How a Facebook disinformation campaign forced a monk to flee Cambodia

Luon Sovath, who has spent decades fighting for human rights, was the victim of a vicious smear campaign this summer

Luon Sovath said he had no choice but to flee his home in Cambodia. He is now in  Switzerland. Photograph: Adam Dean/The New York Times

Luon Sovath said he had no choice but to flee his home in Cambodia. He is now in Switzerland. Photograph: Adam Dean/The New York Times

 

In just four days, the reputation of a Buddhist monk who had spent decades fighting for the human rights of Cambodians was destroyed.

First, grainy videos appeared on a fake Facebook page, claiming that he had slept with three sisters and their mother. Then a government-controlled religious council defrocked the monk for having violated Buddhist precepts of celibacy.

Fearing imminent arrest, the monk fled Cambodia, destined for a life in exile, like so many people who have stood up to Asia’s longest-governing leader.

The monk, Luon Sovath, was the victim of a smear campaign this summer that relied on fake claims and hastily assembled social media accounts designed to discredit an outspoken critic of the country’s authoritarian policies. A New York Times investigation found evidence that government employees were involved in the creation and posting of the videos on Facebook.

His downfall shows how repressive governments can move with stunning speed to disgrace their opponents, using social media and technology to amplify their divisive campaigns.

Under prime minister Hun Sen, the Cambodian government has repeatedly used falsified Facebook posts or manipulated audio to defame and imprison politicians, activists and other human rights defenders.

Facebook has come under fire in the United States for disseminating hate speech and disinformation. It has been criticised for failing to detect Russian influence in the 2016 election, providing a platform for conspiracy theories and allowing false claims about the coronavirus to proliferate.

But its influence is even greater in places like Cambodia, where the social media platform is the only digital interface for millions of people. Since civil liberties are often constricted in such countries, Facebook can be a powerful tool for autocrats to bolster their grip on the state, even as it provides a rare space for free expression and activism.

During his nearly 35-year rule, Hun Sen – a one-time soldier for the genocidal Khmer Rouge and now an enthusiastic Facebook user – has decimated Cambodia’s political opposition. He has cosied up to China, eschewing aid from the West that was conditioned on improving human rights. Many high-profile activists and opposition politicians have been assassinated, their cases rarely investigated properly.

As scandals proliferate on its platform, Facebook has been criticised for being too slow in removing problematic accounts and pages, many fake. It took almost a month for Facebook to take down the page on which the videos smearing the monk first aired.

“As a company, you would think they would want to be more vigilant and not allow their platform to be misused,” said Naly Pilorge, director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights. “Facebook’s reaction has been like little drops from a sink, so late and so little.”

In a statement about Luon Sovath’s case, Facebook said that it had built up a team in Cambodia to better monitor the local situation. “We recognise the important role that Facebook plays in enabling expression in Cambodia,” the company said. “We want people to feel safe when they’re using our platform, which is why we take reports of impersonation and other violations of our community standards seriously.”

Government employees

Last month, Luon Sovath, who is now in Switzerland after receiving a humanitarian visa, was charged in absentia by prosecutors in Siem Reap province with raping one of the sisters, escalating the accusations in the videos. The sex charges against Luon Sovath, one of Cambodia’s most celebrated activist monks, went viral. Copies of the videos, which purported to show Facebook Messenger calls between the monk and some of the women, were shared widely on the social media platform.

He has denied the rape charges, along with accusations that he had sexual relations with any of the women. Clues in the videos, uncovered by the New York Times, also undercut the claims. An analysis found split-second footage in which personal information of two government employees briefly flashes on screen. The employees work for the Press and Quick Reaction Unit, a propaganda arm of Cambodia’s cabinet.

The videos were uploaded on a Facebook page that assumed the identity of one of the sisters, Tim Ratha, who denied both ownership of the page and any sexual relationship with the monk. The page was created the day the videos were posted and lifted photographs from the sister’s real Facebook account.

A fake Facebook account in the monk’s name was also linked to the videos. It, too, stole images from Luon Sovath’s real account and was established one day before the videos came out. While the Facebook page has been taken down, the videos are still circulating.

The two government employees linked to the production of the videos remain on Facebook, posting make-up tips and animal memes on their timelines. “We know that Facebook will side with repressive regimes if their bottom line is impacted by freedom-of-expression issues,” said Michael Caster, a human rights researcher who has studied technology use in authoritarian countries.

In some developing countries, the Silicon Valley company’s influence is outsize because smartphone users looking for cheap digital packages rely on its products as their sole source of information online. The dependence can be deadly.

In Myanmar, military-linked Facebook accounts inflamed hatred of the Rohingya amid the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim ethnic group. Hate speech circulating on WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, fuelled anti-Muslim mobs in India. Incendiary rumours about minority Muslims in Sri Lanka spread unchecked on Facebook, leading to fatal riots in 2018. Facebook apologised this year for its role in the Sri Lanka violence.

Luon Sovath, a Cambodian monk and rights activist, was the victim of a smear campaign this summer that relied on fake claims designed to discredit an outspoken critic of the country’s authoritarian policies. Photograph: Adam Dean/The New York Times
Luon Sovath has been the repeated victim of fake Facebook accounts set up in his name and he has reported them to the company. Photograph: Adam Dean/The New York Times

In May, Facebook released the findings of independent human rights assessments conducted in several countries, including Cambodia. Facebook acknowledged that freedom of expression was “severely restricted” in Cambodia and that human rights defenders were jailed for views expressed on social media.

“The information environment was dominated by misinformation and rumour,” Facebook said in a summary of the report. “This was exacerbated by state control of the media and cyberwarfare strategies and compounded by low digital literacy.”

Facebook said it had nearly tripled its human content moderators in Cambodia, although it would not say how many people worked in Khmer, the local language. From January to March, Facebook said, it took down 1.7 billion fake accounts worldwide.

But none of the tripwires appear to have been triggered in the case of the monk, even as his fate was front-page news in the government-controlled media. Over the years, Luon Sovath said, he has been the repeated victim of fake Facebook accounts set up in his name and reported them to the company. “I want to say to Facebook, you should help to restore and defend human rights and democracy in Cambodia,” he said.

‘My turn’

Luon Sovath (42) was ordained as a monk at age 12. As repression proliferated under Hun Sen, the monk began preaching human rights from his pagoda. While politicians and activists who spoke up against Hun Sen’s government were jailed, exiled or even killed, Luon Sovath appeared to be protected by his saffron-hued robes.

But in elections two years ago, the governing Cambodian People’s Party won every seat in parliament after the main opposition party was disbanded and its leader imprisoned. The independent news media was eviscerated.

Luon Sovath said he knew he was living on borrowed time. “They went after opposition politicians, NGOs, human rights activists, and now it comes to my turn,” he said.

On May 30th, four videos appeared on a Facebook page that had been set up earlier in the day. The page masqueraded as that of Tim Ratha, a 30-year-old nurse whose family has a house and grocery store across the street from the monk’s pagoda. “He is a good and respectful monk,” Tim Ratha said in an interview.

Shortly after the videos appeared on Facebook, police in Siem Reap demanded Tim Ratha report to the station at night, she said. Their questions were rapid-fire and intimidating, she said: “Why would you have a sexual relationship with a monk, with your sisters and mother no less? What is your Facebook password? That’s your phone, isn’t it?”

Tim Ratha denied everything, even as her voice was shaking from fear, she recalled. “We are just victims,” she said. “We didn’t commit anything wrong.”

The four videos consist of nothing more than fuzzy footage of smartphones with the monk’s fake Facebook profile on the screens. Audio seems to emanate from the phones, as if he is chatting with the women on Messenger.

The conversations in the videos are purportedly between Luon Sovath and Tim Ratha or Som Bopha, her mother. There are a few sexually suggestive references, including an aside about licking. The monk and the two women said some of the audio is from phone conversations they had. But they say that these chats were edited in a misleading way.

The passage about licking, Tim Ratha said, referred to an expression of affection from her dog. And other parts of the audio, all three said, are not them at all, such as references to specific sexual encounters.

“How can a mother and her daughters do such a thing with the same monk?” said Som Bopha. “It is impossible.”

The three people say they do not know how their private phone conversations went public. Human rights groups say Cambodian authorities regularly harvest phone conversations without people’s knowledge. Tapped or manipulated audio has been used in Cambodian courts to convict the government’s critics.

Tim Ratha said a friend of hers reported the fake page to Facebook multiple times over several days. Pilorge, of the human rights group, said her colleagues filed similar complaints. Facebook said it had not received a single user report questioning the veracity of the page.

In Switzerland, Luon Sovath said he was adjusting to life in exile. His thin monastic robes are sufficient for summer, but when the snows come his tropical inner thermostat will have to adjust, he said. He keeps to a Buddhist monk’s schedule, fasting after noon and meditating.

“I want to go home,” he said. “But I had no choice to run away from my country and become a refugee.” – New York Times

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