Oversight Board overturns Meta's decision in "Cambodian prime minister" case
The Oversight Board has overturned Meta’s decision to leave up a video on Facebook in which Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen threatens his political opponents with violence. Given the severity of the violation, Hun Sen’s history of committing human rights violations and intimidating political opponents, as well as his strategic use of social media to amplify such threats, the Board calls on Meta to immediately suspend Hun Sen’s Facebook page and Instagram account for six months.
About the case
On January 9, 2023, a live video was streamed from the official Facebook page of Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen.
The video shows a one hour 41-minute speech delivered by Hun Sen in Khmer, Cambodia’s official language. In the speech, he responds to allegations that his ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) stole votes during the country’s local elections in 2022. He calls on his political opponents who made the allegations to choose between the “legal system” and “a bat,” and says that they can choose the legal system, or he “will gather CPP people to protest and beat you up.” He also mentions “sending gangsters to [your] house,” and says that he may “arrest a traitor with sufficient evidence at midnight.” Later in the speech, however, he says “we don’t incite people and encourage people to use force.” After the live broadcast, the video was automatically uploaded onto Hun Sen’s Facebook page, where it has been viewed around 600,000 times.
Three users reported the video five times between January 9 and January 26, 2023, for violating Meta’s Violence and Incitement Community Standard. This prohibits “threats that could lead to death” (high-severity violence) and “threats that lead to serious injury (mid-severity violence),” including “[s]tatements of intent to commit violence.” After the users who reported the content appealed, it was reviewed by two human reviewers who found it did not violate Meta’s policies. At the same time, the content was escalated to policy and subject matter experts within Meta. They determined that it violated the Violence and Incitement Community Standard but applied a newsworthiness allowance. This permits otherwise violating content where the public interest value outweighs the risk of it causing harm.
One of the users who reported the content appealed Meta’s decision to the Board. Separately, Meta referred the case to the Board. In its referral, Meta stated that the case involves a challenging balance between its values of “Safety” and “Voice” in determining when to allow speech that violates its Violence and Incitement policy by a political leader to remain on its platforms.
The Board finds that the video in this case included unequivocal statements of intent to commit violence against Hun Sen’s political opponents, which clearly violate the Violence and Incitement policy. The use of terms such as “bat” and “sending gangsters to [your] house” or “legal action” including midnight arrests amounts to incitement of violence and legal intimidation.
The Board finds that Meta was wrong to apply a newsworthiness allowance in this case, as the harm caused by allowing the content on the platform outweighs the post’s public interest value. Given Hun Sen’s reach on social media, allowing this kind of expression on Facebook enables his threats to spread more broadly. It also results in Meta’s platforms contributing to these harms by amplifying the threats and resulting intimidation.
The Board is also concerned that a political leader’s sustained campaign of harassment and intimidation against independent media and the political opposition can become a factor in a newsworthiness assessment that leads to violating content not being removed and the account avoiding penalties. Such behavior should not be rewarded. Meta should more heavily weigh press freedom when considering newsworthiness so that the allowance is not applied to government speech in situations where that government has made its own content more newsworthy by limiting free press.
The Board urges Meta to clarify that its policy on restricting the accounts of public figures is not limited solely to single incidents of violence and civil unrest, but also applies to contexts in which citizens are under continuing threat of retaliatory violence from their governments.
In this case, given the severity of the violation, Hun Sen’s history of committing human rights violations and intimidating political opponents, and his strategic use of social media to amplify such threats, the Board calls on Meta to immediately suspend Hun Sen’s Facebook page and Instagram account for six months.
The Oversight Board’s decision
The Oversight Board overturns Meta’s decision to leave up the content, requiring the post to be removed.
The Board recommends that Meta:
- Immediately suspend the official Facebook page and Instagram account of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen for a period of six months under Meta’s policy on restricting accounts of public figures during civil unrest. The Board will consider this recommendation implemented when Meta suspends the accounts and publicly announces that it has done so.
- Clarify that its policy for restricting accounts of public figures applies to contexts in which citizens are under continuing threat of retaliatory violence from their governments. The policy should make it clear that it is not restricted solely to single incidents of civil unrest or violence and that it applies where political expression is pre-emptively suppressed or responded to with violence or threats of violence from the state.
- Update its newsworthiness allowance policy to state that content that directly incites violence is not eligible for a newsworthiness allowance, subject to existing policy exceptions.
- Update its review prioritization systems to ensure that content from heads of state and senior members of government that potentially violated the Violence and Incitement policy is consistently prioritized for immediate human review.
- Implement product and/or operational guideline changes that allow more accurate review of long form video (e.g., use of algorithms for predicting the timestamp of violation, ensuring proportional review time with length of the video, allowing videos to run 1,5x or 2x faster, etc.).
- Publicly reveal the extent of the action and the reasoning behind its decision for the case of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and in all account-level actions against heads of state and senior members of government.
For further information
To read the full decision, click here.
To read a synopsis of public comments for this case, please click the attachment below.