Malaysia Orders Meta, TikTok to Formulate Plan for ‘Harmful’ Content

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Malaysia Orders Meta, TikTok to Formulate Plan for ‘Harmful’ Content

With right-wing rhetoric proliferating online, the Anwar government has been forced to walk a fine line between free speech and censorship.

Malaysia Orders Meta, TikTok to Formulate Plan for ‘Harmful’ Content
Credit: Depositphotos

Malaysia’s government has requested that the social media giants Meta and TikTok present a plan of how they intend to clamp down on offensive content on their platforms, as the government reported a sharp increase in content removal requests.

According to a joint statement yesterday from the Communications and Multimedia Commission and the Malaysian police, the two tech giants attended a meeting led by Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil a day earlier, at which they were told to improve their monitoring efforts.

“TikTok and Meta have been required to provide an improvement plan and strategy with comprehensive details as agreed in the meeting,” the statement said.

The statement also reported a sharp increase in the amount of “harmful” content being posted to social media. It said that the government referred 51,638 cases to social media platforms, including Meta and TikTok, for further action in the first three months of 2024. This compared to 42,904 cases for the whole of 2023, the statement added.

The statement did not specify why this content was referred to tech companies, but expressed a particular concern about any content touching on the so-called “3Rs”: race, religion, and royalty. The firms were also asked to improve their removal of posts linked to scams and illegal gambling.

The sharp uptick in the number of content review and removal requests reflects the delicate line that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is now being forced to walk. The 18 months since he took office have been marked by the increasingly sophisticated use of social media platforms by his Malay right-wing opponents to undermine Anwar’s leadership and the credibility of his multi-ethnic Pakatan Harapan coalition. A lot of this content focuses on advancing a vision of Malaysian identity that is exclusively Malay, Muslim, and conservative, and detailing the various alleged ways in which Anwar’s government is undermining Malay privileges in favor of a variety of maligned “outgroups,” including the country’s economically-dominant ethnic Chinese minority.

It is also clear that this online rhetoric can have real-world effects. Last month, a furor erupted online when socks printed with the word “Allah,” the Arabic word for God, were found to be sold at KK Mart, the country’s second-largest mini-market chain. After an ensuing outrage on  social media, KK Mart apologized, though this did not prevent two of the chain’s executives from being charged with “hurting religious feelings.” Vigilantes later attacked at least three KK Mart branches with petrol bombs and Molotov cocktails. A similar outrage followed this week, this time regarding a Malaysian shoe company.

While state institutions have felt the need to investigate these “crimes,” the Anwar administration has shown a growing determination to suppress speech relating to the 3Rs, both online and offline, on the not unreasonable grounds that it poses a threat to the country’s ethnic harmony. The most prominent recent example is the government’s recent prosecution of Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor, the caretaker chief minister of Kedah state and a prominent member of the Islamist party PAS. Last July, Sanusi was charged under the Sedition Act after a political speech in which he questioned decisions taken by the country’s king regarding the formation of government at the federal and state levels.

Still, there is a heated debate as to whether the government should be actively trying to repress even harmful speech. In an article for The Diplomat last August, Aizat Shamsuddin defended the Anwar government’s decision to prosecute Sanusi under the Sedition Act, arguing that the government had an interest in preventing the spread of right-wing extremism, both on- and offline. leaders from PAS and its coalition partner Bersatu, he argued, “do not engage in democracy to strengthen it but rather to further their own illiberal interests and undermine democratic institutions.”

At the same time, Anwar has come under fire from liberal critics who say he has backtracked on a promise to defend free speech when he came into office in 2022, and presided over widening censorship to combat his conservative opponents – in some cases using the very same repressive tools as previous administrations. Some have argued that this will only deepen suspicions of state institutions and reinforce the credibility of the very right-wing Malay-Islamist conspiracy theories that the Anwar government is hoping to

With Anwar’s opponents massing ahead of the next election in early 2028, the difficulty of striking a balance between defending free speech principles and suppressing the most harmful right-wing “hate speech” is set to become worse before it gets better.