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Opinion Facebook’s dangerous experiment in Cambodia

(Screen shot from A Dose of Cath blog)

Catherine V. Harry is the founder of A Dose of Cath blog and a freelance writer in Cambodia.

Facebook’s latest experiment is playing a dangerous game with free expression in Cambodia.

This fall, Facebook decided that it would develop an “Explore Feed” for six small countries, including Cambodia. The change means that posted content from non-personal pages of institutions, including from news publishers, no longer show up in users’ default feed when they first open Facebook. Instead, Facebook shows users posts from the personal accounts of friends and family; in order to see posts from institutional pages and news outlets, users have to click to a separate section. Facebook has said that it does not plan to roll out Explore Feed beyond the current six countries and that the goal of the test is to understand “if people prefer to have separate places for personal and public content.”

Why does this seemingly small change matter to me? Over the past several years, I made a name for myself in Cambodia and abroad by creating and posting videos about taboo topics that Cambodian media would not touch. My videos centered on issues ranging from feminism to masturbation. I rely heavily on YouTube and Facebook to reach my audience. Within nine months of its start, my Facebook page A Dose of Cath attracted more than 170,000 page likes, with most videos averaging about 100,000 to 200,000 views. My video about how Cambodia puts societal value on women’s virginity hit 2 million views.

But after Facebook’s change, I posted a video on my page, as I always did every week. Instead of getting the usual amount of views, which was around 12,000 views for the first hour, I got only 5,000 views after having posted the video for five hours. I was baffled, until I recalled seeing a few posts from people on my Facebook news-feed about how the reach on their page has been declining dramatically after Facebook rolled out the new Explore Feed feature. As someone who makes a living through my videos on Facebook (companies pay me for product placement and endorsements), I feel helpless and powerless now. Facebook’s sudden change can threaten my way of life. I have talked to other video bloggers and social media personalities; one popular personality told me that she used to get 2,000 to 3,000 watchers when she did a live video. After Explore Feed, the number dropped to 30 people.

But the impact of Explore Feed is not just about me or other social media personalities. Cambodia has a population of 15 million — 4.8 million of them are on Facebook. The network provides a vital source of information for one-third of the population, especially among young people. According to studies, Facebook has even surpassed television for being a source of information. Our press freedom and access to information are also under threat, especially as national elections draw near. Our press is already facing pressure from the government — earlier this year, The Cambodia Daily was forced to close because the government claimed it owed millions in back taxes.

The daughter of a jailed Cambodian opposition leader says Prime Minister Hun Sen is testing the country and the world to see how authoritarian he can be. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Now with Facebook’s change, Cambodian news outlets and nongovernmental organizations are having a hard time reaching as many people as they once did. For example, the Voice of America Khmer page has seen a drop in traffic. Some NGOs have seen as much as a 60 percent drop in their reach. People are missing news that can be essential and timely. That becomes a problem when that information concerns the state of the country or government policies. In a way, this has a devastating effect on freedom of information in the country at a time when information is crucial.

Despite the changes, I will still continue to make videos, because this is my job and my passion. The satisfaction that comes with it outweighs the challenges. Aside from NGOs, I am one of the very few people, if not the only one, who discuss sex and feminism openly in Cambodia. If I stopped now, then I would go back to square one, and there would be few opportunities for Cambodians to openly engage with these topics. Still, Facebook will leave me no choice. I need to rethink strategies to adapt and deal with the changes.

I implore Facebook and its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, to consider the damaging impact of Explore Feed on the people in the experiment countries. Freedom of speech in Southeast Asia is under pressure. Changes in technology can be good, but Facebook’s leaders need to consider the fact that their choices could bring unfavorable consequences to those affected and could deeply harm our democracy.