Cambodia's political Facebook war heads to court

Official Facebook page of Hun Sen

Suggestions that underhand tactics have been used to artificially boost the Facebook popularity of Cambodia's leader has resulted in a lawsuit against an opposition leader and denials that "likes" have been bought from foreign "click farms".

Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years, but recently he's become very interested in technology and social networking.

In September he admitted that a page with his name on it was actually his official Facebook home, and since then the number of likes the page has picked up has climbed steadily. Last month he eclipsed the like count racked up by opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Sam Rainsy Opposition leader Sam Rainsy lives in self-imposed exile but most of his Facebook supporters appear to come from inside Cambodia.

But with the burst of social media activity have come criticism and questions. Rainsy, who was already living in self-imposed exile to avoid another lawsuit, accused government ministers of pressuring members of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) to like the prime minister on Facebook, and of boosting the PM's numbers with fake accounts from overseas.

This prompted a furious response from Som Soeun, a minister who oversees Hun Sen's online presence and who has now launched a lawsuit against Rainsy seeking $5,000 compensation for allegedly "twisting the truth". Soeun said that it was untrue that he had advocated using fake accounts overseas to boost the PM's Facebook likes.

"It is not like that at all," he told the English-language Cambodia Daily. "I am a party member; I have to protect my leader and expose His Excellency Sam Rainsy's cheap act, which is opposite to the truth."

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Hun Sen has 3.2 million likes compared with Rainsy's 2.2 million. But both numbers are astonishing for a small developing country. To put this into perspective, British Prime Minister David Cameron has about one million likes on his official Facebook page. Not only does the UK have a population about four times as large as Cambodia's, internet penetration is more than 90% - compared with less than 10% for the southeast Asian country.

In a message on his page to mark reaching the milestone of reaching three million likes on his page, Hun Sen said: "Facebook has brought me closer with people and allowed me to listen and receive more requests directly from them."

However, last week the Phnom Penh Post newspaper published research which said that of the 779,000 Facebook accounts who liked the PM's page in the previous month only 157,331 were based inside Cambodia - indicating that 80% of the likes were from abroad.

BBC Trending's own analysis - using online freeware - indicates that around 57% of Hun Sen's total likes come from inside Cambodia - compared to 83% for Rainsy, who ironically has based himself outside the country. The largest numbers of overseas likes for Sen come from India, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Facebook appears to be a key part of Hun Sen's political strategy. He's used the network to try to connect to voters, and has held mandatory sessions for school leaders who have been encouraged to post in support of the CPP. At the same time he's issued warnings against his critics online.

Trending approached both Sen and Rainsy for comment, but has yet to hear back from either.

Hun Sen poses for a selfie with supporters during A late convert to social media, Hun Sen has embraced it with enthusiasm

But Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People's Party has reportedly denied that the government was using so-called "click farms" outside the country to buy likes for the PM's page to artificially boost his popularity.

"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, " he said.

The Cambodian prime minister isn't the first politician to face allegations of unscrupulous collection of Facebook likes. In July 2015, Donald Trump faced similar claims. At the time an analysis by Vocativ indicated that 42% of Trump's likes came from accounts in the United States. Currently the Republican frontrunner has 6.4 million likes, around three-quarters of which come from US accounts.

Blog by Mike Wendling

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