Since Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen deleted his Facebook account in late June, where he had 14 million followers, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has put pressure on students and loyalists alike to improve his follower count on platforms such as Telegram and TikTok, but neither a mass following nor a migration off Cambodian Facebook has materialized.
Hun Sen deleted his account June 29, hours after Meta Platforms Inc.’s oversight board — which issues binding content moderation decisions for Meta platforms such as Facebook and Instagram — announced he had incited violence on the platform and recommended a six-month suspension.
Since then, Hun Sen has moved his primary communications to Telegram, posting hundreds of daily updates to about 975,000 followers, compared to 850,000 in late June. His new TikTok account has meanwhile gained about 244,000 followers, and this month also reactivated Twitter for the first time in more than a year.
He has yet to reach the 1 million Telegram followers his office stated as a goal before the July 23 election, even with a quiet government push underway to draw more eyes to his accounts.
In mid-July, more than 15 employees from the Posts and Telecommunications Ministry visited individual classrooms at a Phnom Penh university with printed copies of QR codes for the prime minister’s accounts, according to a student who asked to remain anonymous and shared photos of the visit with VOA.
School administrators meanwhile have been regularly reporting the number of students following the accounts in classroom group chats, messages shared with VOA show. A ministry spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
“I think it’s really a big deal,” the student said. “They shouldn’t be doing this kind of stuff. But there’s nothing we can do. It’s the whole system.”
Hun Sen himself, various ministries and even local tycoons have called on citizens and local authorities to follow the accounts in recent weeks. At least two ministries have released public statements asking employees in their sectors to do so, while pro-government media has continued boosting the handles.
Pressuring people to follow officials online interferes with their ability to choose how they receive information, Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights told VOA Wednesday. ((712))
“Citizens should be able to freely decide the kind of content and information they want to access and disseminate, and the accounts they want to interact with, particularly those of public figures,” Sopheap said. Social media, she added, “cannot be used as an excuse to interfere with this fundamental freedom or to put pressure on rights-holders to force them to act in certain ways.”
Still, Hun Sen’s push toward other platforms has not deterred other arms of the government from using Facebook. Ministries covering information, justice, education, and public works sectors, among others, have been posting as usual.
One prominent tycoon, music producer and real estate developer Leng Navatra, who initially promised to leave the site along with Hun Sen later changed his mind; other prolific posters such as Information Minister Khieu Kanharith have also kept up their Facebook habits.
Meas Sophorn, the Information Ministry spokesperson, told VOA that although the prime minister had left the site, it was still valuable for ministries, citizens and other figures to share information and that the ministry did not plan to stop using it.
“However, the ministry will continue considering which social media platforms are relevant and popular to use ... and consider using that platform to share information to citizens to be more widely updated,” Sophorn added.
Hun Sen has long attracted scrutiny for his social media followings. In 2016, shortly after joining Facebook, The Phnom Penh Post reported more than half his page’s likes originated from abroad, which experts raised "questions about their legitimacy.” Over the years, he amassed 14 million Facebook followers. Cambodia’s population is about 17 million.
That reach is part of what pushed the Oversight Board to recommend his suspension, arguing that his strong online influence — amid a lack of independent media — gave his violent rhetoric more weight. On Telegram, follower bots are available for purchase online, although the platform regularly removes them.
Despite Hun Sen having fewer followers so far, Telegram could ultimately afford him more impunity, said Wai Phyo Myint, an Asia Pacific policy analyst and Myanmar expert at digital rights group Access Now.
After the Myanmar junta was banned from Facebook shortly after the 2021 coup, it shifted operations largely to Telegram, where abuse, disinformation and doxxing – targeting someone by releasing personal information without their permission – have proliferated, prompting United Nations experts to call on the platform to “fundamentally” change its approach.
“We don’t really see any kind of policy changes from Telegram’s side, or any positive engagement, either with us or any other civil society groups in Myanmar,” Wai Phyo Myint told VOA. “It would be the same in Cambodia as well. … What we’ve been seeing is zero content moderation.”
Hun Sen has mainly used Telegram to forward hundreds of photo albums from the campaign trail and post the occasional voice note. However, warnings have also surfaced: late Thursday, he wrote a message in response to a voice note from an opposition party member.
“If you’re against the law, then the prison will welcome you anytime,” Hun Sen said.
Chea Revata contributed to this report.