‘I Am Still Afraid to Share’: Cambodia’s Internet Users Face Pervasive Harassment

7 min read
A report by rights group Licadho found that close to 40 percent of surveyed internet users had faced varying degrees of online harassment on platforms such as Facebook. (Kuoy Langdy/VOD)

Channy, a 20-year-old Cambodian of indigenous minority heritage, was no stranger to receiving rude feedback when sharing cultural content on Facebook.

“Some people use rude words and comment, ‘I do not know why you would want to share this. Nobody wants to know this,’” she recalled under a pseudonym as part of a recent online harassment study conducted by the rights group Licadho. “It hurts my feelings.”

But when she posted a photo of herself participating in a ritual in her village, the response was more sinister than usual. A man she didn’t know took Channy’s photo, edited it to make her look like a witch, and posted it on his own account — along with a claim that Channy was possessed by spirits. To make matters worse, the man then tried to extort money from the young woman, messaging to tell her he’d only take down the picture if she paid him.

Accusations of witchcraft can be deadly in rural Cambodia, where murders of so-called “sorcerers” still occasionally happen. Channy said the incident damaged her reputation, and even though her father and local commune officials were able to identify the perpetrator and extract an apology from him, the digital encounter left a lasting mark on her online persona.

“I am still afraid to share or post anything,” she told Licadho.

Channy’s story is one of several included in a report issued Thursday by Licadho detailing the results of a broad survey of more than 700 Cambodians about their experiences with online harassment. As an extension of the physical world, the internet in Cambodia as described in the report is shot through with many of the same issues described offline by human rights observers: Gender disparities, including those that tilt toward sexual violence, a political environment hostile to opposition voices and a need for more meaningful engagement from foreign actors.

To that last point, Facebook — the tech giant that recently rebranded as Meta and is made up of communications platforms that define the Internet experience of many developing countries — rises above the others.

Licadho repeatedly called on both the Cambodian government and Facebook specifically to do more to protect users from online harassment. Sometimes a vague concept, such harassment is defined in the report as any act facilitated by the internet or other modern communications technology that results in, or is likely to result in a range of harmful impacts, whether social, physical, sexual or psychological.

Of those Cambodians surveyed, 38 percent of respondents reported to Licadho as having experienced online harassment at any point in the past, with more than one in two LGBTQ+ respondents reporting harassment.

The reported rates of harassment among both male and female respondents were almost equal, though Licadho noted the types of harassment differ by gender. Male respondents said they were more likely to receive threats of physical violence, while women said they more often received sexually explicit harassment.

In many cases, the perpetrators of online harassment are unknown to those on the receiving end — hidden behind one or sometimes multiple layers of anonymous accounts. While user-to-user harassment is common, the rights group noted, one of the key players in online targeting is the Cambodian government, which conducts extensive surveillance of both civil society actors and the public at large to quash even the earliest signs of digital dissent.

Most of the respondents in the Licadho survey found their experiences with online harassment to be “somewhat or very upsetting”, with 27 percent stating they had feared for their own physical safety or that of their loved ones. The report further states only 16 percent of respondents felt their instances of harassment were “fully or fairly resolved” and that more than three-quarters of those surveyed believe “at least one actor should do more to stop online harassment, particularly authorities and social media companies.”

The biggest figure in that latter group is Facebook, the social media giant that runs the platform of the same name along with its Messenger function, as well as photo-sharing app Instagram and the additional messaging platform WhatsApp. 

Licadho’s survey found these platforms under the Facebook umbrella are the main digital locations for online harassment in Cambodia. The messaging app Telegram is the second-most-common, the report stated.

The prevalence of Facebook in Cambodia, which had an estimated 8.8 million users of the social media network as of 2019, obliges the company to take more stringent measures to look out for its users’ safety, argued Licadho director Naly Pilorge.

“Even though Facebook dominates social media use in Cambodia, the company has turned its back on its Cambodian users by not being responsive to their needs,” Naly said.

“Facebook lacks transparency about how it addresses harmful content in Khmer language and what information it shares with the Cambodian government. Its privacy and safety tools are not always easy to find or use.”

The Licadho report specifically calls out Facebook for offering a more limited array of safety features and information for Khmer-language users, urging the company to provide greater access. A press release attached to the report states Licadho contacted Meta representatives seeking information but received only an acknowledgment of receipt.

When reached by VOD, a Meta representative based in the company’s regional headquarters in Singapore was a little more forthright, providing a reporter with statements and background information on the company’s work in Cambodia.

“We conducted human rights due diligence to understand the risks in Cambodia, and we continue to take concrete steps to mitigate these risks and keep our community safe,” the representative wrote in an email.

“We have a team of product, policy and partnerships experts who are specifically focused on Cambodia – including experts in Khmer language and those with deep understanding of the social, cultural and political context. We also have a wide and growing network of civil society contacts in Cambodia who can alert us to emerging issues and provide essential language context that our team may not have.” 

“All of our safety features are available for users across Southeast Asia, including Cambodia. When we launch a new safety product in the region, Khmer is one of our priority languages.”

The representative said Meta doesn’t release specific information about its staffing levels, nor the locations of its content moderation teams, citing security concerns. But they did say content moderators are based in more than 20 sites around the world, listing several in Europe and North America, plus the Philippines. The representative said Meta’s content moderation work in Cambodia included oversight from fluent Khmer speakers employed either full-time through the company or through its partner organizations, which they did not name.

Along with human moderators, the representative said, Meta’s artificial intelligence moderation can detect hate speech, violence and incitement in Khmer.

In the past few years, the representative added, Facebook had improved safety tools on its products, “almost tripled relevant content moderation resources and teams” for Cambodia and had begun development of a “human rights defenders program” intended for global implementation.

It was in that same period that the company hired Heng Pheakdey, a veteran of multiple policy groups, to serve as its head for Cambodian public policy. A request for comment to Pheakdey was forwarded to the Meta representative in Singapore.

Though Facebook has for the past few years publicly identified Cambodia as a focal point for its human rights initiatives, local tech experts have seen little tangible action.

Ngeth Moses is a tech blogger and internet safety specialist who works with Cambodian civil society organizations. One of his key points about Facebook is that, for many Cambodians, the platform isn’t just a social network — it’s their entire digital world.

“[Facebook] is like the Cambodian internet,” Moses said.

But despite the significance of Facebook to Cambodians, Moses feels the company itself shows little interest to its user base in Cambodia, saying that the country’s relatively small population might not make it a priority for the global tech company. That, along with the language barriers that still exist for more technical information, makes it difficult for users to troubleshoot any number of problems, including online harassment.

Besides Pheakdey, he continued, little is known about Facebook’s network in Cambodia, despite the company’s statements about taking concrete steps to be more present. In the meantime, Moses said, a plethora of third-party services, some of which engage in illegal practices such as hacking verified e-commerce accounts for sale to competitors, have filled the gap for Khmer-language users. 

“I don’t know what the number is that would make Facebook come and provide more support,” Moses said. “Facebook might say Cambodia doesn’t have a legal framework to support business online or something like that, but the thing is that people are in trouble. They need support.”

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