What Does Facebook Reveal About Public Opinion in Cambodia?
January 13, 2016
The 2013 national elections in Cambodia saw the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) losing 55 of the 123 parliamentary seats to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party(CNRP), the slimmest victory ever for the party that has ruled the country since 1993. Online outreach played a decisive role in closing the gap, according to observers.
With limited access and resources to spend on traditional media, the opposition party took advantage of Facebook as one of its main campaign platforms. In fact, CNRP president, Sam Rainsy, has one of the most popular Facebook pages in the country, currently at 2 million likes.
Another major factor in this shift to online political engagement is the rising middle class in Cambodia which has fueled a boom in smart phone access, now the primary access point for the internet. According to a 2015 study conducted by Open Institute and supported by The Asia Foundation and USAID, one-third of Cambodians have access to the internet and much of this growth is based on the uptick in smartphone penetration which has now reached nearly 40 percent – up 41 percent from just one year ago. The study also shows that about 31 percent of Cambodians say that they have a Facebook account, a 66.5 percent increase since 2014.
About 60 percent of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 30 years old, gaining support from this young population is vital for the upcoming 2018 elections. These young people are relying more on online platforms like Facebook to get news, voice their opinions, and discuss critical issues facing the country. Even news outlets such as Voice of America are increasingly using Facebook to reach Cambodia’s online audiences: the outlet’s Khmer-language page now has over 2.5 million likes (greater than the outlet’s main English-language page at around 2 million).
Since the 2013 elections, the CPP began to actively use its own Facebook page, and in September 2015, Prime Minister Hun Sen endorsed his Facebook page and now has over 1.8 million likes and has a fan growth rate that appears to be outstripping Sam Rainsy’s growth rate. Adding to his daily Facebook outreach, the prime minister earlier this month announced on his Facebook page that Cambodians could now keep up with him via his personal website and app that is currently available for download on Android and soon on the App Store.
Beyond the rapid uptake of social media in Cambodia, until now, little has been known about the topics covered online and what topics people find most important, especially over time. The Asia Foundation recently launched an initiative to better understand these social media trends. Starting in August 2015, our Social Media Civic Insights Team has systematically collected and tagged posts from leading Facebook pages according to topic, people mentioned or involved in the post, and location.
The November report, “Facebook Cambodia Civic Insights,” shows that as of the end of the month, the VOA Khmer Facebook page remains the most popular page, with 2.5 million likes, followed by Sam Rainsy’s page (1.8 million), and Radio Free Asia Khmer page (1.6 million). Prime Minister Hun Sen’s page stood as the fifth most popular, with 1.4 million likes.
However, in terms of month-on-month percentage increase of fan growth, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s page led the pack, growing at 8.98 percent from the previous month compared to Sam Rainsy’s 4.63 percent. At this rate, it is estimated that the number of followers on the prime minister’s page will surpass that of Sam Rainsy’s just in time for the 2017 commune elections and the 2018 national elections.
Most frequently covered topics of the month
The most frequent topics posted on media pages were related to traffic accidents, followed by ceremonial events such as official arrivals and departures of government officials, hosting of foreign delegations, and national holidays, followed by lawsuits against the political opposition. However, in terms of engagement rates on the topics themselves, the highest levels of engagement were around the arrest warrant issued by the Phnom Penh municipality against the opposition party’s head Sam Rainsy on defamation charges, followed by events surrounding Cambodia’s Water Festival holiday.
The report results indicate an editorial division of media outlets. Less sensitive topics such as traffic accidents were mostly reported by local online website Cambodian Express News, while more political topics such as the lawsuits against the political opposition were mostly covered by what media critics note are more independent outlets such as Radio Free Asia.
Facebook pages of the politicians themselves generate more user engagement and fans than the pages of the parties they represent. For example, the highest engagement rate in November for a political party page went to CPP, whose post about the prime minister’s announcement on November 12 about a ban on land leasing along the borders generated 176 likes, shares, and comments. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s post on his own page on November 26, in which he offered an apology on the nationwide electricity outage, received more than 55,000 likes, shares, and comments.
Politicians gain more engagement according to the report than media outlets when covering similar topics. For example, Sam Rainsy’s November 27 post of a video from the European Parliament meeting to decide whether to terminate $435 million in aid to Cambodia should the arrest warrant of the opposition leader materialize generated over 51,000 likes, shares, and comments. The same topic covered by Voice of Democracy’s post, which was also the most popular topic on media pages on that same day, received only about 23,000 likes, shares, and comments.
On media outlet pages, findings reveal that border-related topics received the most user engagement of the month. Voice of Democracy’s post about a commune chief apologizing for a mistake made on a birth certificate that stated that Takeo Province was in Vietnam got more than 29,000 likes, shares, and comments.
Toward the future
While it’s tempting to assume that current trends will continue in the future, the data collected over time is expected to provide a more robust evidence base for gleaning deeper insights into the political, social, and economic issues in the country that people care most about. The monthly reports provide a window into the rich civic discourse happening on Facebook – a valuable listening post for policymakers, development partners, and the private sector.
Menghun Kaing is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in Cambodia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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