October 5, 2016
asiafoundation_Following the surprising outcome to Cambodia’s 2013 general election, when the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lost 22 seats at the National Assembly, Prime Minister Hun Sen pushed members of his government to take reform more seriously in order to secure popular support for the forthcoming 2017 commune and 2018 general elections. Not surprisingly, Hun Sen also put a big emphasis on social media.
Since 2010, social media in Cambodia has experienced exponential growth. According to The Asia Foundation-supported Mobile Phones and Internet in Cambodia 2015 survey, almost a third of Cambodians had access to Facebook—with a growth rate of nearly 30 percent per year. Facebook is mostly used by youth under the age of 30 who represent almost two-thirds of the total population. In fact, Cambodians who are under 24 years old are five times more likely to be on Facebook than Cambodians 40 and older. It’s clear that the walls of the village have quickly come down for a younger electorate.
In addition to sharing information with family and friends, Facebook is also a way to access alternative sources of information and bypass the traditional Khmer-language media, such as TV, newspapers and radio, which rarely, if ever, stray from the government’s messaging.
At the same time, over the past four years, Facebook has gradually become a more common communication tool used by politicians and government. Prime Minister Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), rank among the most prominent Facebook users globally. Hun Sen’s Facebook page has over 5.3 million likes, which makes his page the most popular Facebook page in Cambodia by fan counts. Sam Rainsy currently has over 3 million fans.
Yet pundits have been quick to point out that not all “likes” are the same. They suggest that Sam Rainsy may have fewer fans, but four out of five of his page likes come from Cambodia, whereas about only half of Hun Sen’s likes come from Cambodia. In fact, when comparing the amount of likes coming from Cambodia, Hun Sen has just over 300,000 more likes than Sam Rainsy. Critics cite the fact that at least 45 percent of Hun Sen’s other likes come from countries such as India, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Sam Rainsy has seized on this, accusing Hun Sen of buying his online popularity, and claiming “a significant number of those likes were obtained by hiring poor and jobless people to create fake Facebook accounts so as to provide artificial likes to Hun Sen.”
To put Facebook page likes into better perspective, according to Social Bakers, Hun Sen is among the top 20 political people in the world in number of Facebook fans. Hun Sen’s Facebook page has approximately 127 percent of fans per total Facebook users in Cambodia and Sam Rainsy has 74 percent. By comparison, Joko Widodo, president of Indonesia, and Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, each have 7 percent of the total Facebook users from their countries who are fans of their respective pages. However, the high number of likes for Cambodian politicians doesn’t necessarily correlate with support.
The reasons for this are simple. The Asia Foundation’s recent study, A Survey of Livelihood Strategies and Expectations for the Future, shows that people are twice as likely to discuss politics if they are on Facebook. When a Facebook user likes a politician’s Facebook page, they aren’t just getting more news and information, but they are accessing the political content which influences their opinions. In other words, Facebook likes may be a better signal for what Cambodians find as important rather than for what they necessarily agree with.
Political leaders have seized on this trend. Even older politicians have embraced Facebook as a way to engage in “soft” politics and woo voters. In stark contrast to his image as a strongman, Hun Sen posts pictures on Facebook of his daily work as a head of state while showing a more candid picture of himself, posing with his grandchildren or eating at a local market.
Facebook has also been used to promote policy issues. In January 2016, Hun Sen announced and amended a new traffic law via his official Facebook page. The new law required driver’s license for every vehicle operator. But after receiving complaints about the new regulations on his Facebook page, the prime minister adjusted the law to exclude drivers operating engines with power less than 125cc, effectively exempting tens of thousands of Cambodia’s motorists. As a result of the growing number of concerns voiced online in this way, Hun Sen instructed each ministry to create a Facebook working group in order to track and respond to people’s complaints.
Notwithstanding the stepped-up interaction between the governing and the governed, self-censorship still prevails. Many Cambodians are keenly aware of the potential sanctions from their online engagement. In March 2016, a student was sentenced to an 18-month jail term for a post referring to a “colored revolution,” where he advocated for democratic reforms through non-violent transformation of the political system.
So, how important will Facebook be in predicting political outcomes in the 2017 commune and 2018 national elections? Research suggests a better indicator for votes is simply whether people feel there has been significant reform since the 2013 elections in the areas that matter to them. What is certain, however, is that Facebook has quickly become an indispensable channel for responding to and influencing a new age of civic engagement in Cambodia, and will no doubt play an important role in upcoming elections.
Nina Tiquet is a recent intern at The Asia Foundation in Cambodia, and a graduate student at Paris School of International Affairs of Sciences Po. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.