Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has refused to suspend former Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen from its platforms, defying a recommendation from its Oversight Board. The board, which operates independently from Meta, had advised a six-month suspension of Hun Sen’s accounts for inciting violence.
In its response to the case, Meta stated that a long-term suspension would not align with its policies. The company explained that after reviewing Hun Sen’s Facebook Page and Instagram account, it concluded that suspending the accounts outside of its regular enforcement framework would be inconsistent with its protocols, particularly regarding the restriction of accounts belonging to public figures during periods of civil unrest.
The handling of this high-profile case by Meta has attracted significant attention globally, as many consider it a test of the company’s policies regarding political speech. Politicians have traditionally been granted more leeway on the platform. The Oversight Board spokesperson emphasized their support for the original recommendations, highlighting the importance of social media companies ensuring their platforms are not misused to undermine democratic processes. They urged Meta to take all necessary measures to discourage public figures from exploiting their platforms to incite violence.
Initially, the case was brought before the Oversight Board after Meta decided to keep a video posted by Hun Sen on its platforms. The video featured a speech in which the former Prime Minister threatened political opponents, stating that he would gather members of the Cambodia People’s Party to protest and physically harm them. Meta had chosen to keep the video up, citing its controversial newsworthiness policy, despite acknowledging that it violated their own rules.
However, the Oversight Board overruled Meta’s decision, demanding the removal of the video and calling for a lengthy suspension of Hun Sen’s accounts. The board justified this response by highlighting the severity of the violation, Hun Sen’s history of human rights abuses, intimidation of political opponents, and the strategic exploitation of social media for spreading threats. Meta complied with the decision, removing the video, as its rulings are binding according to the board’s rules. The company was given 60 days to respond to the non-binding recommendations.
This case also saw Meta rejecting other recommendations made by the Oversight Board. They declined to clarify how their rules for public figures apply in situations where citizens are continually threatened with retaliatory violence from their governments, rather than a single incident of violence. Meta argued that their protocol is not designed for circumstances where a history of state violence or human rights restrictions has resulted in ongoing limitations on expression. They expressed concerns about potential indefinite suspensions of public figures’ accounts, highlighting the impact on people’s ability to access information and express themselves.
Moreover, Meta indicated that it was evaluating the feasibility of several recommendations. These included amending their newsworthiness policy to explicitly prohibit incitement of violence and prioritizing posts from heads of state and government officials for human moderator review when assessing incitement to violence. The company revealed that it was partially implementing two other recommendations related to reviewing long-form videos and making operational changes to aid in the review process. However, they reserved the right to withhold details about enforcement actions on high-profile government officials’ accounts, citing privacy and security considerations.
In conclusion, Meta has defied the Oversight Board’s recommendation to suspend the former Cambodian Prime Minister from its platforms. The company argued that a long-term suspension would contradict its policies and enforcement framework. The case has served as a test for Meta’s approach to political speech and the responsibilities of social media companies. The Oversight Board stands by its original decision, underscoring the need for platforms to prevent the misuse of their services in ways that undermine democratic processes. Meta’s response to the recommendations has drawn attention to the complexities of balancing free expression, public safety, and accountability on social media platforms.