A ruling party spokesman has dismissed a report suggesting Prime Minister Hun Sen had artificially inflated the number of “likes” on his Facebook page, but observers said the claim that he may have paid for his online popularity was damaging.
Just days ago, Hun Sen announced that he had reached 3 million “likes” on the site, joking that his popularity made him the “Facebook Prime Minister.” He only properly joined Facebook about six months ago, but appeared to have overtaken opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s 2.2 million “likes.”
However, in a report on Wednesday, citing figures from media analytics company socialbakers.com, the Phnom Penh Post newspaper said that only about 20 percent of his recently added fans were users in Cambodia.
Many of the likes came from countries whose the people have little reason to give support to Cambodia’s long-term ruler. Many likes in the past 30 days came from India, as well as the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia, Turkey and Mexico, the report said, raising the possibility that the prime minister had been buying his popularity on the site.
Chok Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said she was “surprised” by the report, adding that it raised concerns about the transparency of Facebook’s “likes” function, which has been used by Cambodian politicians to compete for popularity.
“The report is a wake-up call for social media users concerning the techniques to make gains in terms of popularity,” said Chok Sopheap. “I believe some politicians and institutions have used money to broadcast themselves,” Sopheap added.
However, she said, the social media site should not anyway be used as a gauge of a politician’s popularity. It was more important that politicians be judged on their effectiveness in their duties, she added.
“The real concern is that the users themselves have to understand that the number of ‘likes’ they gain on Facebook does not really reflect the popularity or that there’s full support for them,” Sopheap said.
Nget Moses, head of the ICT department at human rights group CENTRAL, explained that Facebook users could pay money to advertise their Facebook posts or page, a mechanism known as “boosting.”
“We cannot use money to buy ‘likes,’” he told VOA Khmer. “However, what we can do is pay money to ‘boost’ our page or posts in order to reach a wider audience, as well as select where the page or the posts can be most seen. The location will imply where we obtain the most number of ‘likes’ from, and it means that is the country where the page or the post can be seen the most. This appears on the account of the users.”
The expert suggested that the administrators of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook Page could release reports and the data behind the page for the sake of accountability and transparency.
Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, dismissed the report, insisting that the prime minister had no reason to artificially inflate his online popularity.
“We don’t believe it, and we cannot accept what’s spoken informally outside,” he said. “Some alleged that the Cambodian government even hired people to ‘like.’ I just want to say that there’s no use in having other people overseas ‘like’ the page because there is not much benefit borne out of that.
“The main concern is the interest of the Cambodian people. The people want to propose this and that, and the government needs to find solution for them. Thus, it’s mostly Cambodian people within the nation.”
Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than 30 years, has recently announced that Cambodians can send messages directly to his own Facebook page in order to raise concerns and issues.
He also urged officials to create their own Facebook pages, and accounts for government institutions, so that the public’s concerns could be collected and addressed.
Political observers believe Hun Sen is hoping that he can harness Facebook to gain popularity in preparation for important commune elections in 2017 and national elections the following year.