If Facebook likes were an indicator of power, then Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen would be among the world’s most powerful leaders. His official page ranks third in global engagement among world leaders on Facebook, according to a study by the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, trailing only India’s Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump.
That’s an impressive feat for a leader of a country with fewer than 5 million known Facebook users. And it seems his appeal even extends well beyond those users — his official Facebook page has almost 9.4 million followers.
This disparity hasn’t gone unnoticed by his opponents, who say Hun Sen’s ballooning popularity on social media is part of the authoritarian leader’s Facebook strategy to artificially inflate his popularity and crack down on freedom of speech and dissent within Cambodia’s borders. Just this month, a man was arrested on his wedding day over a Facebook post that called Hun Sen’s government “authoritarian.”
Now a lawsuit aimed at uncovering some of Hun Sen’s abusive tactics online — his fake likes, click farms, and threats — has put Facebook at the center of another international controversy. The Silicon Valley giant may be forced to hand over secret information about any business dealings with Hun Sen's team, potentially revealing for the first time just how closely it works with repressive governments.
Hun Sen has shrugged off the lawsuit as “crazy and stupid,” but it’s not as simple for Facebook. The company has been left bruised and battered by a continuous stream of criticism related to the proliferation of fake news, death threats and abuse on its powerful platform. And the case of Cambodia’s controversial leader seems to touch on all of them.
“We want to ask Facebook, 'What have you actually done, besides appearing before Congress, or issuing press releases or updating your policies?'”
CEO Mark Zuckerberg has admitted the company needs to be fixed, but it's unclear at this point if anything has really changed. Now, a lawsuit brought by former Cambodia opposition leader Sam Rainsy in a California court could put the lie to Zuckerberg’s most earnest promises of betterment.
"We want to ask Facebook, what have you actually done, besides appearing before Congress, or issuing press releases, or updating your policies,” Noah Hagey, Rainsy’s lawyer, told VICE News. “Have you actually dedicated resources to really investigating misconduct and when you find it, shutting people down?"
Facebook declined to comment for this story.
A defamation case with political intentions
Rainsy claims Hun Sen has been abusing Facebook’s platform by spreading fake news and death threats and inflating his own popularity with fake likes — using government money to do so. And his lawsuit aims to prove it.
Specifically, Rainsy is seeking to uncover how the dedicated team of people operating Hun Sen's official page interact with Facebook employees and just how much money the Cambodia leader is spending to grow his presence on the platform. The findings from his lawsuit could build on recent reporting from BuzzFeed, which in January found that a team of specialists running Hun Sen’s Facebook page enjoyed a “direct relationship with the company’s staff” in order to promote his political platform.
“He tries to use the page to sand down the rough edges of his public image.”
Rainsy’s legal team filed the suit in early February, claiming the information will aid his legal defense in Cambodia, where he was convicted of defamation for saying Hun Sen had bought likes from so-called “click farms.” Facing jail time for a conviction related to protesting on the Vietnamese border, Rainsy fled to France in 2015, where’s he’s been living in exile since.
Rainsy’s case isn’t exceptional in Cambodia. He’s one of many opposition voices to be arrested or pushed out as Hun Sen has tightened his grip around the country in recent years. The Cambodian government has undertaken an expansive crack down in recent months, shuttering the main opposition party and arresting its leader in November, and closing independent media and rights groups along the way.
Throughout, Facebook has played a vital role for Hun Sen, whose team has relied on the platform to monitor his critics and control the narrative around the prime minister.
“He tries to use the page to sand down the rough edges of his public image and present a more avuncular, paternal image to the Cambodian people,” Sebastian Strangio, the author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia,” told VICE News.
An embrace of Facebook
Before to the 2013 elections in Cambodia, Facebook wasn't on the government's radar. But after opposition groups and activists turned their social media popularity into gains at the polls that nearly unseated Hun Sen, the Cambodian government started paying attention.
Since then, observers say, the Cambodian authorities have come to rely on Facebook to achieve their goals. The platform is enormously powerful in Cambodia and plays a massive role in the country's politics.
“Facebook may not be directly responsible for propping up Hun Sen, but by having a platform that can be easily manipulated for political purposes — and the general lack of transparency in how such issues are handled — shows the slippery slope of when public figures use social media spaces for their own self-serving purposes,” Champa Patel, head of the Asia programme at London-based think tank Chatham House, told VICE News.
According to the latest figures from Facebook’s own Transparency Report, the Cambodian government sent zero requests to the company to take down pages or comments it felt were breaching the country’s laws. But, that hasn’t stopped the government using activity on Facebook to crack down on dissent: at least 15 people have been arrested in Cambodia over posts on the social network since 2014.
Hun Sen’s Facebook spend is also under legal scrutiny. According to leaked emails the Cambodian leader was at one point paying $15,000 per day for ads on the platform.
Facebook has announced plans to allow users to see all the ads paid for by any page, but that feature has only just begun rolling out and will only be available for U.S. pages this year, with no clear timeline for when, or if, it will ever come to countries like Cambodia.
Even if it does, the platform would still have to contend with the prime minister’s alleged purchase of fake followers. Facebook says it actively enforces its real names policy, which in theory prevents fake accounts, and has also blocked millions of fake accounts every day at registration. But researchers say there are still many ways to circumvent the system, and in Cambodia, Hun Sen’s critics are convinced his team has found a way.
“Facebook inevitably promotes likes as a legitimate measure of popularity, because they are created by real people using ‘real names,’” Gennie Gebhart, a researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told VICE News. “But that structure can be manipulated to falsely signal support. Facebook's real names policy just doesn't limit potential gaming of the service for political or other ends.”
Experts like Gebhart point out that it remains easy to purchase whole swaths of fake followers on the dark web. A quick analysis using the SocialBakers analytics tool revealed that the overwhelming majority of accounts that have liked the prime minister’s page came from countries not named Cambodia. India and the Philippines, both countries where click farms are known to operate, made up roughly 25 percent of the likes.
If successful, Rainsy’s lawsuit could expose to what degree Facebook, and its staff, has aided Hun Sen’s authoritarian government in achieving his unexpected popularity on the platform. That has peaked the attention of human rights observers, like Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division, who says the lawsuit matters because it will “force Facebook to examine questions that it doesn’t want to answer on its relationship with political leaders.”
“This lawsuit matters because it challenges Facebook to be accountable as the provider of an information platform to government leaders like Hun Sen who are systematically violating human rights and using a Facebook account to justify their actions,” said Robertson.