A team of lawyers filed a petition against Facebook on Thursday on behalf of a former Cambodian opposition leader in an attempt to prove that the country's prime minister is using the social media platform to commit human rights abuses.
Former opposition leader Sam Rainsy is being prosecuted for defamation in Cambodia for his claims that Prime Minister Hun Sen bought a significant portion of his Facebook followers. Facebook — which is so popular in Cambodia that it is practically synonymous with the internet — has come under fire in recent months for distorting democratic processes by hosting armies of state-sponsored trolls and amplifying propaganda from authoritarian governments. In Cambodia, it has given the government a streamlined process to report objectionable posts, officials have told BuzzFeed News.
Sam Rainsy's niece, Lorya Noseda, told BuzzFeed News that Facebook had rebuffed his team's repeated requests to discuss the allegations. That denial has prompted him to bring the social media giant to court in a bid to gain the evidence he needs to fight the charges against him. (Facebook contested Noseda's claim, saying it had offered a phone conversation, but Noseda said the company's staffers never followed through.)
The lawsuit filed compels Facebook to provide information not only on Hun Sen's alleged purchased followers, but also the potential use of state funds to buy ads on the site.
"We are counting on Facebook to help shed light on the regime’s manipulation of technology. If Hun Sen has nothing to hide, he should support our investigation of his activities,” Sam Rainsy, who currently lives in exile in France to avoid imprisonment, said in a statement released through his lawyers.
“Facebook was initially a force for good in Cambodia, helping its citizens to share information despite the government’s suppression of the independent media” Richard J Rogers of Global Diligence LLP, Sam Rainsy's lawyer, said in a statement. “The Petition raises fundamental questions about how Facebook should deal with human rights abusers who manipulate elections. We appreciate that Facebook faces many challenges and look forward to working with them constructively.”
Even without Facebook's data, Sam Rainsy has some evidence on his side. The analysis firm SocialBakers found in March 2016 that more than half of Hun Sen's likes on Facebook came from other countries, with large portions from India and the Philippines, countries with few Khmer-language speakers that are known for hosting so-called "click farms" where people can buy likes. Facebook says it does not condone accounts that buy likes and works to stop the practice in part by blocking the accounts.
Hun Sen's follower count is particularly significant because he's among the most engaged world leaders on Facebook despite the small size of his country, and Cambodian government officials frequently refer to the prime minister's success on the social network as a measure of his popularity and legitimacy in the country.
Hun Sen has cracked down on the independent press and civil society over the past few months, dissolving the opposition party that Sam Rainsy once led and jailing the party's leader, Kem Sokha. Rainsy said in January he was forming a new political movement.