Behind Cambodia’s Social Media War

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Behind Cambodia’s Social Media War

A political controversy has erupted over Facebook popularity.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a focus in Cambodia on what one might call an ongoing social media war between the ruling party and its opposition.

The Facebook page of the current Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, who has governed the country for more than three decades, now has more than 3 million ‘likes’, or a million higher compared to the account of now exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy. But Hun Sen has been accused of ‘buying’ support from fake users and click farms in India and the Philippines.

Not too long ago, the idea of Hun Sen interacting with his constituents through Facebook would seem unthinkable. In 2013, the opposition clinching of a significant number of votes was in part attributed to the active endorsement of netizens. During that time, Facebook was intermittently blocked in Cambodia. Hun Sen denied that his government intended to make Facebook inaccessible, though he warned the public that the popular social networking site could be used as a “tool to damage social stability and insult people.”

Meanwhile, Sam Rainsy and his subordinates in the opposition would continue to brag about their growing online following for the next three years.

But six months ago, Hun Sen officially endorsed his Facebook page, which substantially expanded his reach and influence. In January, Hun Sen finally surpassed Sam Rainsy in terms of Facebook ‘likes.’ He also instructed his ministers to regularly monitor his page in order to address the concerns of netizens and respond to the suggestions made by Facebook users. He even proposed the formation of a Facebook panel in the bureaucracy to improve governance.

Most average Cambodians seem amused by the selfies of Hun Sen, especially his posts about his family. But critics believe it is a strategy to soften his strongman image and make young people forget that this ‘grandfather’ has clung to power in the past three decades.

Regardless of his motivations, his social media activities have proved effective, at least by some indicators. The public relations firm Burston-Marsteller named him the global leader with the second-highest “engagement rate” in terms of Facebook usage. The study covered 512 Facebook pages representing 169 governments around the world. Hun Sen would later dub himself the “Prime Minister of Facebook’ and ‘e-premier.’”

On March 6, Hun Sen announced that his Facebook page already had three million ‘likes.’ But the Phnom Penh Post newspaper immediately published a report which revealed that the bulk of the recent ‘likes’ for Hun Sen’s Facebook page came from India and the Philippines. The report also mentioned that Sam Rainsy still has more supporters from Facebook accounts based in Cambodia. On March 15, the Phnom Penh Post published an update which confirmed that Hun Sen’s Facebook page continues to receive a disproportionate number of ‘likes’ from India and other countries.

This prompted Sam Rainsy to accuse the government of promoting the Facebook page of Hun Sen by “hiring poor and jobless” Internet users from India and the Philippines. He uploaded a photo containing instructions from a government minister on how civil servants should maximize the Facebook page of Hun Sen. He said the instructions prove how the government is manipulating the surge in popularity of Hun Sen’s Facebook page.

A minister mentioned by Sam Rainsy admitted that the government is aggressively endorsing the Facebook page of Hun Sen but denied that it is creating fake accounts. The minister filed a defamation suit against the opposition leader for “twisting the truth and maligning the reputation” of the country’s leader. The ruling party spokesman insisted, rather oddly, that the ‘likes’ are genuine and that Cambodians should be proud for having a leader who has many fans from India and the Philippines.