How Facebook’s Real Names policy helps Cambodia’s thin-skinned dictator terrorize dissenters

”Yes, our beaches are the most beautiful, but our leaders are the dirtiest in the world, aren’t they?”

Cory Doctorow

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Cambodian dictator Hun Sen’s Facebook photo of himself swimming in the blue Maldives sea. Superimposed over him in white sans-serif lettering on red rectangular backgrounds is a quote from a Cambodian Facebook user: ‘Yes, our beaches are the most beautiful, but our leaders are the dirtiest in the world, aren’t they?’ Image: Hun Sen/Facebook (modified) https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=765259764955813&set=pcb.765259798289143&type=3&theater Fair use: https://www.eff.org/issues/intellect

A common refrain from Facebook apologists and anti-anonymity activists is that its “Real Names Policy” promoted “civility” by making users “accountable” for their words. In this conception, snuffing out anonymous speech is key to protecting “the vulnerable” from trolls and other bad actors.

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

https://pluralistic.net/2023/01/24/nationalize-moderna/#hun-sen

But while some trolls hide behind anonymity, others are only too happy to sign their vitriol. Donald Trump didn’t need an anonymous account. Tucker Carlson is right there in the chyron. Nick Fuentes isn’t hiding behind a pseudonym — he’s proud to be associated with Holocaust denial.

Despite the moral panic about “cancel culture,” the powerful can say outrageous and disgusting things without any meaningful consequence. But when it comes to speaking truth to power, anonymity protects the vulnerable from retaliation.

Nowhere will you find a better case-study of this phenomenon than in Cambodia, a basket-case, one-party dictatorship that has been ruled over by the corrupt, authoritarian dictator Hun Sen, a former general, since 1985.

Hun Sen’s corruption and authoritarianism chafed at the Cambodian people, but his repressive statecraft allowed him to keep a tight grip on the reins of power. But all that nearly came to a halt in 2013, when an opposition movement, organized on Facebook, came within a whisker of defeating him during what should have been a sham election.

Other dictators would have used that moment to block Facebook, but not Hun Sen. After squeaking out a narrow victory, he decided to take control of Facebook in Cambodia and co-opt it as a tool of oppression. To do this, Hun Sen would weaponize the Real Names policy.

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