An international rights group has blasted American company Facebook for using Cambodia to test a new feature that moves news stories posted by publishers away from people’s existing news feeds and into a new, hard-to-find page.
The move comes during a severe Cambodian government crackdown on independent voices, outside nongovernmental organizations, and non-state-controlled media as the country prepares for national elections that could unseat longstanding leader Hun Sen.
This month, the Menlo Park, California-based company began a separate feed called Explore, marked with a round, white and red rocket ship icon, in Cambodia and five other small countries — Bolivia, Guatemala, Serbia, Slovakia, and Sri Lanka — where posts are automatically sent unless the newspapers, NGOs, and businesses buy ads to promote them.
The trial of the service began in Cambodia on Oct. 19.
With most media in Cambodia government-controlled, Cambodians rely heavily on outside news sources, including Facebook, for information, especially on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s current crackdown on independent media that operate in the country as well as the main opposition party that could win the 2018 elections.
For the first time in 2016, the internet surpassed traditional media as the main source of news for Cambodians, according to the Asia Foundation’s annual survey on mobile phones and internet usage, released in January 2017.
“It’s astonishing that Facebook is using a group of less-developed countries as guinea pigs for their experiment, especially since the evidence shows that this separation of newsfeeds is likely to have broad and harmful effects on local public discourse and the local media market,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Asia division.
“If they think that this is really a worthwhile step, why don’t they test this feature in a major market like Britain or Germany?” he asked. “Are they picking on the likes of Cambodia because they are concerned that if they tried this in one of their major markets, they would face serious pushback from the government or the Facebook users in that country?”
Adam Mosseri, Facebook’s vice president of project management in charge of News Feed, said in an Oct. 23 statement that the company was testing Explore to find out if users preferred to have separate places for personal and public content, and that Facebook was not going to do trials in other countries.
“There have been a number of reports about a test we’re running in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia, Guatemala, and Cambodia,” he said. “Some have interpreted this test as a future product we plan to deliver globally. We currently have no plans to roll this test out further.”
Threat to the status quo
Nevertheless, rights groups and NGOs fear a deterioration in human rights and democracy in Cambodia as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) seeks to silence organizations and political parties that threaten the political status quo before the 2018 election.
Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for 32 years, has sought to block criticism of his widely repressive regime and ensure he remains in power as prime minister for another five-year term. There are no term limits imposed on the office.
Four controversial amendments to the country’s electoral law were signed into law last week, paving the way for the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the reassignment of its parliamentary seats to government-aligned parties.
The CNRP could be completely dissolved at a Supreme Court hearing on Nov. 16, thereby denying Cambodians the right to elect a government of their choosing.
Since late August, the government has also expelled U.S.-funded NGO the National Democratic Institute (NDI), suspended some 20 radio stations that aired content by U.S. broadcasters Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and forced the closure of the English-language Cambodia Daily with a hefty tax bill.
“Not only is Facebook gutless about where they roll out their experiments, they are also clueless about the national context where they are doing it, and nowhere is this clearer than in Cambodia,” Robertson told RFA. “This is truly a shameful action on Facebook’s part.”
“Facebook’s experiment is extraordinarily bad-timed, and the company should recognize this reality and immediately suspend it in Cambodia, and return its users in the country to the traditional newsfeed,” he said.
“There’s no doubt that this experiment has made it even harder for ordinary Cambodians with a smart phone to find independent news, outside government control, regardless of what the topic is,” he said.
Robertson added that HRW is concerned that it will be more difficult for Cambodian Facebook users to find news about current human rights violations and politically motivated prosecutions that the government does not want them to read about.
“Facebook has a responsibility to avoid these kinds of unintended harms and be far more transparent to both users and media organizations about how changes will be tested and rolled out, and they can start showing responsibility by immediately suspending this experiment in Cambodia,” he said.
Drop in reach
Under the Explore trial in Cambodia and the five other countries, the drop in reach for most news organizations on Facebook has been precipitous, some even by two-thirds.
Research conducted by RFA indicates that Facebook use is almost universal among Cambodians with internet access and a nearly unrivaled platform for news distribution in the country.
In a June survey of 2,000 Cambodian residents aged 15 and older, about 64 percent of Cambodians said they had accessed RFA’s online materials through the RFA Facebook page in the last 12 months.
According to information from global social media analytics company SocialBakers, the number of organic reaches — the total number of unique people who were shown posts through unpaid distribution — of RFA’s Khmer-language Facebook page plunged from more than 200,000 at the beginning of October to less than 100,000 by the end of the month after the Explore trial began.