Cambodia Facebook feud hits California courts

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Lawyers for exiled Cambodian opposition figure Sam Rainsy have filed legal action against Facebook, in a case that highlights how the quest for “likes” has gripped the small Southeast Asian country’s leading politicians.

The petition in US federal courts asks the social media giant to disclose information related to the popularity of the Facebook page of Sam Rainsy’s rival, Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose Facebook page ranked third in global engagement among world leaders, according to public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.

The petition accuses Hun Sen of using state money to buy Facebook ads and says he levelled death threats against Rainsy in violation of the platform’s policies, including a speech posted to his page last week vowing to attack opposition members with rocket launchers.

“Facebook should act to prevent its platform being manipulated to help prop up dictators,” said Rainsy’s lawyer, Richard Rogers, a partner in the London and Paris-based firm Global Diligence.

Rainsy, who has lived in Paris since November 2015 in the face of a slew of court cases, accuses Hun Sen of purchasing support in countries such as India and the Philippines, where the prime minister’s page is popular and which are home to “click farms” that produce fake followers for social media accounts.

Illegitimate likes often come from fake accounts or from real users who are paid for liking the page, according to Facebook.

Cambodian courts found Rainsy guilty of defamation in November 2016 after he accused officials of creating fake accounts to support Hun Sen’s page.

The filing in Northern District of California federal court asks Facebook to disclose information about the authenticity of Hun Sen’s likes, as well as communications he may have had with associates on the platform on a variety of topics, including the July killing of political commentator Kem Ley.

The information would clear Rainsy’s name in a number of Cambodian court cases and change Cambodian voters’ perception of Hun Sen before July’s national elections, Mr Rogers said.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Despite calling himself a digital dinosaur, Hun Sen has a big social media presence

“If you’re going to vote for the winner, [Facebook] is one of the ways to discern who is the winner,” Mr Rogers said. Hun Sen’s current, allegedly fraudulent Facebook popularity “shows that he’s still liked even though he commits all of these human rights abuses”, he added

A suspiciously international following?

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 33 years, adopted Facebook with gusto in the aftermath of his Cambodian People’s Party’s near-upset at the hands of Mr Rainsy’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the 2013 national elections. His page has showcased a more accessible, selfie-prone strongman who likes strolls with grandchildren and swims in the ocean.

The light mood on the page contrasts with an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the run-up to the July vote.

Cambodia’s last six months were marked by the shutdown of several independent media outlets, the jailing of two reporters and the arrest of CNRP president Kem Sokha. In November, the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP for alleged treason.

Without the CNRP, most observers say the upcoming national election lacks any credibility.

Rainsy and other critics have also cried foul on Hun Sen’s online popularity. About 45% of Hun Sen’s Facebook followers have accounts in Cambodia, according to social media monitoring site, compared with almost 80% of Rainsy’s followers and 90% for Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet.

Image copyright Reuters


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