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Social Media Allows Expression, But Users Weigh the Risks of Rumor

People are silhouetted as they pose with laptops in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo, file photo.
People are silhouetted as they pose with laptops in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo, file photo.

For many young Cambodians, social media has become more than simply a way to communicate with friends, and is a major source of news about their country and the world. But while observers say such websites have increased awareness about political issues in recent years, users are having to learn to negotiate the pitfalls of false information and rumor.

Facebook is the most popular social network in the country, and Cambodians use the site to share news stories, or firsthand accounts of events. With the country’s traditional media often seen as lacking in impartiality and serious analysis, social media provides a welcome source for an increasingly information-hungry population.

“Since 2012, especially during the fifth election [in 2013], Facebook has been used in a dramatically different way, to share and discuss about social and political issues, and so on,” said Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center of Human Rights. “It’s unlike before, when they just used it for entertainment.”

Social media provides a platform for free expression, Chak Sopheap told VOA Khmer, adding a warning that since information on social media was largely people’s opinions, it may not always be true.

“It is not like information from professional media institutions, which require journalists to act ethically and professionally,” he said. “But Facebook users are just people that use it to express their ideas. Sometimes it might be right; sometimes it might be wrong.”

Ouk Kimseng, a spokesman for the Ministry of Information, told VOA Khmer that politicians and government officials, including those at ministerial level, were using social media to get messages out to the public and to the media.

“When journalists see their stance, they can then send [politicians] a message to their inbox to ask them questions,” he said.

However, Ouk Kimseng agreed that information on Facebook still needed to be verified.

“If we want to know whether the news someone posted is true or not, we should do some research on it,” he said. “Some believe [what they read on Facebook], but some do not. It is up to them.”

Facebook users told VOA Khmer that they do treat information on Facebook with some suspicion, and seek to verify news on professional media.

Kak Yutthavonn, a 22-year-old recent law graduate from the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE), said that he primarily uses Facebook to communicate with friends and relative, but also gets some of his news from the site.

“There is small part of news that I get from Facebook, but I get a lot of news [media] institutions,” he said. “I receive news about traffic accidents by checking on Facebook, but many news articles about social issues are always exaggerated on social media.”

The rising use of Facebook to share information has seen a number of scandals arise among Cambodians, after unfounded rumors or theories quickly become accepted fact.

For example, in recent months some have alleged that a scourge of Chinese-made “plastic rice” had been dumped on the Cambodian market, leading many to believe the rice sold in markets was dangerous to health. Rumors have circulated that eggs, noodles and soy milk made with plastic or rubber have also been on sale.

Industry bodies and the government have sought to play down the rumors, but many have been convinced.

Dim Theng, deputy director of Cambodia Import Export Inspection and Fraud Repression Directorate, said that such rumors shared on Facebook “cannot be trusted.”

“No plastic rice has been traded in the Cambodian market,” he insisted, explaining that no plastic rice had been identified by his department’s laboratory. He added that Facebook users should be cautious when spreading unverified news online, since doing so may have legal ramifications.

Student Ngel Sovanarith, 22, also studying at RULE, said he is cautious about believing what he reads on Facebook.

“I have to check where the news comes from,” he said. “If it is just from users, I don’t trust it, because it will carry the biases of those users.”