PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — As Facebook attempts to rebrand itself following numerous scandals over user data and election manipulation, a recent case in Cambodia has highlighted the platform’s disturbing popularity with strongmen, autocrats, and populists in Asia — a popularity that has seen no sign of abating.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is one of those strongmen. The leader, who has been in power for more than three decades, has the ninth most popular political page on Facebook, with slightly more likes than Hillary Clinton at approximately 10 million users — many of whom reside outside of the country.
That number seemed suspiciously high to exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who nearly won the 2013 election against Hun Sen largely by appealing to young voters on Facebook. Rainsy has accused Hun Sen of buying millions of Facebook likes via click farms, which hire low-paid workers in developing countries to click on ads, or like, share, or comment on various posts or accounts. In February, Rainsy filed a petition in a U.S. court to force Facebook to reveal its ties with Hun Sen, as well as data on how a largely internationally unknown leader acquired so many Facebook fans outside of Cambodia. His request was denied by a U.S. judge earlier this month, but the controversy is far from over.
Since 2013, after the strong showing by Rainsy’s now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the contested national elections, Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have taken to Facebook in an attempt to appeal to the country’s opposition-supporting youth. Rainsy claims that Hun Sen has used the platform to spread false news and to threaten political opponents. And without the CNRP in the upcoming July national elections, and with many of the smaller remaining parties choosing not to stand, Hun Sen’s public claims of widespread support are legitimized by his flattering Facebook statistics.
In 2016, the Cambodian courts found Rainsy guilty of defamation and “incitement” after he posted on Facebook that the prime minister was buying likes. He also called the murder of human rights activist Kem Ley a “government-ordained assassination,” and called on the military to stop using deadly force on protesters. He has since been living in exile in France.
In denying Rainsy’s request to obtain information from Facebook this month, Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco stated that “Although the Court initially noted that some parts of the Application would pass muster, the job of the Court is not to re-write the Application to narrow its breadth and scope.” She allowed for the request of a new application, and offered advice on securing its approval, stating that if Rainsy “were to focus on Facebook’s investigations of false ‘likes’ … without revealing the identity of the users who posted the ‘likes,’ the Application might satisfy” U.S. code.
Judge Kim’s decision suggests that there is sufficient merit to some of Rainsy’s data requests, and might yet prove illuminating on the use — and possible misuse — of Facebook by political figures and world leaders, especially in countries where Facebook accounts for most people’s interaction with the internet, and where local independent media is increasingly curtailed.
That is the case in Cambodia, where the fiercely independent newspaper Cambodia Daily was closed last year, radio broadcasts by Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA) have been curtailed, and journalists and members of the public have been arrested for criticizing the government. Much like U.S. President Donald Trump’s use of Twitter — a medium not yet popular in Cambodia — to sidestep traditional media, Facebook allows populist Asian leaders to directly spread their messages to target audiences, although this varies according to its intended function, explained Lee Morgenbesser, lecturer at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations in Australia.
“If leaders want to advocate policy or justify decisions, it offers a platform to do so that is uninterrupted by traditional media companies,” Morgenbesser told ThinkProgress via email. “This effectively allows democratic and autocratic leaders to remove the ‘noise’ around their actions and appeal directly to citizens. If leaders want to create the impression they are authentic, kind, and respectable, Facebook also offers a platform to portray themselves this way. This is because democratic and autocratic leaders have complete discretion over what gets uploaded.”
Facebook should “welcome” the case, rather than fight it, said deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division Phil Robertson, as it gives an opportunity to clean up fake accounts on the platform while “at the same time saying to Hun Sen that they had no choice but to comply because it was a lawsuit.”
If Rainsy is successful, “hopefully it will force other leaders to change their practices and actually earn their followers rather than just sending off to a like farm to buy some more. It’s time for transparency, and [Facebook] should clue into that,” he added.
A perception of popularity
While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is by far the most popular world leader to use Facebook, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Joko Widodo of Indonesia, and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, are all active on the social media platform. Of Facebook’s 2.1 billion users, those in India, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand account for several of the top 10 countries with the most users.
According to the analytical site Socialbakers, Modi is the most popular world leader with over 43 million fans, with Trump and Queen Rania of Jordan following.
An investigation by the Phnom Penh Post in 2016 found that only 20 percent of Hun Sen’s Facebook likes came from within Cambodia, with hundreds of thousands of Indians apparently being big fans of the leader’s decades-long grip on power. At the time, the CNRP, led by Rainsy, was challenging Hun Sen’s CPP for popularity. Both leaders regularly pointed to their Facebook ‘likes’ as proof of their support.
News of an apparent hack of a member of the prime minister’s Facebook team last month purported to show that 2.6 million of Hun Sen’s almost 10 million likes came from the Philippines, followed by 900,000 from India, with a message accompanying the hacked information pointing to click farms as the source of the likes.
In a 2018 report, Bursen-Marsteller found that Hun Sen’s page had shot into fifth position of the most followed world leaders with 9.6 million page likes and a growth rate of 48 percent, noting that “Interestingly, he has more Facebook fans than Cambodia has Facebook users (7.1 million) but still less than the 14.4 million Khmer speakers on Facebook.”
“World leaders can now reach an audience of millions of Facebook users worldwide, regardless of the number of likes on their respective pages … As of March 15, 2018, the governments and leaders of 175 countries had an official presence on the social network, representing 91 percent of the 193 UN member states,” the report states.
The 2017 edition of the report highlighted that Hun Sen’s Page was “one of the most unusual Facebook page, mainly sharing pictures showing him behind the scenes or on holiday with his wife and grandchildren.” In addition to selfies of himself with family and world leaders, Hun Sen’s Facebook account live-streams football matches and episodes of TV show Voice of Cambodia.
Using click farms to generate the impression of support and authenticity is the “obvious” option for national leaders relying on the populism to boost their legitimacy, said Robertson in an email to ThinkProgress.
“Think about it — how could a national leader like Hun Sen or Modi explain that only 1000 people follow them on Facebook, it’s too embarrassing for them,” he said.
“The assumption is the average Facebook user will lack both the sophistication and the interest to shuffle through the leaders’ list of followers, but they will be impressed at the big number of followers when they glance at the leader’s profile … The stature of the leader as the ‘big man’ of the country depends on being seen as more influential and powerful than others, and this extends now into the world of social media.”
Morgenbesser said that by buying likes, leaders “have successfully created the perception of popularity without having to do any of the hard ‘leadership’ traditionally required to do so. Ultimately, using click farms to boost Facebook followers is borderline a form of propaganda for political leaders.”
Facebook’s questionable role
Last fall, Facebook tested a new feature in Cambodia and five other countries known as “Explore,” which moved posts by institutional pages, like news organizations and companies, from users’ default feeds to a separate feed. The change drastically decreased traffic to news pages like RFA and VOA and likely enabled Hun Sen’s sway over messaging by limiting users’ access to other sources of information.
“People are missing news that can be essential and timely. That becomes a problem when that information concerns the state of the country or government policies. In a way, this has a devastating effect on freedom of information in the country at a time when information is crucial,” wrote Catherine V. Harry, a blogger based in Cambodia, in an Op-ed for The Washington Post.
Facebook said in March that it was discontinuing the Explore feature, but many believe the damage has been done.
While the actions of click farms are not illegal, the situation in Cambodia has proven how dangerous they can be in autocratic societies, both in helping the government crack down on dissent and in altering public opinion.
As The New York Times reported this month, Cambodian authorities have used Facebook to track users who express discontent with the government, often prosecuting and arresting ordinary citizens. Last week, the country made its first arrest under its new lèse-majesté law, which forbids citizens from insulting the monarchy, detaining a 50-year-old teacher who allegedly insulted the monarchy in a Facebook comment.
“Facebook is making money from the death of democracy in Cambodia. It should not be allowed to profit from such ill-gotten gains … With nine million likes — more than Harvard and the World Economic Forum — [Hun Sen] has gained about as much as running an election without the main opposition party — a pyrrhic victory,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
“As Pierre Corneille said, ‘To win without risk is to triumph without glory.’ All in the pursuit of that oh so elusive legitimacy that is only earned by actually being legitimate. Legitimacy isn’t for sale. It can’t be bought. It’s earned,” Ear added.
While in exile, Rainsy, meanwhile has used Facebook to reach Cambodians with his messages against the government. He is also active on Twitter.
In his Declaration of Support filed with the court, Rainsy highlighted the important role that Facebook plays in countries like Cambodia.
“Even though I must live in exile in France, I do my best to share truthful and hopeful information to the people living under Hun Sen’s repressive regime any way I can — including over Facebook. Facebook is one of the most effective ways for me to reach people living in Cambodia. Even relatively poor and uneducated Cambodians use Facebook to receive news and other information.”