The Media Today

An election in Cambodia exposes Facebook’s shortcomings (again)

July 27, 2023
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), shows off his inked finger, together with his wife Bun Rany, left, after voting a ballot at a polling station in Takhmua in Kandal province, southeast Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, July 23, 2023. Cambodians go to the polls Sunday with incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen and his party all but assured a landslide victory thanks to the effective suppression and intimidation of any real opposition that critics say has made a farce of democracy in the Southeast Asian nation. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

On Sunday, a few hours after polls closed in parliamentary elections in Cambodia, the Cambodian People’s Party declared a “landslide victory” under its leader, Hun Sen, who has ruled the country almost unopposed for decades, making him one of the longest-serving leaders in the world. Hun Manet—Hun Sen’s forty-five-year-old son, who will reportedly soon take over as prime minister from his father—told crowds in Phnom Penh, the capital, that the election saw a turnout of over 80 percent, although observers noted that a large number of ballots were spoiled. (Hun Sen has since threatened those who spoiled their ballots with legal consequences.) Hun Manet argued that the landslide turnout was a result of the people’s love for both the CPP and Hun Sen, who, by his own account, rescued Cambodia from the depredations of the Khmer Rouge regime and turned the country into an economic success story.

To many, however, Hun Sen’s victory had more to do with the fact that he has spent years undermining and/or outlawing political opposition, as well as crippling media outlets that covered him critically. Some outlets have been shut down, others acquired by figures close to Hun Sen. In February, Hun Sen ordered the closure of Voice of Democracy, one of the few remaining independent news outlets in Cambodia, over its coverage of Hun Manet. On July 12, shortly ahead of the elections, Cambodia’s telecoms regulator ordered local internet service providers to block websites and social media accounts linked to Cambodia Daily, a newspaper; Radio Free Asia, a broadcaster that is funded by the US government; and Kamnotra, which the Committee to Protect Journalists describes as a “new independent public database,” according to a number of local news reports and Voice of America (which, like Radio Free Asia, is US-state-funded). The regulator said that the three outlets broadcast information intended to “make confusion [and] affect the government’s honor and prestige.” 

As a result of these and similar moves, many Cambodians have gotten information about Hun Sen’s policies, and their country’s economic performance and position on the world stage, from government press releases and media outlets owned or controlled by supporters of Hun Sen. Another source, which has grown in power in recent years, has been Hun Sen’s official account on Facebook, where he has more than fourteen million followers. (Cambodia has a population of seventeen million people.) There, Hun Sen likes to post a mix of family photos with his grandchildren, advice for Cambodian citizens, and calls for his supporters to commit violent acts against his enemies.

For a time, Facebook did not take action against Hun Sen’s use of his account to encourage violence. But he seemed to go too far in a speech that was streamed live on Facebook on January 9, in which he referenced an opposition politician who was convicted of defamation last year and threatened to take action against anyone who accused his party of stealing votes. “There are only two options,” Hun Sen said. “Either you face legal action in court, or I rally [the Cambodian] People’s Party for a demonstration and beat you up.” Speaking in the Khmer language, Hun Sen also threatened in his speech to “send gangsters” to the homes of his critics, and promised that he would “arrest a traitor…at midnight.”

These seemed like more than idle threats: the son of a former opposition leader was attacked and beaten outside Cambodia’s National Assembly in 2015 by a mob that included several of Hun Sen’s bodyguards. In April, a report from Human Rights Watch concluded that physical attacks against members of the opposition increased following Hun Sen’s speech, with at least seven violent acts reported in Phnom Penh against six separate individuals; dozens of others were arrested and jailed on what HRW described as “politically motivated charges.” Hun Sen’s video was flagged to Facebook’s moderators for violating the platform’s policies against inciting violence. The company agreed that it was in violation—but the platform decided to keep it up, on the grounds that it was a “newsworthy” statement made by a political leader.

That wasn’t the end of the matter: the video was kicked up to Facebook’s Oversight Board, a group of legal and human rights experts that Facebook commissioned to provide arm’s-length advice to the company on content-related decisions, and that has been likened to the platform’s “Supreme Court,” as I described in a piece for CJR after its creation. Late last month, the Board ordered Facebook to remove the video and also recommended that Hun Sen be banned for six months from both Facebook and Instagram, as a result of both the video and his previous calls for violence. The Board attributed its recommendation, in part, to “Hun Sen’s history of committing human rights violations and intimidating political opponents, as well as his strategic use of social media to amplify such threats.” Significantly, this was the first time that the Board had called for a world leader to be banned outright; the Washington Post stated, citing experts, that the ruling “could even could shape how political speech is regulated online.” 

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Within hours of the decision, Hun Sen had taken down his Facebook page; indeed, the day before the decision was announced, he said that he had already stopped using the platform and planned to move over to Telegram, an encrypted-messaging app. He later banned members of the Oversight Board from entering Cambodia and threatened to block Facebook in the country completely, though he later relented. Ultimately, the call to ban Hun Sen’s Facebook account came less than a month before the election, meaning the damage had already been done. Last week, Hun Sen’s account was reactivated; at time of writing, it remained active.

And, when it comes to Facebook and Cambodian politics, Hun Sen’s account is arguably the tip of the iceberg. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Samuel Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote that, for a decade or so, Hun Sen and his supporters have been running a social media influence campaign out of a so-called “Cyber War Room,” the goal of which has been to support Hun Sen’s regime. The effort has been led by Hun Manet, who allegedly formed a troll army powered by fake and automated accounts and used Facebook and other digital platforms to attack his father’s political opponents with disinformation and, in some cases, death threats. In 2018, Sam Rainsy, a former opposition politician who fled Cambodia to escape a defamation case that he says was politically motivated, filed suit in the US in a bid to force Facebook to reveal information about Hun Sen and his supporters’ use of Facebook.

Woolley writes that clamping down on speech on social media has been critical to the consolidation of Hun Sen’s power, and that “Facebook, Telegram and other platforms have been central to the CPP’s illicit, strategic, and authoritarian control of Cambodia’s information space and, consequently, public opinion.” Despots and tyrants in other countries, of course, have similarly used social media to defame journalists, threaten their opponents, and spread disinformation, Woolley notes, including the former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, whose sons ran a body called theOffice of Hate,” and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, who was recently reelected following an election that was in many respects unfair, not least due to the country’s heavily restricted media environment. Facebook, for its part, has previously been criticized for failing to remove hate speech in Sri Lanka, during anti-Muslim riots in 2018, and, in a particularly egregious failure, when Myanmar’s army used Facebook to stir up genocidal hatred against the Rohingya Muslim population, as I wrote for CJR in 2018.

Leaving Hun Sen’s account up for so long while he threatened violence is not even the only evidence of Facebook’s inadequate attitude toward such behavior in Cambodia: HRW recently called for a lifetime ban on Pheng Vannak, an influencer who threatened to behead a journalist; according to a report in the Washington Post, Facebook suspended Vannak’s personal account, but he subsequently made a new one, which has more than one hundred thousand followers and, at time of writing, was still active. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said in a report in 2021 that it has made efforts to boost its on-the-ground expertise in Cambodia, including nearly tripling the size of its moderation team. But those steps haven’t spared it criticism: Phil Robertson, the deputy director for Asia at HRW, told the Post recently that “the Cambodia content review team appears to have been asleep at the switch until recently, failing to take action to prevent violent threats.”

It’s impossible to say how much of a role Hun Sen’s Facebook following or other social media efforts played in the recent vote in Cambodia; the shuttering of independent media and jailing or beating up of opposition politicians has clearly had an effect, too. But those efforts created a vacuum of information, and, to a significant extent, Hun Sen has used Facebook to fill it—a reality for which Meta is arguably partly culpable, as has also been the case in Myanmar and a number of other countries. Until the company figures out how to shut down this kind of activity for good, tyrants everywhere will continue to take advantage of it.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, was addressing reporters when he froze up, apparently in some kind of medical episode, and was ushered away by colleagues. McConnell returned to take questions from the press and claimed that he was “fine”; his office later said that he had briefly been lightheaded. But the incident redoubled media scrutiny of McConnell’s age and health following a fall earlier this year.
  • This week, the presidential campaign of Ron DeSantis fired Nate Hochman, an aide who formerly wrote for National Review, after he reportedly made, then shared, a video featuring a symbol appropriated by the Nazis. Amid a broader slimming down of his flailing operation, DeSantis also recently parted ways with Will Chamberlain, the former editor and publisher of the right-wing magazine Human Events. Semafor has more.
  • For the Times, Joseph Bernstein profiled Simon Ateba, the White House correspondent for (and, apparently, sole employee of) Today News Africa, who was recently admonished by the White House press shop for consistently rude behavior in the briefing room. “Gadflies have always buzzed about the briefing room,” Bernstein writes, but observers and colleagues see Ateba as “something different: a plain old jerk.”
  • The AP’s Leah Willingham went to McDowell County, West Virginia, a rural swath of coal country with high rates of poverty, to find out how residents are coping without a newspaper following the recent closure of the local Welch News. “Our people here have nothing,” Missy Nester, the paper’s owner and publisher, who fought hard to keep it afloat, told Willingham. “Like, can any of y’all hear us out here screaming?”
  • And The Atlantic’s Lora Kelley asked experts in semiotics to explain Elon Musk’s long obsession with the letter X, which is what we’re now supposed to call Twitter. “X is both an empty signifier and a signifier of everything.… You cannot pin it down or say it means this and only this,” Jamin Pelkey, a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and the author of the book The Semiotics of X, said. “The X mark is for extremes.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.