Is Metaverse a hope or coup de grace for Cambodian democracy?

Whether Facebook’s Metaverse will bring a hope or a coup de grace to democracies and freedom of expression around the globe, a case from Cambodian political spectrum’s experiences with social media like Facebook should be a foundation to decide.

Facebook, an American online social network, was first introduced in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and his friends. This most prominent social media site has secured approximately three billion users worldwide in 2021.

On the other hand, the use of Facebook was believed to start building momentum in Cambodia as early as 2008. As a new media player, Facebook has drawn attention from traditional media audiences. In the presence of Facebook and other social media platforms the traditional media associated with the government, including newspapers, radios, and TVs, became less popular from early 2010s onwards. It was a new hope for freedom of expression among Cambodians, especially young people.

Ly Sreysrors, president of the Young Analysts Group, pointed out that social media has been an essential platform for expressing opinions, especially in a country that restricts freedom of expression.

She added, “social media played an influential role in political changes in 2013 which saw the opposition’s seats increase in parliament, apart from widespread use of social media.

The biggest opposition party, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme court in 2017, used Facebook as a political platform to gather its support and update its political activities. CNRP used its official page, especially during the election campaign to highlight its leaders’ activities, speeches, and messages to young people going to vote.

It was the first time in 30 years that the ruling party – the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), lost 22 seats to the opposition party at the national assembly during the national election in 2013.

CCP, led by Hun Sen, has been holding power for decades. He has been the world’s longest-serving prime minister in power from 1985 until now.

A Facebook page that gains the most likes, approximately about 13 million likes, is known as the official page of Hun Sen. However, many questions are asked, and the debates over the likes on his page are going on.

Among 16 million of the total population, 71% who are accessing the internet. The Internet world state estimated that the number of Facebook users in Cambodia would be about 12 million in 2021.

The freedom of expression in Cambodia on social media has been in a critical position for the last few years. According to the fifth annual report, Cambodia Fundamental Freedoms Monitor published by Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) found 46 cases on restrictions of freedom of expression took place on Facebook between April to December 2020.

One example, last year, Ros Sokhet, a journalist and a founder of the independent news outlet, the Khmer Nation was sentenced to 18 months. He made Facebook posts criticizing the government over denouncing Hun Sen for promoting his son as his successor and the government response of Covid-19.

At the same time, Sreysrors said that one of her concerns in expressing her opinion on Facebook is that all data is recorded, and the government can use the information charge against individuals.

She added, “Compared to the last four years, I have to be more careful before talking or debating on Facebook. Not only for myself, but another analysts as well”.

Recently, Facebook came with a new name known as Metaverse. With a new branding name, it promises to provide unique experiences to users and connect people closer than ever before.

In addition, to address the criticism over the platform’s alleged roles in the political and electoral messes over the past several years in the US and other countries, the Meta’s Civil Rights team was formed in 2020. It results from 117 recommendations and actions with input from over 100 civil rights and social justice organizations. This team was created in the hope of enhancing protections for marginalized communities and demonstrated its commitment to continuing the company’s important work in moving towards equity across all its technologies.

In addition, the 74 pages of Meta’s progress on Civil Rights Audit Commitments, which were released in November 2021, mentioned its changing landscape of civil rights challenges. The chapter on civil rights accountability infrastructure shows its firm stand in supporting free expression represented by international human rights treaties.

Sreysrors said that she did not study in detail the changes of Metaverse. However, she believes that it will partly help democracy if Metaverse has the policy to prevent like-farming politicians from manipulating their popularity.

It is still unclear on how Metaverse can contribute to democracy in Cambodia. The Civil Rights commitment introduced by Facebook is still at an earlier development stage, while the state itself has tremendous authority to limit the freedom of speech through a court and legal system loyal to them.

Guest author

Sousanda Ly from Cambodia

Contributions by external authors do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors.

January 2022