Securitize/Counter-Securitize: The Life and Death of Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Act by Data & Society Affiliate Gabrielle Lim uses Malaysia’s 2018 14th general election (GE14) as a case study to demonstrate how governments can securitize “fake news” to control information. The report identifies “counter-securitization” as an effective countermeasure.
Drawing from media analysis and in-field interviews, Lim analyzes the struggle over “fake news” between Barisan Nasional (BN) and the opposition party, Pakatan Harapan (PH), in the lead-up to the 2018 election. In a final analysis, Lim challenges governments to respond to the threat of disinformation without invoking a universal narrative of “national security.”
Lim shows how BN drew heavily on Western media’s accounts of “fake news” to position it as a threat to national security, enabling them to pass extreme measures such as the Anti-Fake News Act, thus criminalizing the creation and dissemination of “fake news.” BN’s campaign sowed distrust in information on social media by emphasizing that fake news was on the rise, an impending threat, and would interfere with the upcoming election.
Meanwhile opposition party PH, in collaboration with civil society groups, deployed a method of counter-securitization targeting the credibility of BN. They argued that BN was the real threat to national security, not “fake news,” and showed how BN’s heightened information controls were most likely motivated by a recent embezzlement scandal involving the Prime Minister. While this method proved ultimately successful, it was aided in part by the general feeling among Malaysians that “fake news” and cybertrooper tactics (the bombardment of disinformation by bots or by anonymous, hired individuals) were a typical part of political life.
Counter-securitization works, Lim argues, when it dismantles the credibility of the securitizing actor. This case should serve as a model for advocates in other countries where legislation is underway to combat “fake news.” The caveat, however, is that the political atmosphere in Malaysia presented a perfect concoction of opportunities for counter-securitization to work, such as alternative avenues of information and a democratic process. This is not to say that disinformation should not be addressed, but that in countries where legislation can often run the risk of crackdowns on the flow of information, alternative measures should be considered, such as bottom-up approaches that develop media literacy and enable localized, contextual content moderation.