Online, crowd-sourced initiatives to identify National Assembly assault suspects suggest an element of distrust in the authorities
Almost immediately after the assault of two opposition lawmakers outside the National Assembly on Monday, an investigation was launched. But this one was not being undertaken by the police.
After the majority of participants in a morning protest against opposition deputy leader Kem Sokha dispersed, opposition lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Sakphea were dragged out of their cars and viciously beaten by groups of men, some wearing helmets or kramas over their faces.
Images from the event, scrawled with Khmer text, speech bubbles and hand-drawn arrows, were soon being shared widely on Facebook. Using photos and videos of the protest and from the later attacks, a crowd of anonymous amateur social media detectives were attempting to find proof of the suspects’ identities.
Shared and re-shared hundreds and even thousands of times over by individual profiles and public pages, the photos were difficult to track to their original sources.
One set of images, credited to the page Khmer Chealy, suggested that a man photographed in the crowd during the protest was the same person later seen stomping on CNRP lawmaker Chamroeun’s chest. The link? Similar clothes, a green scarf tied to his waist and a pair of white sneakers.
Ou Ritthy, blogger and co-founder of Politikoffee, a youth discussion forum, said most young Cambodians did not trust the police to investigate the incident properly.
He said that the volume of photos from the protest should make identifying suspects “obvious”, but he had seen official investigative work hit a dead end in similar cases.
He said Cambodia had a “culture of immunity”.
“The public always investigates [better than the authorities] and announce on social media,” he said.
An individual manning the inbox for the page of the Khmer-language website Social Breaking News (SBN) — which shared some of the images — said: “I believe what we posted … people trust [in] us. Besides, young people who use social media always support us to take any news.”
In Cambodia’s recent past, social media has proven useful in pressuring the authorities to act.
Khoun Theara, a research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, pointed to the case of Sok Bun. In July, a leaked video of the real-estate magnate’s beating of a local TV presenter resulted in widespread outrage on social media. Days later, Bun was arrested.
But the nature of the internet renders information published on social media quite permanent, while often leaving the identity of those posting it uncertain.
In Cambodia, where users feel at risk of being charged with defamation or disinformation for online activity, anonymity is the most common modus operandi. By Friday, some of the individual accounts associated with the images had already been removed.
And a climate of anonymity also leaves plenty of room for errors.
“When it comes to sensitive news, social media users should ask some basic questions before posting or sharing rather than remaining anonymous,” Theara said. “Is there enough evidence weighted behind the news? Is the news credible and logical?”
Worldwide, social media sleuths have become fairly common — and active — participants in investigations, especially following crimes committed in public.
After both the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the bombing in Bangkok this August, crowdsourced efforts almost immediately identified suspects from surveillance footage.
In both incidents, the crowd turned out to be wrong.
The harassment and stigma that comes with being identified online as a suspect is in itself a form of punishment, noted Daniel Trottier, a professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam who studies social media policing.
These “detectives” also often don’t have an easy relationship with the police.
“There is risk that such crowdsourcing ends up undermining perceptions of authority, while at the same time reproducing some of the worst abuses of the state,” Trottier said.
Nonetheless, crowd-sourced investigative work can prove invaluable.
Consider the case of Bellingcat, an open-source site that seeks to bring together analysts and “citizen investigative journalists”. Its work on the Malaysian Airlines flight downed over Ukraine in July 2014 was used by the Dutch police in their own investigation of the crash.
“When we’ve worked with crowd-sourced information, two things are very important: one is verifying the information; the other is making sure every assumption is backed up,” Eliot Higgins, Bellingcat’s founder, wrote in an email. “There’s a real risk of crowd-sourcing leading to mob justice.”
Higgins also noted the significant traffic on the site to articles translated into Russian. He sees a desire for more detailed information about the events from those who can’t get it from elsewhere because the government controls their mass media.
In Cambodia, some argue that it is this kind of distrust in traditional institutions that drives people to Facebook for sensitive information about events like Monday’s violence.
“As independent media isn’t as strong as it’s supposed to be, people here [look] for alternative sources,” said Tharum Bun, a blogger and digital strategist.
Bun acknowledges that the newfound power of social media can be a “two-edged knife”, with a risk for misidentification or even mob justice, but suggested that, in cases like the MPs’ bashing, it fills a unique niche.
“Social media came late into the game, but it has its super strength: news by the citizens, for the citizens,” he said.
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong.