Malaysia: TikTok not abiding by laws or curbing fake news

Minderjeet Kaur and Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia: TikTok not abiding by laws or curbing fake news Toy figures are seen in front of TikTok’s logo, in this illustration picture taken March 15, 2021.
[Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters]

Efforts by TikTok to reduce the spread of fake news in Malaysia have been woefully inadequate and the Chinese-owned online platform has not abided by the country’s laws, the communications minister said Thursday. 

Fahmi Fadzil didn’t specify which laws the short-video sharing app was violating, but said he had warned TikTok’s top management during a meeting in Kuala Lumpur a day earlier that it needed to start following them right away.

“In the discussion, I emphasized that TikTok needs to operate in accordance with Malaysian guidelines and laws. … I emphasize TikTok's compliance with Malaysian laws is still not satisfactory, and this must be corrected immediately,” Fahmi wrote in a Facebook post.

“TikTok must also be more proactive in controlling the spread of fake news and slanderous materials spread on the platforms in question.”

The minister said TikTok acknowledged its shortcomings, and attributed them to the absence of a Malaysia representative.

“TikTok has assured to increase cooperation with the Malaysian government. In light of that, they committed to holding further meetings at the earliest [time] to resolve these issues,” Fahmi said.

BenarNews contacted ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, for comment, but did not immediately hear back.

Fahmi didn’t give many details in his Facebook statement, but several analysts had noted an increase in hate speech from the time leading up to the Malaysian general election last November – much of which arose from the spread of fake news.

A lot of this was disseminated online, with TikTok being a preferred platform, according to Mohamed Irshad, a member of the group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

A worker finishes signage before the TikTok Southeast Asia Impact Forum 2023 in Jakarta, June 15, 2023. [Bay Ismoyo/AFP]

On Tuesday, lawmakers from the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) met with several Malaysian lawmakers to urge oversight on social media platforms such as TikTok, because their extensive reach had worsened the hate-speech problem, they said. 

“We believe that governments throughout the region, including Malaysia, must be firm in holding these tech giants or social media companies to act more responsibly and to take ownership and account for their role in facilitating the spread of hate and division,” Irshad said at a press conference.

In fact, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and the police summoned the management of TikTok to explain certain incendiary online posts after the November 2022 polls.

These posts had implied that race riots may occur if a largely ethnic-Chinese party became part of the government, after the election produced a hung parliament.

And they did not end – some say they increased – after the king later in November invited Anwar Ibrahim to head a coalition government, which was multiethnic and multireligious.

The Anwar government in June said it would take legal action against Facebook’s parent company, Meta Platforms, for its failure to remove harmful content from the social media site despite repeated requests.

A month later, the government said it may not need to go so far as to take legal action, because Meta had committed to dealing with such content on its platforms.

In July, Anwar issued what he called “a final warning” to anyone exploiting issues related to race, religion or royal institutions with the motive to spread hate and disaffection.

He said that any such incident would be thoroughly investigated without exception.

Apps such as TikTok need human monitors to better understand the nuances of content, said Wathshlah Naidu, executive director at the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ).

“For this TikTok has to invest in human resources to review content. Now the reliance is on AI [artificial intelligence] and bots,” she told BenarNews.

“TikTok should be transparent with the public [on] how these algorithms are used to create content. This transparency is intended to make users more aware of how TikTok creates, alerts, and delivers content on the platform.”

Ad purchases on TikTok

The app has been under pressure in Southeast Asia recently, a region where its chief executive had said the firm planned to invest billions of U.S. dollars over the next few years, because analysts said it was increasingly under scrutiny elsewhere in the world.

Last week, Vietnam said TikTok Inc. did not effectively block content that violated the country’s laws, news agencies reported.

Last month, TikTok had to end product sales via its app in Indonesia, as Southeast Asia’s largest economy banned social media platforms from selling products online. TikTok Shop had been accused of unfair competition and hurting small and medium-sized enterprises in Indonesia.

Now, Malaysia has raised a similar issue with the short-video app company.

Minister Fahmi said he “emphasized” to TikTok that it needed to find a solution to the issue of ad purchases on its platforms.

“This follows complaints from business buildings, public and media agencies who were deeply affected by ads booked directly with social media platforms,” he said.

Earlier this week he had explained that traditional media was losing advertisements to social media.

“Many companies no longer spend on advertising through the [traditional] media but through the social media platforms, so it affects the media and I am very concerned about this issue,” Fahmi said at an event on Monday, according to a report by state news agency Bernama.

Commenting about content distribution, Fahmi had said last month that content producers saw their work being picked up by social media platforms but they were getting very low returns for it, Bernama reported.


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