PHNOM PENH – The recently concluded general elections in Cambodia, won narrowly by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), highlighted the growing political role of social media. Throughout the election period, Facebook users took to their smart phones and computers to share information and on polling day report electoral irregularities.
Although the vast majority of Cambodians still live in the countryside, changes in technology and demography mean that more and more young people are joining social networking sites. According to social media agency We Are Social, currently one new user joins Facebook every two minutes in Cambodia, translating to an average of 1,000 new members per day.
Social media users were among the 3.5 million 18- to 30-year-olds registered to cast ballots in the July 28 elections for the National Assembly. (Altogether there were 9.5 million registered voters). While many youth voters expressed their discontent with the CPP by voting in large numbers for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), they also rallied for political and social change online.
“Facebook was a great space for the public to air their concerns about the elections, and it was one of the very few platforms with independent information, because most media are controlled by the CPP and were peddling pro-government news,” said Un Samnang, a report writer at election watchdog Comfrel.
Civil society organizations criticized the lack of independent media and censorship measures introduced by authorities ahead of the elections. Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom advocacy group, condemned a government-imposed ban forbidding local radio stations from broadcasting foreign media commentaries and opinion polls during the five days prior to the elections and on the polling day.
“We strongly condemn the failure to rescind this directive, which tramples on freedom of information. The authorities are clearly trying to restrict voter access to radio programs that are outspoken and do not toe the government line. Unobstructed access to independent news and information is the cornerstone of any free election,” the watchdog group said in a statement.
Even though the ban did not apply to local media outlets, most radio stations chose to self-censor their news during the week before the election out of fears of losing their operating licenses, Comfrel’s Samnang said. He underlined that Facebook helped to fill the news void by allowing people to keep each other abreast of new developments in the days before the election.
When on election day a popular Facebook page “I Love Cambodia Hot News” posted a video of a fight at a polling station after allegations of vote rigging, it was almost immediately shared by 1,326 users and “liked” by 1,663.
Social media users also called on fellow Cambodians to return to polling stations and observe the ballot count. According to a social media specialist at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, Lach Vannak, young voters posted photographs of their own ballot count and were fearless in reporting irregularities.
“Seventy percent of all Cambodians are below the age of 35. Most of them have no recollection of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. They are young and are not afraid to say what they think. Facebook became a place where they share and discuss the latest news,” Vannak said.
Both the CPP and CNRP tapped into social media, with the latter relying more on the platform due to its restricted access to mainstream Khmer media. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy used his Facebook page to reach out to youth voters and to galvanize support for his party. Even the announcement about his return from self-imposed exile a week before the polls first appeared on a social networking site.
Using Facebook for political gains, however, does not come without a cost. Vannak points out that now voters will follow-up on campaign promises. “People begin recording what you promise and they will demand that you follow through,” he said. “So Facebook could play a role in making the new government more transparent and accountable.”
According to 26-year-old political science graduate Ou Ritthy this trend goes beyond the elections. Ritthy, who is organizing informal discussions about politics for youth in Phnom Penh, believes Facebook is becoming a place for social justice and democracy debates and will eventually lead to a change in political culture.
“We organize small meetings in real life, but the most significant conversations take place on Facebook. I like to post controversial statements and provoke an online discussion. Democracy was born out of discussion,” he said.
Ritthy thinks that young people using social media to talk about politics and current affairs are the future of Cambodia. “They will be our leaders. And I am not only talking about political leaders. One day, they will be leaders of a family or a community.”