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Researcher Nuurrianti Jalli shares what she’s learnt after studying the platform’s impact in Malaysia and Indonesia’s public discourse

Nuurrianti Jalli, Assistant Professor at School of Media and Strategic Communications at Oklahoma State University. Photo Credit: Reuters Institute.

Nuurrianti Jalli is an Assistant Professor at School of Media and Strategic Communications at Oklahoma State University. Her research ranges from misinformation and information warfare to media literacy in Southeast Asia.  

Originally from Malaysia, she received her PhD in mass communication from Ohio University. She has also served as a resource person for multiple agencies, including the United Nations, Brookings Institutions, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, and DoubleThink Lab. 

Her latest academic work is on hate speech and propaganda on TikTok in Malaysia and Indonesia. “It appears that despite having a definitive policy against damaging content, including misinformation, disinformation and hate speech, any enforcement has been insufficient. Content that clearly breached TikTok’s guidelines has continued to persist on the platform,” she says.  

A good example is this video posted on 8 November 2022 by  @Hussen_Zulkarai  accusing the Democratic Action Party of Malaysia of being sympathetic to communism, even though that is not true. Despite being recorded in the standard Malay language, the video is still publicly viewable on the platform.  

Q. Why did you choose to analyse hate speech on TikTok and not on other platforms?   

A. In Southeast Asia alone, the platform boasts over 325 million users. Ever since its explosion in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, TikTok has become a hub for harmful content, including misinformation, propaganda and hate speech, largely due to its then nascent moderation policies.  

In culturally and religiously diverse countries like Malaysia, the spread of ethno-religious hate content on the platform is a significant concern for the government. Social media content has the potential to destabilise national harmony.  

For instance, during the latest Malaysian elections, content related to the May 13 Tragedy, an episode of Sino-Malay sectarian violence that took place in Kuala Lumpur in 1969, was posted on the platform. This resulted in the hashtag #13mei trending on TikTok for several days. The platform was riddled with harmful content that incited hatred towards Chinese political parties and spread propaganda aimed at demonising non-Malay leaders.  

Calls for street protests found on the platform prompted the Malaysian government to summon TikTok. Despite having clear policies on harmful content on their website, TikTok is perceived to be lagging in policy enforcement when compared to other social media platforms. This discrepancy has drawn significant attention and raises concerns over the platform’s commitment to ensuring a safe environment for its users. 

Q. There is a lot of debate in free speech circles about how to define hate speech. How did you define hate speech?  

A. Hate speech includes expressions to discriminate, insult, demean, or provoke violence against individuals or groups based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or others. 

Q. How is TikTok different in Malaysia and Indonesia than it is in Europe and the US?  

A. TikTok has seen remarkable growth in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia, with significantly less scrutiny than the one it gets in the West. Despite a brief ban in Indonesia in 2018, the country remains one of TikTok’s largest markets. The platform recently announced plans to invest billions in the Southeast Asian market for an e-commerce expansion, underscoring the platform’s commitment to this region. 

The lessened scrutiny of TikTok in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia could be attributed to a multitude of factors, varying from regulatory frameworks, enforcement capabilities, cultural perceptions of free speech, and more.  

Q. Could you elaborate on this? 

A. The US has a stringent regulatory framework in place to monitor digital platforms. In many Southeast Asian countries, though, such frameworks are in the early stages of development or may not have evolved to fully address the complexity of issues arising from digital platforms like TikTok. 

Even if strong digital laws are in place, the enforcement capabilities in Southeast Asian nations may not be as robust as they are in the US. This could be due to limitations in resources, technological capabilities, or expertise. 

The understanding and acceptance of free speech can also vary widely between the West and Southeast Asia. In some Southeast Asian societies, there might be more tolerance for content that in the West might be classified as disinformation or hate speech due to differing values and cultural norms.

As TikTok is a Chinese company, it might also face less scrutiny in Asian countries that have closer economic and political ties with China, compared to the US, where tensions with China could lead to more severe scrutiny. 

All of these factors can contribute to the differential treatment of TikTok in Southeast Asia. It’s important to note, however, that this doesn’t necessarily mean TikTok is free to operate without any restrictions in Southeast Asia. It’s more a question of varying degrees and types of regulation influenced by these factors. 

Q. Your research analyses content around elections. Can you tell me what’s special about this kind of content?  

A. Hateful content can be found on TikTok at any time. But its frequency notably spikes around elections. This increase can be attributed to the activities of cybertroopers, individuals paid to disseminate propaganda and influence public sentiment to sway voters. These operatives often post their content months before elections as part of a priming strategy, and this activity generally intensifies as the election date nears. 

A clear example can be seen in the context of Indonesia, where ethno-religious hateful content targeting political candidates started appearing on TikTok several months ahead of the planned 2024 election. 

Such hate speech has often taken the form of false claims made about opposing candidates and their supporters, aimed at inciting anger and hostility. These claims turned into real life protests which turned violent, with clashes between protesters and security forces resulting in several deaths and numerous injuries.

Q. Given social media platforms thrive on polarising content, how do you suggest Malaysian and Indonesian authorities should regulate them?  

A. In 2022, [when Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission requested to take down the content that it deemed hateful.] TikTok stated it would not be swayed by those demands, a stance they’ve echoed in other countries as well. However, it’s imperative that social media platforms like TikTok are held responsible if their content or operations potentially threaten a country’s stability and national security. 

Governments could consider implementing laws that hold social media platforms accountable for allowing harmful and polarising content. This includes penalties for platforms that fail to remove such content within a reasonable timeframe. It’s important to strike a balance here to avoid infringing on freedom of speech and expression. 

The Malaysian government, for example, should actively engage with social media platforms like TikTok to ensure they are effectively implementing their policies, especially on disinformation and hate speech. Government bodies can work closely with these platforms to address specific concerns relevant to the local context. 

Other than that, governments should promote and support digital literacy initiatives. It’s important to educate the public about the importance of critical thinking when consuming information online. This includes understanding how algorithms work, how to verify information, and how to report misleading or harmful content. 

Governments could also establish a regulatory body consisting of government representatives, industry experts, civil society organisations, and academics. This body would oversee the implementation of regulations, manage disputes, and provide recommendations for policy updates.

Published in Reuters Institute
Published on August 21, 2023
Link: “Hate speech can be found on TikTok at any time. But its frequency spikes in elections” | Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (