(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the waning days of Malaysia's recent election campaign, then-opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad was investigated under the country's anti-fake news law. Had he been charged and convicted, he could have spent as much as six years in prison. Instead, Mahathir was elected prime minister with a pledge to repeal the law.
After his unexpected success, Mahathir initially seemed to back off his promise; other members of his government have since sent different signals. While Malaysians have many reasons to celebrate the opposition's surprise victory, reneging on this pledge wouldn’t be one of them. News spread on Facebook and other social media sites before and during the campaign was critical to informing and organizing Malaysian voters. Had the fake news law been in place sooner and rigorously enforced, Malaysia's opposition might still be in opposition.
Malaysia isn’t the only Asian country to be looking for ways to regulate social media. As platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp have become the primary means by which individuals communicate and receive news, countries including Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Sri Lanka have sought to restrict the spread of information on them as well as in the mainstream media.
The concern isn’t unwarranted: Rumors and hate speech have proliferated on social media in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, igniting racial and sectarian conflict. The danger is that authoritarian rulers will use vaguely defined laws to suppress not just dangerous lies but legitimate commentary and investigative journalism. In many Southeast Asian countries, social media, and Facebook in particular, are often the only outlets for censored and marginalized voices. Close off those platforms and the scope for political dissent is severely curtailed.
Malaysia offers an instructive example. In the 60 years since its independence, the country has never offered citizens a completely open environment for speech. Blasphemy and other speech that might set off sectarian tensions has been prosecuted for decades. Meanwhile, the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition forged close relationships with the country's major newspapers, transforming them into de facto voices of the state.
The previous government extended its reach over the media in recent years. In July 2015, in the wake of Wall Street Journal reports alleging that nearly $700 million had flowed from a state investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Bhd., better known as 1MDB, into Prime Minister Najib Razak's private bank accounts, the government began cracking down on independent reporting about the scandal. When two newspapers owned by Edge Media Group, a leading business publisher, followed up on the reports, their publication permits were suspended until the Supreme Court intervened. Other mainstream outlets refrained from reporting about 1MDB and other allegations of corruption swirling around Najib.
The internet, and social media in particular, offered an alternative. According to Malaysian government data, nearly 77 percent of Malaysians were online as of 2016 (the most recent date for which data exists) and social media was the second most popular activity online, with 89 percent of users visiting sites. So, even as mainstream media ignored the scandal, Malaysian social media became a parallel universe where 1MDB, corruption and other criticisms of the government were regularly discussed.
None of this was unknown to the government. Najib famously labeled Malaysia's 2013 general election the "social media election" and pledged to win the online battle for support. He failed: The government lost the popular vote, though it won enough seats to retain control of parliament. So, in the run-up to the 2018 election, the government tried a different tack. It launched a "War Against Social Media Slanders," followed in April by the anti-fake news law, which threatens $120,000 fines and six years in jail for publishers and social media users who spread news deemed by the authorities to be "wholly or partly false."
Of course, various forces did try to manipulate social media in the runup to the vote. A few weeks before the election, Twitter was plagued by swarms of pro-government bots, while on election day, bogus videos circulated purportedly showing Malaysians held up at border crossings as they tried to return home to vote. In both cases, however, social media users were able to expose the frauds on their own and spread the word.
Self-policing alone won’t be enough to combat hoaxes and hate speech. Social media companies will have to take more responsibility for the material on their sites; as with newspapers, their credibility and financial success will be determined in part by the quality of the information they disseminate. Facebook is at last beginning to expend considerable efforts devising algorithms and hiring people to moderate the daily flood of content.
Mistakes will still be made, just as they are at newspapers, on online opinion sites or in campaign fliers. No platform, or solution, is perfect. But, as Malaysia's experience has shown, social media is too valuable a civic tool to leave in the hands of a government -- whoever may be running it.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.