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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — At first, Kem Monovithya was baffled. Then she was afraid.
It started with a news story that seemed totally made up. Last summer, Fresh News — a kind of Cambodian take on Breitbart — published an article accusing Kem and her sister of being part of an elaborate CIA plot to overthrow the government of Cambodia, along with their father, the leader of the main opposition party. It seemed so ridiculous that they thought no one would believe it.
“At first we thought it was so funny,” said Kem, who is also an opposition party official. In response, she tweeted a photo of her and her sister, Samathida, on a boat, wearing dark sunglasses — like secret agents in an action movie.
@MNVKem / Twitter / Via Twitter: @MNVKem
“But then it wouldn’t stop,” she said. “They kept at it for over a week.”
Fresh News is one of the most influential news sites in Cambodia, and its founder, Lim Cheavutha, has a close relationship with the prime minister, whose agenda he is happy to push. Sites like Fresh News spread their message primarily through Facebook — the social network is Cambodia’s main news source and has become so popular there it is virtually synonymous with the internet. The story about the Kem family was viewed tens of thousands of times on Facebook.
As evidence of the Kem family’s supposed plot to bring down the Cambodian government, Fresh News posted a mishmash of photos culled from social media of the sisters hanging out with various white male friends. “Any western person who we’d ever encountered in our life, they were accused of being a spy or working for the CIA,” Kem Samathida told me by phone. “They were just dropping the names of random Americans.”
Fresh News published more photos of the family, showing them posing at dinner gatherings with American friends and at an election event in Taiwan. The site also posted a video clip of Kem Sokha giving a speech in Melbourne, Australia, where he spoke about his desire for political change. All the images had been posted on social media before, but Fresh News claimed they were further proof of Kem Sokha’s plot to overthrow the government, citing no named sources or other evidence.
Fresh News / Facebook / Via Facebook: freshnewsasia
On Sept. 3, about a week after Fresh News first accused the Kem family of having ties to the CIA, dozens of police pushed through the gates of Kem Sokha’s family home in Phnom Penh and arrested him. He was charged with treason and faces up to 30 years in prison.
Fresh News / Facebook / Via Facebook: video.php
When Facebook first came to Cambodia, many hoped it would help to usher in a new period of free speech, amplifying voices that countered the narrative of the government-friendly traditional press. Instead, the opposite has happened. Prime Minister Hun Sen is now using the platform to promote his message while jailing his critics, and his staff is doing its best to exploit Facebook’s own rules to shut down criticism — all through a direct relationship with the company’s staff.
Facebook has also dramatically reduced the reach of independent media in Cambodia after it decided last year to silo off their content as part of a controversial experiment. The company said this month it would make similar changes to News Feeds for users worldwide.
Facebook has styled itself as a neutral platform for information. But its role in spreading propaganda and fake news, as well as its relationship with the Cambodian government, shows how easily that neutrality can be exploited by autocrats.
Weeks after Kem’s arrest, Cambodia’s top court dissolved the main opposition party at the request of the government. It marked a fundamental shift in Cambodian politics, which had long incorporated a vibrant media and civil society, as well as flawed but fiercely fought elections. Democracy in the country had collapsed, and it was broadcast to millions on Facebook.
Lim Cheavutha, founder and CEO of Fresh News.
Jade Sacker For BuzzFeed News
Lim Cheavutha, who is in his thirties and speaks with an easy confidence, brags about the pageviews on Fresh News with the passion of a football coach obsessing about stats. The site combines the fast-breaking headlines of a newswire with a decidedly pro-government slant, and Lim says he’s so close to Hun Sen that they sometimes message about stories well past midnight. Asked about the growth of his site, he claims extraordinary numbers that are impossible to verify because the company is privately held — more than 10 million pageviews per month and 1,400 downloads of the app a day. (Cambodia has about 4.8 million Facebook users, according to a 2017 assessment.)
Lim says he built Fresh News from scratch with just $10,000. His critics say this is untrue and that Hun Sen is simply bankrolling the site. (A spokesperson for the prime minister did not respond to requests for comment on the site’s ownership.) Lim insisted his site was independent — but then expressed pride in his cozy relationship with the prime minister and other ruling party officials. The opposition won’t return his messages, he said, though opposition officials told me they’d never heard from Lim.
In a place like Cambodia, Lim’s site couldn’t be successful without Facebook, which is where almost everyone gets their news. “Facebook is an absolute necessity for my site,” he said.
Lim said his most popular stories are about the mundane, like traffic accidents and celebrity gossip. But when it comes to politics, he’s quick to note that he alone has the ear of the prime minister.
“They trust me because if they give me the whole thing, I publish the whole thing,” Lim said. “If he [the prime minister] wants to spread news, he comes to me … that’s why I get scoops.” Despite claiming to be independent, Lim said he does not edit Hun Sen’s statements, and says he puts out quick stories himself, tapping them out on his phone, based on what message the prime minister wants to get out.
It’s clear that Hun Sen, who has spent 33 years in power, understands how important Facebook is in his country. With more than 9 million followers, he is the third most engaged world leader on Facebook, after Donald Trump and India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, according to a study by the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. The report called his presence “unusual” in its candidness — browsing through shows plenty of selfies as well as shots of him with his family and working behind the scenes. For Cambodians, it was a change from the strongman-like figure he presented for years before.
“He’s been a zealous convert to Facebook,” said Sebastian Strangio, the author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia. “He’s using Facebook to sand down the rough edges and present a more avuncular and beneficent public image.”
Democracy in the country had collapsed, and it was broadcast to millions on Facebook.
Hun Sen wasn’t always such an avid user of Facebook — in fact, he appeared to have little interest in the platform until after the last elections in 2013. That year, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) — the party Kem Sokha led — won far more votes than expected, in part by generating support through Facebook.
Hun Sen’s party still won the election, though there were allegations of voting irregularities and fraud afterward, leading to tens of thousands of Cambodians protesting in the streets. But the prime minister learned an important lesson — that Facebook has a way of getting out your message that would be foolish to ignore.
“Facebook is the most important part of work as well as life,” said Duong Dara, an aide to Hun Sen and the head of his Facebook team, in a rare interview. “The new generation doesn’t have time to watch television anymore, even I don’t buy newspapers. The News Feed, I can see quickly.”
Duong, who is in his early forties, first started using Facebook, he said, because he saw posts about Cambodia being a dangerous place to visit and wanted to clap back out of patriotism. Later, he created a fan page for Hun Sen, who he had long supported. He attracted millions of followers with his straightforward voice. After the election in 2013, Hun Sen himself saw it, Duong said, and got in touch.
Duong came on board and began building a team to manage Hun Sen’s Facebook presence. He declined to specify its size, but said the team was made up of technical people as well as those who understand politics, government policy, and public opinion.
Duong, who speaks English with a perfect American-style accent, has traveled throughout his country and abroad at Hun Sen’s side. He carries five mobile phones in a black vinyl case specifically so he can monitor different Facebook accounts. The phones use different cell service providers so that there’s always a guarantee of signal when the prime minister needs to post — even during a recent visit to China, where Facebook is blocked, and in less developed parts of the countryside.
Duong’s team obsessively monitors comments and likes on the prime minister’s posts with the fervor of day traders playing the stock market, trying to replicate successes and interrogate failures. They’ve learned photos that show Hun Sen’s personal side — like selfies or casual snaps — do a lot better than messages about policy.
Facebook / Via Facebook: hunsencambodia
Duong’s team also monitors Facebook for people posting comments critical of Hun Sen that they feel cross the line.
“We don’t want that kind of information spread on the prime minister,” Duong said. At first, the team, or the prime minister himself, would reply directly to critics, he said. But if the Facebook user didn’t stop, Duong’s team would try to get their accounts blocked.
“If they keep posting these nonsense messages, we report it to Facebook,” he said. “They’ve been very helpful. I have a good contact with them.”
When ordinary Facebook users find a post objectionable, they click a link on the post to report it. Then a Facebook employee judges whether it violates the platform’s rules and should be taken down. In practice, it’s a clunky process that involves no direct communication or chance for appeal, and the decisions made by Facebook can seem mysterious and arbitrary.
But for the Cambodian government, that process has been streamlined by Facebook.
Duong said every couple of months, his team would email an employee they work with at Facebook to request a set of accounts be taken down, either based on language they used or because their accounts did not appear to be registered to their real names, a practice Facebook’s rules forbid. Facebook often complies, he said.
Clare Wareing, a spokesperson for Facebook, said the company removes “credible threats, hate speech, and impersonation profiles when we’re made aware of them.” Facebook says it only takes down material that violates its policies.
“We have not removed content outside of our policies at the request of the government in Cambodia,” she said, pointing to the company’s transparency report. The company says any government can submit reports about content.
Duong knows that. In fact, when his team reports critics, they do their best to exploit Facebook’s own rules, specifically looking for posts critical of Hun Sen that they think Facebook will also find objectionable.
“I’m really careful about what I post on Facebook now.”
In some cases, when Facebook wouldn’t take action but Duong’s team felt criticism or fake news was over the line, they would report users directly to the police. At least 15 people have been arrested in Cambodia over Facebook posts since 2014, and many more have been threatened in public and private.
I asked Huy Vannak, an undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Interior who has been a vocal advocate for controls on online expression, whether this process denied Cambodians the right to free speech. He was blunt in his response.
“People want a big room for themselves to speak,” he said. “But if you let things go freely, it’ll be anarchy. … You have to understand that freedom has limits. You need rule of law.”
The country’s Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications also work to monitor Facebook for content they object to, Huy Vannak said. From cities to villages, government officials are trained to use Facebook to engage with citizens and also keep an eye on what they post to ensure there’s no content that threatens social stability — as the government sees it.
The government has a “mechanism” for working with Facebook on that issue, he said, without elaborating.
But for the opposition, it’s a different story.
In 2016, research from the analysis firm Socialbakers suggested a significant portion of Hun Sen’s Facebook likes came from places like the Philippines and India, which don’t have Khmer-speaking populations and are known for hosting so-called click farms where users can buy likes. Lorya Noseda, a marketing consultant who had worked on behalf of the opposition for her uncle, former party leader Sam Rainsy, wanted to bring the matter to Facebook. Facebook says it does not want users to buy likes, saying it will remove fake likes and block accounts that buy them.
Unsure of the right person to contact at the company, Sam Rainsy asked one of his daughters to reach out to a friend at Facebook’s London office. The friend connected them to others at the company who managed public pages and worked on the policy team.
At first, Noseda was optimistic. But then they didn’t get responses to their emails for weeks or were simply ignored.
“They took three weeks to reply, or there was no answer — or they’d give you a reply that was just bullshit or missing the point, saying it wasn’t in their remit,” she said. “Then you try to schedule a call, and they say you have to speak to their boss and their boss doesn’t respond.”
“I just didn’t know what to do.”
In an email exchange that took place over two months in 2016, and seen by BuzzFeed News, Sam Rainsy wrote a detailed note complaining about reports that Hun Sen was buying followers. At first, the Facebook employee, who works on product policy, seemed happy to set up a phone call to explain the company’s rules and point of view. But after Noseda cc’d Sam Rainsy’s lawyer, the messages simply stopped. (Facebook contests this, saying they did offer a call, but Noseda says the company’s representative did not follow through.)
Noseda was frustrated.
“Facebook has a moral duty toward Cambodia,” she said. “Because the radio and TV and everything is controlled by Hun Sen, Facebook has become the only place where people can freely express themselves.”
Those who engage in political speech on Facebook say, however, that they’re being more and more careful with what they say. The platform stopped being a place for free expression in Cambodia when the government started arresting people over Facebook posts.
Kung Raiya, one of the first Cambodians to be sent to prison for a Facebook post.
Jade Sacker For BuzzFeed News