The Cambodian People’s Party created its Cyber War Room about a decade ago. The goal was to support Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime through social media propaganda. Led by the prime minister’s son Hun Manet, a troll army used Facebook and other digital platforms to attack his father’s opposition with misinformation and even allegedly use death threats.
Fast forward to the Cambodian election taking place next month. The CPP’s Cyber War Room is back starting to work. General Manetcommander of the Cambodian Army and most likely the country’s next prime minister, is said to be back at the helm, this time defending his father’s legacy and himself.
Facebook is extremely popular in Cambodia, with about 12 million of the country’s nearly 17 million people on the site. Many people in Cambodia use Facebook as a core means of getting information, and social media platforms are critical for the few journalists still producing independent reports. The populations of many other countries where governments have continuously used social media for manipulation, including the Philippines and Turkey, are also heavily dependent on Facebook. So why have state sponsored trolling so they were allowed to endure 10 years?
It will come as no surprise when I say that Big Tech has a lot of problems on its plate, including fury transnational digital advertising campaignsglobal outcry about online disinformation during the pandemic and panic about both real and hypothetical threats of reproductive AI.
But as one thing comes into immediate view, the others do not go anywhere. Instead, the global problems with our online information ecosystem are compounding. And while the most powerful companies in society and technology jump from one thing to another, the misinformation practices in places like Cambodia take root. Governments are refining their techniques, and opposition groups are becoming less and less present as they are either trolled into submission, arrested, exiled or killed. Everything benefits Big Tech, from Meta to Alphabet, who publicly seizes on the idea of the day cutting sticks and curb efforts aimed at combating persistent information problems.
What does this mean for the people of Cambodia? For a people who, in living memory, endured the horrors of genocide and totalitarianism?
The Cambodian news ecosystem and the lives of Cambodians are controlled by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has led them in some capacity for 38 years. He is quick to justify his long reign by pointing out economic gains before Covid – then the country achieved low-middle income status through tourism, textile exports and a growing relationship with China. His people faltered in many other ways, however: Environmental degradation is abundant corruption is ordinary, and human rights abuses gets worse
Mr. Sen and his associates own or to control all but the thinnest sliver of the country’s media. They recently banned the main opposition party from running in the next election due to an alleged clerical error. And limiting speech on social media was critical to the consolidation of their power. Facebook, Telegram and other platforms have been central to the CPP’s illegal, strategic and authoritarian control of Cambodia’s information space and, consequently, of public opinion.
Other despots used highly organized state-sponsored troll outfits to stifle dissent. Some, like Mr. Sen, also employed their children to manage them. In Brazil, that of Jair Bolsonaro Office of Hate, directed by his sons, used social media to slander journalists and threaten opposition. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the autocrat recently re-elected as president of Turkey, benefited greatly from organized troll armies running on Twitter. Back in Southeast Asia, the increasingly tyrannical regimes of Thailand, Philippines and Myanmar have all deployed cyber troops to do their repressive bidding.
Another factor is central to understanding why social media companies have failed to curb state-sponsored trolling around the world: language.
Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and other platforms have overwhelmingly focused their efforts to combat harmful and deliberately misleading content in English. One reason is that they are based in the US. Another is the malignant superiority of Western concerns. But the bigger reason is that social media companies can’t or won’t provide the necessary resources to moderate content in other languages — especially those like Cambodia’s Khmer, which is complex and spoken by about 18 million people worldwide. That’s a small number compared to the roughly 1.5 billion who speak English.
This thing there is a serious problem also for our own democracy. During the 2020 and 2022 elections, social media platforms failed miserably to crack down on hateful and disempowering content aimed at the tens of millions of Americans who speak Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, and various other languages. This has resulted in communities of color and groups already marginalized in our political system bearing the brunt of digital hate and intentionally false information about these contests. According to my research and work with community leaders, this structural misinformation causes apathy, anger and civic disinterest among minority voters, and as a result, many do not turn out to vote.
The strength of global democracy is linked to the number of countries around the world that actually practice it. And while the leaders of relatively strong democracies like the United States obsess over IT problems and political show in Washington, they fail in their duty to protect the less fortunate, both in their own country and elsewhere. This, in turn, lets social media companies off the hook.
I just returned from a lecture tour in Cambodia, where I spoke to more than 12 groups of professional journalists, citizen reporters, scholars, students and activists about the information and policy challenges they face online and offline. Everyone told me that they still use platforms like Facebook and Telegram to coordinate, organize and share information about breaking news and elections.
Facebook is especially popular in the countrypartly because of its controversial Free Basics program, which offers free internet in some developing countries through a limited number of websites (including, of course, Facebook). Critics derided this as a less benign bid to connect the world and a heavier effort to “capture more of the market in the name of connectivity”. The promise of social media – that it can be the channel for communication in countries with controlled media systems — remains true for the people I spoke to in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. But this potential is rapidly diminishing as people lose faith in the security of online communication. Meanwhile, Facebook remains a powerful medium for spreading propaganda.
If Meta, Alphabet and other tech firms don’t act quickly to curb state-sponsored trolling, and if policymakers and civil society groups in the US and other democracies don’t put more pressure on authoritarians like Hun Sen, then Cambodians and many more. others around the world will lose one of their last means of fighting back. We need to talk about the repression surrounding the Cambodian election that takes place on July 23rd – and talk about digital injustice.