FALSE FRIENDS

Cambodia’s prime minister is accused of buying Facebook likes to boost engagement numbers

During his 31-year rule, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen has been accused of crimes including corruption, election rigging, and orchestrating violent attacks on opponents.

He now stands charged with a far less serious digital faux pas: artificially inflating his Facebook likes.

Hun Sen is the sixth-longest serving non-royal head of state in the world, according to Human Rights Watch. (Cameroon’s Paul Biya is first, with 40 years in office; Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is fourth.) He is the only member of that autocratic club to have his own verified Facebook account.

The page currently has 3.4 million likes and features photos of the prime minister at official public events. It does not mention the 2015 Human Rights Watch report issued on his 30th anniversary in power detailing his human rights abuses. (Then again, who isn’t guilty at times of untagging unflattering images of ourselves?)

In Cambodia, his online followers have increased steadily in the last six months.

HS cambodia 2
(Socialbakers.com)

But earlier this month, the Phnom Penh Post newspaper noticed a suspicious spike in Hun Sen’s international fans, whose numbers nearly doubled in the span of a month. According to data from the analytics site Socialbakers.com, the bulk of the long-standing prime minister’s new fans came from India and the Philippines.

HS India 2

HS Phils 2
(Socialbakers.com)
HS Indonesia 2
(Socialbakers.com)

The discrepancy was seized upon by opposition politician Sam Rainsy, who is in exile abroad while fighting politically trumped-up charges.

On his own Facebook page, Rainsy charged the head of state with buying likes from “click farms”—digital outfits, often located in India and other developing countries, that create and sell fake Facebook profiles to artificially boost follower counts and engagement numbers.

In a less-than-measured response, Hun Sen convened a meeting of Cambodia’s National Counter-Terrorism Committee. The committee, which the prime minister chairs along with senior cabinet members, issued a five-page report this week defending the prime minister from the charges.

“The number of ‘likes’ were clarified to be real supporters including Cambodian people and supporters from abroad; no money was spent to buy ‘likes,’” the report stated flatly, as quoted in the Cambodia Daily newspaper.

The committee offered no other explanation of Hun Sen’s sudden popularity abroad. The prime minister himself doesn’t seem too bothered.

“I don’t know where those likes are from,” Hun Sen said at a public appearance last week, according to the BBC. “I am just happy that I, Hun Sen, have been recognised by Indian people and people in other countries as the Prime Minister of Cambodia.”

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