Threatened by Facebook Disinformation, a Monk Flees Cambodia


BANGKOK — In just 4 days, the popularity of a Buddhist monk who had invested decades fighting for the human rights of Cambodians was destroyed.

Initial, grainy video clips appeared on a fake Facebook web page, claiming that he had slept with 3 sisters and their mom. Then a government-managed religious council defrocked the monk for possessing violated Buddhist precepts of celibacy. Fearing imminent arrest, the monk fled Cambodia, destined for a lifestyle in exile, like so several people today who have stood up to Asia’s longest-governing leader.

The monk, Luon Sovath, was the victim of a smear campaign this summer time that relied on fake claims and hastily assembled social media accounts built to discredit an outspoken critic of the country’s authoritarian policies. A New York Occasions investigation located proof that government staff members had been concerned in the creation and posting of the video clips on Facebook.

His downfall exhibits how repressive governments can move with amazing velocity to disgrace their opponents, making use of social media and technologies to amplify their divisive campaigns. Beneath Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Cambodian government has repeatedly employed falsified Facebook posts or manipulated audio to defame and imprison politicians, activists and other human rights defenders.

Facebook has come beneath fire in the United States for disseminating dislike speech and disinformation. It has been criticized for failing to detect Russian influence in the 2016 election, offering a platform for political conspiracy theories and permitting false claims about the coronavirus to proliferate.

But its influence is even higher in spots like Cambodia, exactly where the social media platform is the only digital interface for hundreds of thousands of people today. Considering the fact that civil liberties are generally constricted in this kind of nations, Facebook can be a highly effective device for autocrats to bolster their grip on the state, even as it offers a uncommon room for absolutely free expression and activism.

Through his almost 35-12 months rule, Mr. Hun Sen — a onetime soldier for the genocidal Khmer Rouge and now an enthusiastic Facebook consumer — has decimated Cambodia’s political opposition. He has cozied up to China, eschewing help from the West that was conditioned on bettering human rights. Several large-profile activists and opposition politicians have been assassinated in excess of the many years, their instances hardly ever investigated appropriately.

As scandals proliferate on its platform, Facebook has been criticized for remaining also slow in getting rid of problematic accounts and pages, several fake. It took virtually a month for Facebook to get down the web page on which the video clips smearing the Cambodian monk very first aired.

“As a organization, you would believe they would want to be a lot more vigilant and not let their platform to be misused,” mentioned Naly Pilorge, the director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. “Facebook’s response has been like small drops from a sink, so late and so small.”

In a statement to The Occasions about Mr. Luon Sovath’s situation, Facebook mentioned that it had developed up a crew in Cambodia to far better check the area predicament.

“We identify the significant position that Facebook plays in enabling expression in Cambodia,” the organization mentioned. “We want people today to really feel safe and sound when they are making use of our platform, which is why we get reviews of impersonation and other violations of our local community specifications significantly.”

Final month, Mr. Luon Sovath, who is now in Switzerland following getting a humanitarian visa, was charged in absentia by prosecutors in Siem Reap Province with raping one particular of the sisters, escalating the accusations in the video clips.

The intercourse expenses towards Mr. Luon Sovath, one particular of Cambodia’s most celebrated activist monks, went viral. Copies of the video clips, which purported to present Facebook Messenger calls involving the monk and some of the females, had been shared broadly on the social media platform.

He has denied the rape expenses, along with accusations that he had sexual relations with any of the females.

Clues in the video clips, uncovered by The Occasions, also undercut the claims.

An evaluation located split-2nd footage in which vital personalized facts of two government staff members briefly flashes onscreen. The staff members get the job done for the Press and Brief Response Unit, a propaganda arm of the Cambodian cabinet.

The video clips had been uploaded on a Facebook web page that assumed the identity of one particular of the sisters, Tim Ratha, who denied each ownership of the web page and any sexual partnership with the monk. The web page was made the day the video clips had been posted and lifted images from the sister’s serious Facebook account.

A fake Facebook account in the monk’s title was also linked to the video clips. It, also, stole pictures from Mr. Luon Sovath’s serious account and was established one particular day in advance of the video clips came out.

Whilst the Facebook web page has been taken down, the video clips are even now circulating. The two government staff members linked to the manufacturing of the video clips continue to be on Facebook, posting makeup recommendations 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 problems,” mentioned Michael Caster, a human rights researcher who has studied technologies use in authoritarian nations.

In some building nations, the Silicon Valley company’s influence is outsized since smartphone consumers searching for inexpensive digital packages depend on its merchandise as their sole supply of facts on the web.

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. Detest speech circulating on WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, fueled anti-Muslim mobs in India.

Incendiary rumors about minority Muslims in Sri Lanka spread unchecked on Facebook, primary to fatal riots in 2018. Earlier this 12 months, Facebook apologized for its position in the Sri Lanka violence.

In May well, Facebook launched the findings of independent human rights assessments carried out in many nations, which include Cambodia. Facebook acknowledged that freedom of expression was “severely restricted” in Cambodia and that human rights defenders had been jailed for views expressed on social media.

“The facts setting was dominated by misinformation and rumor,” Facebook mentioned in a summary of the report. “This was exacerbated by state management of the media and cyberwarfare methods, and compounded by minimal digital literacy.”

Facebook mentioned that it had almost tripled its human material moderators in Cambodia, despite the fact that it would not say how several people today worked in Khmer, the area language. Concerning January and March, Facebook mentioned it took down billion fake accounts throughout the world.

But none of the tripwires seem to have been triggered in the situation of the monk, even as his fate was front-web page information in the government-managed media. More than the many years, Mr. Luon Sovath mentioned, he has been the repeated victim of fake Facebook accounts set up in his title and reported them to the organization.

“I want to say to Facebook, you really should assistance to restore and defend human rights and democracy in Cambodia,” Mr. Luon Sovath mentioned.

Mr. Luon Sovath, 42, was ordained as a monk at twelve many years outdated. As government repression proliferated beneath Mr. Hun Sen, the monk started preaching human rights from his pagoda.

Whilst politicians and activists who spoke up towards Mr. Hun Sen’s government had been jailed, exiled or even killed, Mr. Luon Sovath appeared to be protected by his saffron-hued robes.

But in elections two many years in the past, the governing Cambodian People’s Celebration won every single seat in Parliament following the major opposition celebration was disbanded and its leader imprisoned. The independent information media was eviscerated.

Mr. Luon Sovath mentioned he knew he was residing on borrowed time.

“They went following opposition politicians, N.G.O.s, human rights activists, and now it comes to my flip,” he mentioned.

On May well thirty, 4 video clips appeared on a Facebook web page that had been set up earlier in the day. The web page masqueraded as that of Ms. Tim Ratha, a thirty-12 months-outdated nurse whose relatives has a home and grocery retailer across the street from the monk’s pagoda.

“He is a excellent and respectful monk,” Ms. Tim Ratha mentioned in an interview.

Shortly following the video clips appeared on Facebook, the police in Siem Reap demanded Ms. Tim Ratha report to the station at evening, she mentioned.

Their concerns had been speedy-fire and intimidating, she mentioned. Why would you have a sexual partnership with a monk, with your sisters and mom no much less? What is your Facebook password? That is your cell phone, is not it?

Ms. Tim Ratha denied every thing, even as her voice was shaking from dread, she recalled.

“We are just victims,” she mentioned. “We did not commit anything at all incorrect.”

The 4 video clips consist of absolutely nothing a lot more than fuzzy footage of smartphones with the monk’s fake Facebook profile on the screens. Audio appears to emanate from the phones, as if he is chatting with the females on Messenger.

At two factors the video clips go off script. In one particular instance, the thumb holding the cell phone slips for much less than a 2nd and pulls up a listing of Facebook Messenger pals.

Two are brothers of Yeng Sreypoch, one particular of the staff members of the Press and Brief Response Unit. One more is her relative and two a lot more are pals from her hometown.

In a different video, an on the web notification from Telegram, the messaging application, seems for a minute, delivered to an account consumer named “sopheapm.” That title is employed on Telegram by Miech Sopheap, the other worker.

Ms. Miech Sopheap and Ms. Yeng Sreypoch declined repeated requests for comment. They are two of the 3 “friends” of the fake Facebook account in Mr. Luon Sovath’s title.

Tith Sothea, the head of the unit, mentioned in a statement that his workplace had absolutely nothing to do with the video clips.

“I fervently deny the allegation and the smearing, fabricating,” he mentioned, “that the Press and Brief Response Unit set up a Facebook to submit alleged video clips.”

When Mr. Tith Sothea took up his occupation in 2018, area information media mentioned his unit was to “carry out media get the job done and react to material with a adverse character coming from nationwide and global media.”

The Press and Brief Response Unit employs a “cyber war crew.”

Facebook mentioned that it took down the fake web page exactly where the video clips appeared on June 27, following a trusted companion reported its existence. Human Rights View acknowledged it was that companion.

At first, Facebook mentioned that it had punished the creator of the fake Facebook web page by getting rid of the administrator’s account. Right after The Occasions pointed out that there had been two other administrators of the web page, Facebook mentioned that their accounts had been suspended pending even more verification.

The conversations in the video clips are purportedly involving Mr. Luon Sovath and Ms. Tim Ratha or Som Bopha, her mom. There are a handful of sexually suggestive references, which include an aside about licking.

The monk and the two females mentioned that some of the audio is from cell phone conversations they had. But they say that these chats had been edited in a misleading way. The passage about licking, Ms. Tim Ratha mentioned, referred to an expression of affection from her puppy.

And there are other elements of the audio, all 3 mentioned, that are not them at all, this kind of as references to particular sexual encounters.

“How can a mom and her daughters do this kind of a factor with the identical monk,” mentioned Ms. Som Bopha, Ms. Tim Ratha’s mom. “It is unattainable.”

The 3 people today say they do not know how their personal cell phone conversations went public. Human rights groups say that the Cambodian authorities often harvest cell phone conversations with out people’s know-how. Tapped or manipulated audio has been employed in Cambodian courts to convict the government’s critics.

Ms. Tim Ratha mentioned that a pal of hers reported the fake web page to Facebook many instances in excess of many days. Ms. Pilorge, of the human rights group, mentioned her colleagues filed equivalent complaints. Facebook mentioned that they did not obtain a single consumer report questioning the veracity of the web page.

In Switzerland, Mr. Luon Sovath mentioned he was adjusting to lifestyle in exile. His thin monastic robes are enough for summer time, but when the snows come his tropical inner thermostat will have to alter, he mentioned. He keeps to a Buddhist monk’s routine, fasting following noon and meditating.

“I want to go dwelling,” he mentioned. “But I had no decision to run away from my nation and turn out to be a refugee.”

Sun Narin reported from Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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