In mid-November 2020, word of a possible revival of Malaysia’s Anti-fake News Act floated during parliament sittings. Justifying these discussions were the unhindered, wide-spread dissemination of voluminous content deemed as ‘fake news’ as authorities were preoccupied with COVID-19 measures. As of October 11, 270 investigation papers were opened with 388 denials and clarifications made with 35 charged in court. While such info-demic could be responded with existing Malaysian laws and other government campaigns, an examination of Malaysia’s information environment is worth exploring, particularly in the search to refine or innovate approaches to address ‘fake news’ for the present and immediate future.
Responding Without Anti-fake News Act in Malaysia
Seen as part and parcel of communication, such forms of information disorder can be found in Malaysia’s information environment prior to the birth of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. An example would be the conflicting accounts for the root causes of the 1974 Baling demonstrations where students and farmers protested the decline in the price of rubber and rising poverty levels. Mal-information, the deliberate distribution of truthful information with the intention of inflicting harm on an individual or country, too is no stranger to the Malaysian information environment. High-profile exposes involving the personal lives of politicians aim to smear character or distract from existing issues. Most prominent of which is the former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s sodomy trials in 1998.
Even without the repealed Anti-fake News act, the Malaysian authorities could respond to such incidents with existing laws and institutions. Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA 1998) punishes those who produces or transmits content or misuses an application service with the intention of annoying, abusing, threatening or harassing another person. The Baling Demonstrations, among other factors, resulted in the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 to improve response to virulent misinformation that could result in violence. Moreover, mal-information could be addressed by the Sedition Act 1948, if it was in the interest of the government. The Penal Code too addresses defamation with imprisonment of up to two years.
However, the question on the efficacy of existing laws to address information disorder is relevant, particularly given the nuances of content today. While thresholds of existing laws would vary from the CMA 1998’s intent to ‘annoy, abuse, threaten or harass’ to ‘the incitement of violence’, usage of misinformation, disinformation or mal-information are intended to produce strategic outcomes. In the case of misinformation for instance, where the disseminator believes the information to be true, participation for its transmission may be accidental and would require education and awareness as panaceas as opposed to stringent laws. Fact-checking, from institutions to culture should be cultivated.
In addition, false amplification of messages can target intangible outcomes such as the political congruence of society or social cohesion for political gains. Thus, in a system where divisive political communication may seem a part of the norm, additional laws would be considered unnecessary whether it is to have high quality of fact-checking, to ensure greater transparency in systems or to address content intended to segregate.
But herein lies three problems. The first is trust in institutions, particularly those providing the clarifications and running the fact-checking schemes. And noteworthily, how ‘fake news’ is defined. The second is the idiosyncrasies in Malaysia’s information environment which encourages the manipulation of public sentiment. The third problem is the need to hold open conversations on political communication, organized public manipulation and harm on nation building.
Three Challenges of Existing Laws and Institutions
Malaysia holds a few fact-checking organisations which are either government-run, media-affiliated or interest-based. Prior to COVID-19, the most prominent would be Sebenarnya.my (launched in 2017) and Medical Mythbusters Malaysia (launched in 2016). The modus operandi of such organisations generally involves verifying information directly from official sources. For instance, fraudulent claims about a certain fast-moving consumer goods was not halal, Sebenarnya.my would address such claims with official documentations as proof. Unfortunately, such modus operandi cannot adequately clarify or debunk all claims. This is because such modus operandi relies on the trustworthiness of official sources. Sources whose trust is perceived as compromised challenges the verification process, consequently leading to he-said-she-said situations. Such trust issues dig deeper into systemic problems and the chosen belief-systems of the audience. For instance, if the reputation of the body issuing halal certificates is compromised – truthfully or otherwise – any debunk or clarification made by a fact-checking body would not be effective.
Furthermore, Malaysia has a broad definition of ‘fake news’, even under the repealed Anti-fake News act. In this act, fake news is referred to “any news, information data and reports, which is or are wholly or partly false” with disproportionately high punishments for creators, disseminators and publishers of such content. Confounding this issue is the unfair practice of penalizing the dissemination of false information without discriminating its motivations.
For instance, content analysis of government-attached fact-checking outfit, Sebenarnya.my, during the COVID-19 health crisis (data stops in June 2020) revealed a majority of ‘fake news’ is related to authority’s actions. The categorization, made by Harris Zainul inferred that a majority of motivations behind the claims are to “troll or provoke with no discernible political motive”. An example is the highest viewed fact-check in the data set, a debunk of a voice note stating that Malaysia’s National Security Council will declare an emergency. Motivations for the dissemination of such information could stem from sentiments of concerns or panic rather than a deliberate intention to mislead. To complicate matters, the claims of those charged in court during this period were not revealed to the public. Thus, the exact premises for items regarded as ‘fake news’ was not transparent to the general public.
Secondly, there are idiosyncrasies of Malaysia’s information environment which could create susceptibility to info-demic. An environment unfolding since the 1970s, the terrain consists of the media, government agencies, private sector and civil society to an audience divided linguistically, culturally and politically. With the introduction of Web 2.0, sources of information that are no longer only government-affiliated individuals and bodies. In other words, the Internet has lowered barriers of access to information and barriers to discourse. This enabled greater representation of minority voices through new media, quicker feedback it offered political parties and individuals, traditional media being more open to non-establishment views due to competition with new media, and an increase in accountability as politicians are forced to interact with individuals online.
Yet, the interactive environment would not change a population that is divided in vernacular, cultural or political media consumption. Despite proffered democratic values offered by Web2.0, the public sphere can still be rife with manipulation, particularly due to Malaysia’s contested political space. Both sides of the political divide would deploy half-truths and disinformation tactics to discredit each other, which could detract conversations from policies and issues. The success of such tactics would be dependent on their effectiveness of building echo chambers that aim to segregate and divide. It is also not helpful that with the anonymity of the Web, the distinction between representing the views of the masses and misrepresenting the views of a few as that of the masses is blurred.
Such misrepresentations are evident from the presence of bots utilised by Malaysian actors and permanent cyber troopers in Malaysia’s digital spaces. An open secret, Malaysia’s cyber troopers consist of paid support as well as loyal amplifiers who could be paid in kind, engaged by numerous political parties. The saturation of cyber troopers was deemed important when in 2017 Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who was then the Deputy Prime Minister, depicted that 93.4% of cyber-troopers were pro-opposition with the remaining 6.6% supporting the Barisan Nasional government. The decision to saturate the Internet with such forms of support appear similar to the acquisition or increased affiliation of media houses in the 1970-1980s.
There are aspects of the process that can be organic, for instance harnessing the energy of supporters to build favourable environments online and offline. However, suggestions to amplify messages by utilizing social media and employing micro-targeting methods may segment the online population further. This could utilize narratives inclusive of fanning racial rhetoric, encourage cyber-bullying of alternative-voices and the creation of fake accounts to falsely bolster a message. The role of such actors in public opinion would eventually feed to traditional and new media sources, which could impact direction of nation-building and policies. Therefore, in addition to verification and fact-checking, conversations on civil interaction, the development of societal preference for issue-based policy conversations and digital attempts to pierce echo chambers need to be held to advance democratic maturity.
It would be easy to think that addressing info-demicis only concerned with truth and truth-seeking. However, the end goal is the development of matured discourses on issues. As complex information environments complicate truth formation, safeguarding society from inauthentic representation, particularly those with socio-political consequences would have to be acted upon. Legislative action and any reprisal of the Anti-fake News Act – or future legislation – would have to consider these as the nation battles COVID-19 and info-demic.