Why is social media content control rising in Malaysia?

  • Malaysia intensifies social media content regulation in 2023.
  • Record content restrictions by Meta and TikTok in Malaysia spotlight freedom of speech challenges.
  • Malaysia’s Minister counters censorship accusations, targets divisive online content.

In the digital age, the intersection of technology, policy, and human rights often manifests in internet freedom and content regulation. Two prominent examples of this are seen in China and India. In China, the government maintains one of the world’s most comprehensive and sophisticated internet censorship systems. Known colloquially as the “Great Firewall,” this system blocks access to numerous foreign websites and rigorously monitors and censors the domestic digital landscape. This approach reflects the Chinese government’s commitment to maintaining strict control over information and public discourse, citing national security and social stability.

In contrast, India, while boasting a relatively open internet, has experienced its share of government intervention in digital content. Particularly in times of political unrest or social tension, the Indian government has been known to temporarily shut down internet access in specific regions or demand the removal of content from social media platforms that it deems a threat to public order or national security. Although often justified in the moment under the guise of maintaining peace and order, these actions raise concerns about the balance between state control and freedom of expression.

Malaysia’s surge in social media content regulation

Similar trends in content regulation and concerns about freedom of speech are evident in Malaysia. In the first six months of 2023, Meta and China’s TikTok restricted a record number of social media posts and accounts in Malaysia, as indicated by data released by these firms. This surge in content moderation coincided with increased government requests to remove content.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s administration in Malaysia, which assumed power in November 2022 on a reform platform, has been accused of reneging on  its commitment to safeguard freedom of speech. Reuters reported that this accusation arose amid heightened scrutiny and online content regulation in recent months. The Malaysian government, however, refutes claims of suppressing online dissent, stating its intention to limit provocative posts that potentially incite issues related to race, religion, and royalty.

In the first half of this year, Meta implemented restrictions on approximately 3,100 Facebook and Instagram pages and posts for Malaysian users. This action was based on reports alleging these pages and posts violated local Malaysian laws, as detailed in Meta’s semi-annual Transparency Report. The number of restrictions marked a significant increase, sixfold higher than the previous six months and the most substantial since Meta started documenting such actions in Malaysia in 2017.

In a recent statement, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission clarified that its requests to remove content from social media were driven by a need to shield users from a sharp rise in online harm rather than suppress diverse opinions.

From July 2022 to June 2023, Meta responded to requests from the Malaysian communications regulator and other government bodies by restricting over 3,500 items. These included posts critical of the government and others purportedly breaching laws against illegal gambling, hate speech, racial or religious division, bullying, and financial scams, as per Meta’s report.

Malaysia asked Meta and TikTok to remove more content in 2023. (Source -X).

TikTok’s compliance and challenges in Malaysia

Similarly, TikTok reported receiving 340 requests from the Malaysian government in the first half of 2023 to remove or limit access to certain content, impacting around 890 posts and accounts. The platform took action against 815 of these, citing violations of local laws or its own community guidelines. This figure was the highest for any six-month period since TikTok started reporting such data in Malaysia in 2019, and triple the number from the latter half of 2022. Malaysia’s requests to TikTok were the most numerous in Southeast Asia during this period. Unlike TikTok, Meta did not disclose the total count of government requests for content restrictions on its platforms.

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission also reported a 24-fold surge in harmful content on social platforms, jumping to 25,642 cases in 2023 from just 1,019 in the previous year. This figure included instances of scams, illegal sales, gambling, fake news, and hate speech. However, the Commission did not specify the breakdown of this harmful content across different platforms.

Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil recently refuted claims that he sought the removal of social media posts criticizing him, asserting that the regulator’s actions were often based on public complaints. He emphasized the sensitivity of race and religion in Malaysia, a country with a predominantly Muslim Malay majority and substantial Chinese and Indian minorities, which also has laws against seditious comments or insults towards its monarchy.

Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil.

Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil. (Source – Shutterstock).

Concerning TikTok, Fahmi raised issues in October about the platform’s inadequate response to defamatory or misleading content in Malaysia and its failure to fully comply with specific local laws, without specifying which. After meeting with TikTok representatives, he stated these concerns, highlighting the need to address content distribution and advertising purchase issues that had elicited complaints.

Fahmi acknowledged TikTok’s assurance of cooperation with the Malaysian government, attributing some of its operational lapses to the absence of a local representative in Malaysia. When asked for a comment on the Minister’s remarks and the meeting’s outcomes, TikTok’s spokesperson did not immediately respond.

This scenario is part of a broader scrutiny TikTok faces in Southeast Asia. For example, Indonesia’s government recently paused transactions on the platform following a ban on e-commerce trade on social media. Meanwhile, Vietnam is investigating the app for what it describes as “toxic” content.

Reiterating its commitment to compliance and cooperation, TikTok has stated its intent to proactively tackle the issues the Malaysian government raised. A spokesperson for TikTok confirmed the company’s respect for and adherence to Malaysia’s laws and regulations. The company has organized meetings with Malaysia’s communications regulator to align its operations with Malaysian expectations and legal requirements.

This proactive stance by TikTok came after Fahmi became concerned about content management and legal adherence, alongside the wider scrutiny the platform endures in the region.

The broader impact on free speech and expression

In a related development, the Malaysian government has considered legal action against Meta for not addressing “undesirable” content – but decided against it following discussions with the company.

However, free speech advocates, such as Article 19, have criticized the removal of government-critical posts. The group expressed concerns about the rising number of requests to restrict content, warning that this could impede legitimate free speech and expression.

“It is never permissible to prohibit expression solely because it casts a critical view on social issues, public figures or government institutions,” said Nalini Elumalai, the senior Malaysia program officer at Article 19.

Social media censorship is by no means only a Malaysian issue, but recently it’s an especially complicated one.