WASHINGTON — Cambodia’s government congratulated tech giant Meta on its decision late last month to reject a recommendation from the company’s own Oversight Board to suspend former Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook account.
That feeling wasn’t shared by other groups closely following the case, which centered on a video of Hun Sen making explicit threats of physical violence toward his political opponents.
Meta’s Oversight Board — along with human rights groups and digital security experts — skewered the decision in interviews and email exchanges with VOA Khmer this month.
“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 an emailed statement.
He noted 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,” added McConnell, a Stanford law school professor.
On June 29, Meta’s Oversight Board — a group of prominent global experts that makes mostly non-binding recommendations on some of the company’s thorniest policy questions — released a report recommending the suspension of Hun Sen’s Facebook account and a series of additional policy changes.
The response from Hun Sen’s government was swift.
Oversight Board members were promptly banned from the country, while the prime minister proactively shut down his own account and suggested he might block the platform entirely in Cambodia.
VOA Khmer reached out to nine members of the Oversight Board for comment on this story. Those who responded referred questions to the board’s public relations office, which provided the statement from McConnell.
In the months between the Oversight Board recommendation and Meta’s decision, Hun Sen handed power to his son and now prime minister, Hun Manet. That followed a July election in which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party cruised to victory with the opposition barred from competing. Hun Sen’s self-enforced exile from Facebook was short lived, with his account returning online in mid-July.
The video in question was from a speech in January, when 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 some 38 years until last month.
Meta initially declined to take down the video in response to complaints, but ultimately heeded the Oversight Board’s recommendation to take it down. But on a half dozen additional recommendations, Meta either declined to comply or said considerations were ongoing.
The question of suspension has spurred the most significant debate, shining a light on the tension between newsworthiness, free speech and collective safety in oppressive political environments.
In explaining its decision not to deactivate Hun Sen’s account, Meta said 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 a recommendation to clarify its public framework for restricting accounts of public figures, to account for societies in which political violence was on ongoing occurrence, rather than time-constrained incidents like the Jan. 6 riot that led to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s suspension from Facebook in 2021.
“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 explained in its response on Aug. 28.
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 ongoing political violence, and is seemingly prioritizing its business interests over values like democracy, public safety and nonviolent public dialogue.
“Platforms should be able to understand that it's the slow burn of these kinds of content, and also the virality of these kinds of content because of the source of the content, that further increases the pressure and also further restricts the civic space,” Golda Benjamin, Asia-Pacific campaigner for the digital rights group Access Now, told VOA Khmer.
Benjamin said Meta “understands perfectly” the impact that its platforms have in countries like Cambodia, but regularly resisted policies that would increase its accountability for political violence or other human rights abuses in those societies.
“So when they're talking about their economic power, they can brand it and magnify and even exaggerate it, but when it comes to responsibility and then remedy for the harm that they're causing, they shy away from it,” she said of Meta.
In recent years, Cambodia’s government has regularly prosecuted and jailed many of its critics who are publicly active on Facebook expressing political opinions, often under “incitement” laws that observers say are abused to suppress unwanted citizen speech. Outspoken dissidents are also regularly subjected to physical attacks. While direct links between government rhetoric and violence are rarely proven, critics say the message to the Cambodian public is clear.
Two weeks ago, a government critic active on social media was nearly beaten to death just hours after he criticized the country’s agriculture minister. He had previously spent months in prison after satirically comparing Cambodia’s COVID-19 lockdowns to a chicken coop.
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, Tan said it had apparently done nothing to penalize the longtime Cambodian leader, apart from taking down the offending video.
“And 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.”
Tan also sensed an ulterior motive to Meta’s carefully crafted explanation of how it was prioritizing “voice” and freedom of information over concerns of political violence.
“What is on a lot of people's minds is that this decision was ultimately based on business considerations, because Meta has significant investments in Cambodia,” he said.
While Trump was leaving the White House in 2021 when Meta made its decision on Trump’s account, Hun Sen merely had transferred power to his son, and remains a powerful force over Cambodia’s government, Tan noted. And Meta was well aware of the potential consequences if it suspended his account, he added.
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.”
“There may also have been business considerations tipping Meta’s decision given the substantial role played by Facebook in Cambodian politics. It certainly didn’t help that the Cambodian government congratulated Meta and validated its decision, after,” she added.
“It’s a slippery slope for Meta to be on since a continuing threat of violence can escalate very quickly, at which point suspension of an account may be too little too late,” Noor said.
Meta did not respond to VOA Khmer’s request for comment on the criticism for this story.
McConnell, the Oversight Board co-chair, said the repercussions of Meta’s decision reached well beyond those directly impacted 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,” McConnell 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. It can have the converse effect, leading to more intimidation and the silencing of a broader range of views.”
Oversight Board’s full response to
VOA Khmer’s questions on the Hun Sen case.
Responses attributable to Oversight Board Co Chair Michael McConnell:
What did you think of Meta's reasons for deciding against the recommendation to suspend Hun Sen's account?
Of course we are glad that Meta complied with our decision to take down the immediate post in question – a video in which Hun Sen threatens his political opponents with the “bat” and with attacks by his supporters. But we are disappointed that the company did not accept our additional recommendation to suspend the account.
It is hard to imagine a clearer case of a political leader using social media to amplify threats and intimidation. The Board drew on expertise from civil society organizations, which detailed a concerning pattern of behavior from the Cambodian government. Freedom House describes the state’s behavior as “digital authoritarianism,” where government use and monitoring of social media is leveraged to suppress and threaten political opposition.
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. We stand by our recommendations and urge Meta to take meaningful steps to prevent this kind of misuse.
What did you think of Meta's reasons for deciding against the recommendation to clarify/change its policies to cover "contexts in which citizens are under continuing threat of retaliatory violence from their governments"?
To suggest that Meta’s policies with respect to political leaders should only apply under narrowly defined circumstances calls into question the purpose of the policy, and its ability to protect against harms. Given Hun Sen’s history of committing human rights violations it is especially clear that Meta can’t wait for threats to be acted on – and in this case, it has guidance to draw on so it does not have to.
For further context, as a result of the Board’s recommendations following its review into the suspension of Former US President Donald Trump, Meta made important changes like introducing a comprehensive Crisis Protocol in high-risk situations and outlining more clearly how it would restrict the accounts of public figures during civil unrest. These were good first steps on paper, but the unwillingness to adapt them for contexts such as these raises serious concerns. The company has to calibrate for political climates where people are under continuing threat of violence from their governments.
What precedent is set by Meta's decisions in Hun Sen's case, in terms of acceptable behaviour for political leaders on Meta's platforms?
Meta’s decision sends the wrong message to political leaders who break the rules - that they will not be accountable for their conduct. 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.
Do you think Cambodian people are under greater threat moving forward because Meta has declined to follow the Oversight Board's recommendations?
We are in no position to make predictions, but our decision was clear that Meta has got to do more to prevent harmful content in contexts where citizens are under continuing threat of retaliatory violence from their governments. 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. It can have the converse effect, leading to more intimidation and the silencing of a broader range of views.
We will continue to push Meta to better protect human rights and make sure its platforms do not undermine democratic integrity. That’s one of the reasons we are prioritizing our focus to include the protection of elections and civic space – it is critical to push for accountability for any actors that compromise this space, or seek to incite violence, and that includes political leaders.