Meta's decision to not suspend the Facebook account of a former Cambodian prime minister who had used the platform to physically threaten political opponents is drawing criticism from the tech giant's Oversight Board, human rights groups and digital security experts.
Meta's Oversight Board, a group of prominent global experts that makes mostly nonbinding recommendations on some of the company's thorniest policy questions, had recommended suspending Hun Sen's account over a January 9 post of a speech delivered the day before.
In the speech, Hun Sen threatened to "beat up" opponents and "send gangsters" to their homes. "There are only two options. One is to use legal means and the other is to use a bat," said Hun Sen, who served as Cambodia's prime minister for 38 years.
He added, "If you say that's freedom of expression, I will also express my freedom by sending people to your place and home."
The video was viewed at least 600,000 times, according to the board. Meta, after initially declining to take down the video, heeded the board's recommendation to remove it.
The question of suspending Hun Sen's account has spurred debate and illuminated the tension surrounding newsworthiness, free speech and collective safety in one-party political environments.
"It is hard to imagine a clearer case of a political leader using social media to amplify threats and intimidation," Oversight Board co-chair Michael McConnell said in a statement emailed to VOA Khmer on September 12.
McConnell, a Stanford Law School professor, said the video was part of a "concerning pattern of behavior from the Cambodian government" using social media as a tool of political suppression, in what Freedom House described as "digital authoritarianism."
"Our decision sets out clear guidance to Meta to deter public figures who would exploit its platforms to incite violence. Meta's inaction is a failure to ensure its platforms do not contribute to these harms," McConnell added.
Meta did not respond to VOA Khmer's request for comment on the criticism for this story.
Banning the board
On June 29, Meta's Oversight Board released a report recommending the suspension of Hun Sen's Facebook account and a series of additional policy changes.
Hun Sen's government responded by banning Oversight Board members from Cambodia, a prohibition that remains in force. Hun Sen, a prolific user with 14 million followers, closed his account and suggested he might block the platform in Cambodia.
Hun Sen's self-enforced exile from Facebook lasted until July 20, days before an uncontested election that resulted in his son becoming prime minister on August 22.
In explaining its decision not to deactivate Hun Sen's account, Meta said on August 28 that the case did not meet its criteria for a "crisis designation," since the level of political violence and suppression at the time did not significantly exceed Cambodia's "baseline" condition.
Meta also rejected the board's recommendation to clarify its public framework for restricting accounts of public figures, to account for societies in which political violence was ongoing.
"Applying the protocol in those circumstances could lead to an indefinite suspension of a public figure's account, which [apart from fairness issues] could be detrimental to people's ability to access information from and about their leaders and to express themselves using Meta's platforms," Meta said.
VOA Khmer contacted board members for comment on Meta's decision. Those who responded referred questions to the board's public relations office, which provided the statement from McConnell.
The platform's role
Legal experts and human rights campaigners have criticized Meta's decisions and explanations, arguing the company has failed to confront the role of its platforms in political violence and is seemingly prioritizing its business interests over values like democracy, public safety and nonviolent public dialogue.
Golda Benjamin, Asia-Pacific campaigner for the digital rights group Access Now, told VOA Khmer that Meta "understands perfectly" the impact that its platforms have in countries such as Cambodia, but regularly resists efforts to make it more accountable for its contribution to political violence or other human rights abuses in those societies.
Cambodia's government has repeatedly prosecuted and jailed many of its critics who post on Facebook. Authorities often use "incitement" laws that longtime observers of Cambodia's government say are abused to suppress unwanted citizen speech and critical press.
The International Commission of Jurists has long criticized the Cambodian government's legal and extrajudicial harassment of its opponents, as well as broader human rights violations. Daron Tan, a legal adviser to the group in Southeast Asia, said Meta's decision on Hun Sen's account was "perplexing."
Not only did Meta not suspend Hun Sen's account, but Tan also said it had apparently done nothing to penalize the longtime Cambodian leader, apart from removing the offending video.
"I think that sends a really dangerous message that Hun Sen can basically do whatever he wants, right? He can say whatever he wants, can do whatever he wants, without consequences. And I think that for us is the most troubling bit about Meta's decision," said Tan.
Tan said he sensed an ulterior motive to Meta's explanation that it was prioritizing "voice" and freedom of information over concerns of political violence.
Hun Sen remains a powerful force over Cambodia's government, and Meta was well aware of the potential consequences if it suspended his account, Tan said.
Elina Noor, an Asia security expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Meta may have reached a "sound policy conclusion" given Cambodia's recent leadership transition but added, "The fact that it was against the recommendation of its own Oversight Board undermines the credence of that decision."
McConnell said the repercussions of Meta's decision reached well beyond those directly affected by Hun Sen's threats.
"This is not just about the situation in Cambodia. Meta has not gone far enough to discourage others who may seek to abuse its platforms in a similar way," he said.
"As our decision noted, failure to limit clearly violating speech in political climates where civic space is already reduced and under threat does not always protect voice," McConnell said. "It can have the converse effect, leading to more intimidation and the silencing of a broader range of views."