocal) September 29, 2020
I gave ?? to every post by Vanuatu Islands on Instagram because the people are beautiful and I'm embarrassed and shocked by racist comments thrown at them – screenshots that have been around on Twitter just made me really sad. pic.twitter.com/SkZGz432gz – Uly Siregar (@sheknowshoney) September 29, 2020
Vanuatu Tourism Office Communications Manager Nick Howlett told Australian broadcaster ABC that he believes the comments were part of a "coordinated inauthentic [social media] activity," referring to the use of bots. These bots, he said, have targeted Vanuatu's social media accounts with hateful comments whenever the country's politicians raise human rights concerns in Papua in the past.
Indonesia Foreign Affairs Ministry Spokesman Teuku Faizasyah did not offer the same bot theory, but suggested that the racist comments came from a few bad apples.
"Can we silence social media? Commenting [ethics on social media] depends on one's maturity. But I believe that the majority of our people are anti-racist because we're a pluralistic nation," he said.