News of the board’s recommendation, which marked the first time it had asked for a head of government to be banned from Meta’s platforms, prompted Hun Sen to publicly quit Facebook and threaten a countrywide ban of it.
But in a decision posted Monday, Meta said suspending Hun Sen’s account “would not be consistent with our policies, including our protocol on restricting accounts of public figures during civil unrest.” It had removed the video cited as violent, Meta said, and saw no other justification for revoking Hun Sen’s access to the platform.
Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, has struggled in recent years to balance freedom of expression with abusive online behavior. The company said it based the Hun Sen decision on protocol governing the speech of public figures that it developed after its suspension of U.S. President Donald Trump over incendiary posts that he made during the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riots.
In its analysis, the company said, it determined that Hun Sen’s video did not occur in what it considered a crisis situation and therefore that a suspension was unwarranted.
The Cambodian government said in a statement Tuesday that the company had exercised “fair judgment” and that its decision “confirms the integrity” of content on Hun Sen’s page. It added that Meta representatives were welcome to continue to work in the country, whereas Oversight Board members were still considered personae non grata.
The board said it stood by its original recommendation. Hun Sen’s video was part of a documented “history of committing human rights violations and intimidating political opponents,” said a board spokesperson. “Elections are a crucial part of democracy,” the spokesperson added. “Social media companies must ensure their platforms are not misused in ways which threaten to undermine them.”
Hun Sen, 71, was Asia’s longest-serving nonhereditary ruler until he announced last month that he was stepping down to hand over power to his son Hun Manet. He has methodically dismantled political opposition, shutting down independent news outlets, imprisoning rights activists and lashing out at those who criticize his decisions. In recent years, he’s become a deft user of social media, building up more than 14 million followers on Facebook.
Human Rights Watch said Meta’s decision shows that Hun Sen and other authoritarian leaders like him “can weaponize Facebook against their opponents and suffer barely a slap on the wrist.” The organization said that political activists face online and offline harassment, such as the case of human rights defender and monk Luon Sovath, who was smeared by manipulated videos and accounts impersonating him, and has since fled the country.
Deputy Asia director Phil Robertson criticized Meta for allowing online violence against dozens of political activists to proliferate on Facebook, and only taking down Hun Sen’s offending content, after more than six months, “because their Oversight Board ordered them to.”
“That’s what bending over backward to Southeast Asian dictators looks like and it raises serious concerns about whether Facebook is really serious about human rights at all,” he said.
After the Oversight Board’s initial decision, Hun Sen seemed to preempt a potential suspension of his account by deleting his Facebook page, only to return to the platform around three weeks later, the Associated Press reported. His government also threatened to kick out Meta employees in the country, though Meta does not have a physical office in Cambodia.
Suspending Hun Sen’s page would have led to an “indefinite disconnect” between Meta and the Cambodian government, said Chhengpor Aun, a visiting fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Both sides “find each other indispensable,” he said. “[The] Cambodian politicians cannot give up Facebook and Facebook cannot move on to operate with the government without resolving the issue.”
But critics of Meta, including the Real Facebook Oversight Board (RFOB) — a group of global experts monitoring content moderation developments on the platform — said Meta’s decision “shows just how little Meta cares for the safety of its users, people, and democratic processes,” and reveals “the Oversight Board is a PR stunt.”
Corey Chambliss, a Meta spokesman, called this criticism false. He cited the company’s most recent update on the Oversight Board, which said the board is “driving important changes to our policies, operations, and products and holding us accountable to our promises. We respond to every Oversight Board recommendation publicly and have committed to implementing or exploring the feasibility of implementing 76% of recommendations to date.”
Experts have warned social media companies that they need to moderate hateful content online that might incite or spill into offline violence, especially with upcoming elections in the region, including Indonesia and Bangladesh.
“As important elections are looming, Meta is reportedly dramatically cutting its safety responses, allowing users to opt out of fact-checks, disinvesting in Trust and Safety teams, and abdicating responsibility for political content,” said RFOB policy adviser Zamaan Qureshi.