A sobering reminder that we who enjoy democracy are among the fortunate in our world.
Let’s pray for the people of Cambodia. And spread the word.
This Country’s Democracy Has Fallen Apart — And It Played Out To Millions On Facebook
Megha Rajagopalan, BuzzFeed, Jan. 21, 2018
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — At first, Kem Monovithya was baffled. Then she was afraid.
It started with a news story that seemed totally made up. Last summer, Fresh News — a kind of Cambodian take on Breitbart — published an article accusing Kem and her sister of being part of an elaborate CIA plot to overthrow the government of Cambodia, along with their father, the leader of the main opposition party. It seemed so ridiculous that they thought no one would believe it.
“At first we thought it was so funny,” said Kem, who is also an opposition party official. In response, she tweeted a photo of her and her sister, Samathida, on a boat, wearing dark sunglasses — like secret agents in an action movie.
“Personally we think MI6 is cooler than CIA. Bond, not just Bond girls, our name is Bond! To
#Cambodia govt mouthpiece.”
“But then it wouldn’t stop,” she said. “They kept at it for over a week.”
Fresh News is one of the most influential news sites in Cambodia, and its founder, Lim Cheavutha, has a close relationship with the prime minister, whose agenda he is happy to push. Sites like Fresh News spread their message primarily through Facebook — the social network is Cambodia’s main news source and has become so popular there it is virtually synonymous with the internet. The story about the Kem family was viewed tens of thousands of times on Facebook.
As evidence of the Kem family’s supposed plot to bring down the Cambodian government, Fresh News posted a mishmash of photos culled from social media of the sisters hanging out with various white male friends. “Any western person who we’d ever encountered in our life, they were accused of being a spy or working for the CIA,” Kem Samathida told me by phone. “They were just dropping the names of random Americans.”
Fresh News published more photos of the family, showing them posing at dinner gatherings with American friends and at an election event in Taiwan. The site also posted a video clip of Kem Sokha giving a speech in Melbourne, Australia, where he spoke about his desire for political change. All the images had been posted on social media before, but Fresh News claimed they were further proof of Kem Sokha’s plot to overthrow the government, citing no named sources or other evidence.
On Sept. 3, about a week after Fresh News first accused the Kem family of having ties to the CIA, dozens of police pushed through the gates of Kem Sokha’s family home in Phnom Penh and arrested him. He was charged with treason and faces up to 30 years in prison.
When Facebook first came to Cambodia, many hoped it would help to usher in a new period of free speech, amplifying voices that countered the narrative of the government-friendly traditional press. Instead, the opposite has happened. Prime Minister Hun Sen is now using the platform to promote his message while jailing his critics, and his staff is doing its best to exploit Facebook’s own rules to shut down criticism — all through a direct relationship with the company’s staff.
Facebook has also dramatically reduced the reach of independent media in Cambodia after it decided last year to silo off their content as part of a controversial experiment. The company said this month it would make similar changes to News Feeds for users worldwide.
Facebook has styled itself as a neutral platform for information. But its role in spreading propaganda and fake news, as well as its relationship with the Cambodian government, shows how easily that neutrality can be exploited by autocrats.
Weeks after Kem’s arrest, Cambodia’s top court dissolved the main opposition party at the request of the government. It marked a fundamental shift in Cambodian politics, which had long incorporated a vibrant media and civil society, as well as flawed but fiercely fought elections. Democracy in the country had collapsed, and it was broadcast to millions on Facebook.
(Long article. Read more.)