For Prime Minister Hun Sen, Facebook is a domain to be conquered. Despite the legitimacy of his more than 3 million followers being called into question this week, the premier remains unrivalled in his level of engagement – i.e. the comments, likes and shares on his individual posts – with that following.
On Facebook, Hun Sen governs. He announces policy that quickly becomes fact on the ground and makes decisions based on feedback from the site. He also posts selfies.
But these operations are not ad hoc. Hun Sen’s recent success online is thanks to a calculated investment in a slick social media strategy, with roots in workshops held in Phnom Penh eight months ago.
The content of the prime minister’s Facebook page – frequent posts, personal photos and snappy text – is the carefully crafted work of a team employed as part of the Cambodian People’s Party social media program.
Last July, German political development agency Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) held separate two-day social media workshops for the ruling and opposition parties. Forty members of the CPP attended their session, and they seem to have heeded the agency’s advice.
Doing it like the Germans
“The message we gave them was that you cannot win the election through Facebook, but you can lose the election through Facebook,” said a KAS staffer who attended the workshops.
The staffer, who declined to be named because the organisation maintains working relationships with both parties, explained that the sessions emphasised developing sustained daily, monthly and thrice-monthly strategies to set this agenda.
The workshops were led by Uwe Goepel, the former head of social media for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Germany. Among the topics he discussed at the workshop, Goepel said, was how politicians can bridge the gap with the electorate and send “subliminal messages” via short posts and personal snapshots – something the prime minister’s Facebook page provides almost daily.
“Only a few hours after the training, I saw the outcomes on his [Hun Sen’s] page,” the KAS staffer said. More than 50 per cent of the training’s agenda had since been put into use by the CPP, though party pages still largely neglect offering feedback to commenters, he added.
In Germany, Goepel’s team worked to boost Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Facebook popularity, including making a few photos of the leader falling asleep in meetings go viral – a look Hun Sen replicated in November at the ASEAN summit in Malaysia with a weary-eyed selfie. “Yesterday I got dressed at 1am,” he lamented in a post.
Multiplying the model
In Cambodia, Facebook presents an audience ripe for engaging. In 2015 alone, there was a 66.5 per cent increase in Cambodian users on the site, according to a November study conducted by the Open Institute.
Hun Sen has pressed party members and officials on the political importance of interacting with this audience. The CPP now runs nationwide workshops urging provincial government officials to launch their own pages.
The ruling party’s social media teams are staffed by Cambodians educated abroad, according to government spokesman Phay Siphan. The premier’s page and the general CPP page are each administered by separate teams. Siphan said he was not aware of the teams’ size or financial resources.
But in the eight months since the workshop, it is the premier’s page that has seized upon KAS’ message with vigour.
In September, Hun Sen took full ownership of a Facebook page bearing his name after it reached 1 million likes.
The self-proclaimed “e-premier” has since seen his followers multiply, hitting more than 3 million last weekend, surpassing the pages of VOA Khmer and pop star Meas Soksophea and giving him the largest Facebook audience in Cambodia, according to social analytics site socialbakers.com.
Those numbers, however, have come under scrutiny, with data from Socialbakers revealing that a significant amount of his recent “likes” have originated abroad, including 255,000 from India. Fifty-eight per cent of Hun Sen’s fans are based in Cambodia.
Yesterday, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan denied allegations the premier had paid for fake follower accounts and claimed there was “no truth” to the statistics.
“What is the point of having Indians clicking likes?” he said.
There is no doubt, however, that the social media strategy has paid dividends for the prime minister’s connection to the electorate.
A study conducted in January proclaimed Hun Sen the second most-engaged leader in the world on Facebook, with engagement rates calculated by the ratio of interactions to fans.
“It’s unprecedented in Cambodia,” said a political commentator who wished to remain anonymous. “A modern communication tool being used to answer the demands of the people.”
A momentum shift?
The CPP surge has left the opposition threatened in a domain – and among a young demographic – once considered its own.
In 2013, the CNRP rode the wave of a strong youth vote, according to observers, and granted the ruling party its narrowest victory in history. Use of smartphones – the choice means of access to Facebook in Cambodia – is highest among educated, urban youth, according to the Open Institute study.
But in the years since, a cohesive Facebook strategy for the opposition party may not have followed suit.
CNRP president leader Sam Rainsy’s page now has just over 2 million followers, while CNRP vice president Kem Sokha’s has fewer than 600,000. But most of those likes are based in-country: 82 per cent and 92 per cent, respectively.
The KAS staffer said it appeared the CNRP was losing its edge, inhibited by a lack of coordination. Rainsy and Sokha rely on separate volunteer teams to administer their pages.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the party didn’t invest in a social media strategy, but relied on being liked and shared by the country’s youth, who he said sought honesty online.This was a strength, not weakness, he argued.
But the KAS staffer suggested that the opposition, like the ruling party, should professionalise and integrate its social media teams. “You can’t always do the same as before if they are moving almost ahead of you,” he said.
For both the ruling and opposition parties, Facebook serves as a new platform for an old brand of personality politics. After all, it is the pages of party leaders – not the parties themselves – that draw the most likes.
Sam Rainsy’s Facebook posts serve to keep him relevant – “telegraphing his worldliness” – while in self-imposed exile, said Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
But in his own posts, the prime minister has worked to craft a near-grandfatherly persona. “For Hun Sen, it’s been about softening his image, about showing extra dimensions to the brash and pugnacious persona that the prime minister has cultivated,” Strangio said.
“The question, of course, is which way the voters go – it’s hard to determine at this point.”
For those who will be voting for the first time in the next elections, the verdict is out.
“Hun Sen might win the next election, because he has been popular on Facebook and he has tried to cut down on corruption,” said Vin Monney, a recent university graduate.
“I clicked ‘like’ on his page,” said a fourth-year university student who declined to be named. “It doesn’t mean that I like what he posts.”
Additional reporting by Bun Sengkong and Morn Vanntey