In 2023, Meta and TikTok witnessed a surge in demands from the Malaysian government to eliminate content, as revealed by data released by both platforms. This spike in requests occurred amid growing concerns about online content and its alignment with local regulations.
Since assuming office in November 2022, the administration led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, known for its reformist stance, faced criticism for allegedly deviating from its commitment to safeguarding freedom of speech. Despite these accusations, the government has refuted claims of suppressing dissent online, asserting its aim to control contentious posts touching on sensitive subjects such as race, religion, and royalty.
Data from Meta’s Transparency Report for the first half of 2023 disclosed that approximately 3,100 pages and posts on Facebook and Instagram were restricted in Malaysia due to reported violations of local laws. This figure marked a sixfold increase from the previous reporting period and represented the highest recorded since 2017.
Malaysia’s communications regulator defended its actions, stating that content removal efforts aimed to safeguard users from escalating online risks rather than stifling diverse opinions. During the period from July 2022 to June 2023, Meta reported restricting access to over 3,500 items in response to requests from Malaysian regulatory bodies, encompassing various content violations including criticisms of the government, illegal gambling, hate speech, divisive content, bullying, and financial scams.
TikTok, in its corresponding report, detailed 340 government requests in the first half of 2023 to remove or limit content, impacting 890 posts and accounts. With 815 instances of content removal due to local law violations or community guideline breaches, this marked a substantial increase compared to the prior reporting period.
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission observed a drastic surge in harmful content on social media platforms, escalating from 1,019 to 25,642 incidents in 2023, encompassing issues like scams, illegal activities, fake news, and hate speech. However, specifics regarding the platforms hosting these allegedly harmful contents weren’t provided.
In response to accusations of targeting critical content, Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil clarified that the regulator primarily responded to complaints from regular users and denied any personal involvement in targeting critical posts about him. Malaysia’s sensitivity towards race, religion, and its laws against seditious remarks or insults towards the monarchy adds complexity to the content moderation landscape.
While concerns over content regulation and removal persist, free speech advocacy groups, including Article 19, criticized the removal of critical posts, warning against the potential suppression of legitimate free speech and expression. Nalini Elumalai, Article 19’s senior Malaysia program officer, emphasized the importance of allowing critical expression on social issues, public figures, and government institutions.