Regulating social media

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 18 Jun 2017

In May, deadly caste clashes led north Indian authorities to block social media to prevent instigation of violence via WhatsApp and Facebook. Should social media be regulated?

BAD regulations are created because politicians feel compelled to act against “moral panic”.

When a spate of negative events occur, there’s a tendency for knee-jerk regulations but “bad cases make bad laws”, Prof Ang Peng Hwa from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, opines.

Citing an example, he says when something unusual happens, a law is passed but there could be many unanticipated consequences.

“Don’t regulate just because there’s a major outcry. Social media is new and we’re still learning to cope with the cons. Be rational. Observe. Take a step back and recalibrate. It’s difficult to just sit back and watch but it’s the proper thing to do. Stepping in too soon can be a bad thing.”

The plenary speaker, whose topic was exploring the possibilities and limits of social media, was in town on May 18 for the 5th International SEARCH (South East Asia Research Centre for Communication and Humanities) Conference at Taylor’s University in Subang Jaya.

Recently, a closed circuit television recording of a woman being brutally raped by two robbers in Puchong went viral.

But it’s not just graphic content.


Professor Ang Peng Hwa, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.- Art Chen / The Star.
'If the government can show that harm – not politics – is the reason for regulation, people are more likely to accept it.' - Nanyang Technological University Prof Ang Peng Hwa


The online game Blue Whale, a suicide challenge that appears to drive vulnerable teens into killing themselves, is being monitored by the Communications and Multimedia Ministry.

On May 8, The Star front paged how social media had gone wild with clickbaits, fake news, and false advertisements. Determined to end such nonsense, the ministry warned: Stop or face the music.

Section 211 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 provides that no content applications service provider, or other person using a content applications service, shall provide content which is indecent, obscene, false, menacing, or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any person.

The Act includes, but is not limited to, the improper use of network facilities or network service to make, solicit or initiate any comment, request, suggestion or other communication which is obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person.

In April, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak noted how fake news had become rampant on social media and more alarmingly, the public was increasingly unable to differentiate news from rumour. He said if fake news was not curbed, it would endanger society and the economy by driving the public to make misinformed decisions. Ang feels any regulation must be multi-pronged, involving private sector providers like Facebook, the users, and the government.

Self-regulation – though not in the traditional sense of the company regulating itself – is already being carried out, he says. At the moment, self-regulation in relation to the Internet and social media, is where a group of companies get together to do it, he adds.

Google, for example, announced that it would no longer allow websites that peddle falsehoods to use its online advertising services and kicked 200 fake sites off its advertising network while Facebook changed its “trending topic” feature to include only substantiated news sources. Google is also setting new rules, encouraging its “raters”, the 10,000-plus staff that assess search results, to flag web pages that host hoaxes, conspiracy theories and what the company calls “low quality” content.


But social media users themselves, stresses Ang, must be more savvy when it comes to hoaxes, and boycott what is wrong or illegal, to get the company’s attention. “Like-gating”, or the act of putting up fake “likes” to boost client popularity cannot be tolerated as it would lead to a “market for lemons”.

“I’ve gone to bad restaurants before because of fake reviews. Social media users want that space to be trustworthy. So, to make money, guys like Google and Facebook must make sure the space is trustworthy or advertisers will stay away and the market will self-destruct,” he says, warning of “click farms” and digital manipulation to put up phoney ratings.

Tell Facebook or Google it’s not acceptable, he suggests. When big advertisers pull out, they’ll act. Removing content offensive to users creates trust in the system.

When private sector regulates content, it’s accepted because users know they are doing it for commercial reasons. But when a government does it, people think it’s to curb their freedom of expression. The different reaction, he suggests, is because people are sceptical of the government’s motives.

He, however, feels it’s necessary for the government to monitor and yank out illegal and harmful content.

“Social media users must know why the government is disallowing something. If the government can show that harm – not politics – is the reason for regulation, people are more likely to accept it. The government and private sector must create an atmosphere of trust.”

Whether or not regulation infringes on an individual’s freedom to speak up, depends on how it’s defined. If freedom of speech involves what’s legal, there’s no reason to curb it. But, if that freedom is taken to mean that you can say anything you want, then regulation is needed, Ang argues.

“If a closed group chat on WhatsApp is planning a robbery, surely the authorities can go after them. WhatsApp and WeChat are probably the most popular forms of social media in the region but unfortunately these are closed groups. Governments are rightfully worried because how do you decide what to do when you don’t know what people are up to. On Facebook, you can see what’s going on but now everyone’s going into close groups.”

Urging those in closed groups to act – either by leaving the group or by reporting illegal content to the authorities, he says this is one way to regulate social media. Hoax victims think they’re doing something good when they forward or post fake content until someone tells them to stop.

Hoax victims must go back to the person who sent them the content, and tell him or her to stop forwarding it, once they realise it’s fake. Retrace the content’s origin. Everyone who received it must be told to stop sharing, Ang offers.


Parents too, have a role to play. But if they themselves are always online, they cannot teach their children social presence.

“People are always staring down at their gadgets or typing away on their phone. How are they going to teach their children to relate to others in a normal way and to get them to speak up about online problems like cyberbullying?”

The best thing to do is educate the public but it’s expensive, he admits. That’s why the European Union is looking at law enforcement. He singles out South Korea as one country that’s getting it right. With an entire ministry is dedicated to media regulation, the government even provides counselling and legal advice for issues like online defamation and cyberbullying. It’s a one-stop place where individuals can get help.

Ang, who recently co-edited a three-volume encyclopedia on Digital Communication and Society, was the first Asian to be elected president of the International Communication Association. He researches and teaches in the area of media law and policy is the author of Ordering Chaos: Regulating the Internet, which argues that the Internet can be, is being, and should be regulated.

The Fulbright scholar at Harvard University co-founded the Global Internet Governance Academic Network and the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum. In Singapore, he is the legal advisor of the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore and had served as the founding president of the Internet Society (Singapore Chapter).

A former journalist and lawyer by training, the visiting scholar at Oxford University was appointed by the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as a member of the Working Group on Internet Governance to prepare a report for the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society.

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