A bogus Facebook status update declaring the country’s widespread support for the ruling party under the guise of a Radio Free Asia news post forced the outlet to issue a statement on Sunday clarifying that the status’s content did not belong to RFA Khmer.
The status update, which sported the RFA Khmer logo, presented fabricated statistics from a purported NGO called the “International Organization on Civil Rights for Democracy”, and claimed that “CPP support is rising over the CNRP”, said Sochea Metta Yeang, an editor at RFA Khmer.
According to the spurious post, the CPP enjoyed the support of 70 percent of Cambodians “because people think the CNRP has internal conflict”, he said.
RFA’s deputy director Chun Chanboth Vuthy Huot saw the Facebook post early Sunday morning and notified his staff that morning, Yeang added.
Those responsible for the status update did not hack into RFA’s Facebook account, but instead “copied the format of the page and posted” their own content, according to Yeang.
“We don’t know where it came from,” he said.
In response, RFA published an article on its website to notify its audience that the status update did not come from them. “We just want our readers and listeners to know about this,” Yeang said. “We are afraid that people are confused.”
So-called fake news has risen to international prominence over the past year, in no small part due to its proliferation during the US presidential elections last year. The phenomenon has forced traditional media outlets to take note, and distributors of media – like Facebook – to consider safeguards against its spread.
Vanaka Chhem-Kieth, a lecturer at Paññasastra University and co-founder of the political discussion group Politikoffee, described fabricated news as “part of the media today” and not just a local or regional problem. However, in Cambodia, he said, “there is a difference in terms of the impact fake news can have”, compared to countries with higher information literacy.
“The potential consequences for fake news related to sensitive issues can be huge,” he said, referring to 2003 Phnom Penh riots sparked when Cambodian media spread rumours a Thai actress had denigrated Angkor Wat. “That spread back in the day where social media was virtually nonexistent.”
Benjamin Ismail, head of Reporters Without Borders’ Asia-Pacific desk, agreed that such disinformation is not unique to Cambodia. “In many countries in East and Southeast Asia, government propaganda and pro-government comments are circulating widely on social media as well as in the comment sections of independent and opposition news websites,” he said.
Ismail also cautioned against the use of the term “fake news”, which he said invites government censorship.
Ultimately, “governments or their henchmen benefit from the spread of false news”, because “after they are officially debunked, they can jump in and say that such false information is the reason why they need to regulate online content, social media and even traditional press”, he said.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan yesterday encouraged RFA to take action against the perpetrators. “RFA should file a complaint to find out who did this fake news,” he said.