Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 11 July 2023


The World’s Strongmen Continue to Bend Social Media to Their Will

An illustration of a white ballot box being crushed by a blue sphere emblazoned with a “thumbs down” emoji.
Credit...Jason Allen Lee
An illustration of a white ballot box being crushed by a blue sphere emblazoned with a “thumbs down” emoji.

Dr. Woolley is the author of “Manufacturing Consensus: Understanding Propaganda in the Era of Automation and Anonymity.”

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The Cambodian People’s Party created its Cyber War Room about a decade ago. The goal was to support Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime through social media propagandizing. Led by the prime minister’s son Hun Manet, a troll army used Facebook and other digital platforms to attack his father’s opposition with disinformation and even allegedly wield death threats.

Fast forward to the Cambodian election taking place next month. The CPP’s Cyber War Room is back up and runningGeneral Manet, commander of the Cambodian Army and most likely the country’s next prime minister, is reportedly back at the helm, this time defending his father’s legacy and himself.

Facebook is extremely popular in Cambodia, with roughly 12 million of the country’s almost 17 million people on the site. Many people in Cambodia use Facebook as a core means of getting information, and social media platforms are critical for the few journalists still producing independent reporting. The populations of many other countries where governments have continually used social media for manipulation, including the Philippines and Turkey, rely heavily on Facebook as well. So why has state-sponsored trolling like this been allowed to endure for 10 years?

It will come as no surprise when I say that Big Tech has a lot of problems on its plate, including fury about transnational digital propaganda campaigns, a global outcry about networked disinformation during the pandemic and panic about both real and hypothetic threats of generative A.I.

But as one issue pops into the immediate view, the others don’t go anywhere. Instead, the global problems with our online information ecosystem compound. And while society and tech’s most powerful firms jump from one issue to the next, the abusive disinformation practices in places like Cambodia become entrenched. Governments refine their techniques, and opposition groups become less and less present because they are either trolled into submission, arrested, exiled or killed. It all benefits Big Tech, from Meta to Alphabet, which publicly seizes upon the idea du jour while cutting staffs and curbing efforts aimed at combating standing informational issues.

What does this mean for the people of Cambodia? For a people who, in living memory, endured the horrors of genocide and totalitarianism?

The Cambodian news ecosystem and the lives of Cambodians are controlled by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has led them in some capacity for 38 years. He is quick to justify his long reign by pointing to economic gains before Covid — by which time the country achieved lower-middle-income status through tourism, textile exports and a growing relationship with China. His people have languished in many other ways, however: Environmental degradation is rife, corruption is commonplace, and human rights abuses are worsening.

Mr. Sen and his cronies own or control all but the thinnest sliver of the country’s media outlets. They recently banned the main opposition party from running in the coming election because of an alleged clerical error. And curtailing speech on social media has been critical to the consolidation of their power. Facebook, Telegram and other platforms have been central to the CPP’s illicit, strategic and authoritarian control of Cambodia’s information space and, consequently, public opinion.

Other despots have made use of highly organized state-sponsored trolling outfits to quash dissent. Some, like Mr. Sen, have also hired their kids to run them. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s Office of Hate, run by his sons, used social media to defame journalists and threaten opposition. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the autocrat recently re-elected as president of Turkey, benefited greatly from organized troll armies operating on Twitter. Back in Southeast Asia, the increasingly tyrannical regimes of Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar have all deployed cyber-troops to do their oppressive bidding.

Another factor is central to understanding why social media firms have failed to curb state-sponsored trolling around the globe: language.

Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and other platforms have overwhelmingly focused their efforts to counter harmful and purposely misleading content in English. One reason is that they are based in the United States. Another is the malignant supremacy of Western concerns. But the larger reason is that social media companies cannot or will not supply the resources necessary to moderating content in other languages — particularly those such as Cambodia’s Khmer, which is complex and spoken by about 18 million people worldwide. That’s a small number when compared with the roughly 1.5 billion who speak English.

This issue is a major problem for our own democracy too. During the 2020 and 2022 elections, social media platforms failed spectacularly in quashing hateful and disenfranchising content aimed at the tens of millions of Americans who speak Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog and a variety of other languages. This resulted in communities of color and groups already marginalized in our political system bearing the brunt of digital hate and purposely false information about these contests. According to my research and work with community leaders, this structural disinformation causes apathy, anger and civic disenchantment among minority voters, and as a result, many don’t show up to vote.

The strength of global democracy is tied to the number of countries around the world that truly practice it. And while the leaders of relatively strong democracies like the United States obsess over information technology problems and political spectacle in Washington, they fail to do their duty to protect the less fortunate, both in their own country and elsewhere. This, in turn, lets social media companies off the hook.

I recently returned from a lecture tour in Cambodia, where I spoke to more than 12 groups of professional journalists, citizen reporters, scholars, students and activists about the informational and political challenges they face online and offline. All told me that they still use platforms like Facebook and Telegram to coordinate, organize and share information about breaking news and elections.

Facebook is especially popular in the country, in part because of its controversial Free Basics program, which offers free internet in a number of developing countries via a constrained number of websites (including, naturally, Facebook). Critics derided this as less a benevolent bid to connect the world and more a heavy-handed effort to “capture more of the market in the name of connectivity.” The promise of social media — that it can be the conduit for communication in countries with controlled media systems — remains true for the people I spoke to in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. But this potential is quickly dwindling as people lose faith in the safety of online communication. Meanwhile, Facebook remains a potent means for disseminating propaganda.

If Meta, Alphabet and other tech firms do not take swift action to curb state-sponsored trolling, and if policymakers and civil society groups in the United States and other democracies don’t put more pressure on authoritarians like Hun Sen, then Cambodians and many others around the world will lose one of their last means of fighting back. We must speak out about the oppression surrounding the Cambodian election, which takes place on July 23 — and speak out about digital injustice.

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