Cambodia's Ruling Party Uses Facebook Disinformation Against Opposition

Social media attacks against political opponents and activists have fueled exile and violence in Cambodia. What responsibility does Facebook have?

What Happened:

A Cambodian monk, Luon Sovath, was recently forced to flee his home country due to a baseless government-led smear campaign. He is currently in Switzerland on a humanitarian visa.

Sovath is an active human rights activist and critic of Hun Sen’s authoritarian-style governance, which made him the target of a shoddy, but swiftly deployed, video circulated on Facebook. It alleged that Sovath had intercourse with three sisters and their mother. Shortly after, the government-aligned religious council announced their decision to defrock him for violating an oath of celibacy. 

Why it Matters:

Cambodia’s Crumbling Democracy

Cambodia had a rocky go at governance following the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, which saw the murder of approximately 1.7 million people between 1975-1979. Recently, Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1983, has shredded any semblance of upholding democracy.

In 2017, the government dissolved the opposition party, exiled its leader, and put others on house arrest. Additionally, several environmental activists have been murdered for protesting land grabs and deforestation. 

Cambodia’s Ties with China

Cambodia has pivoted from western aid to welcome China as a financial benefactor. Hun Sen has shown a willingness to act on their behalf in doing so. For example, Cambodia blocked the mention of territorial disputes in the South China Sea by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). 

Nearly one-third of Cambodia’s foreign investment came from China in 2017, and the Southeast Asian nation also received $600 million in grant aid in 2019. Beyond the geopolitical repercussions, these deep ties present challenges to holding Hun Sen accountable for human rights violations. 

Is Facebook a Tool For Human Rights Atrocities?

Facebook has removed the fake profile responsible for instigating the attacks against Luon Sovath, but the video is still being actively shared on the platform. 

These developments are eerily similar to other acts of violence amplified by social media, including the Myanmar military’s use of Facebook to promote the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority group via fake celebrity accounts. A 2018 report conducted afterwards by nonprofit human rights researchers determined that Facebook did not do enough to prevent the incitement of violence.