The Meta Oversight Board, the Supreme Court-like content moderation authority for Facebook and Instagram, announced Thursday it had overruled a decision by the company. Facebook had allowed a video to remain viewable in which authoritarian Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called on political opponents to choose between “the legal system” and “a bat.” Now, the Oversight Board says Meta should go a step further and immediately suspend Hun Sen’s Facebook and Instagram pages for six months due to the severity of the violation and his long history of using social media to amplify threats of violence against political opponents.
“This decision goes far beyond Prime Minister Hun Sen,” an Oversight Board spokesperson told Gizmodo. “It’s about Meta’s policies and processes for ensuring its platforms aren’t exploited by political leaders who threaten violence. We look forward to Meta’s response to our recommendations.” Meta did not immediately offer comment on the board’s decision.
In a major 26-page ruling today shared with Gizmodo, the Oversight Board said Hun Sen’s statements made in the video Meta’s Violence and Incitement Community Standard. Hun Sen’s speech included “unequivocal” statements intended to incite violence that could have led to severe injury or death to the leader’s political opponents, the board noted. The leader’s long history of violence and repression, they said, made those threats all the more credible. In the past, Hun Sen has referred to his political opponents as “dogs” worthy of being beaten and stuffed in cages. Incredibly, Hun Sen actually attempted to defuse his own statement in the same video by telling his audience his remarks weren’t an incitement to violence. The Oversight Board refuted the leader’s callous attempt at real-time gaslighting in its ruling.
“In the Board’s view, Hun Sen’s perfunctory assurance that ‘we don’t incite people and encourage people to use force’ contradicts the clear message of the speech and is not credible,” the ruling states. “The Board is concerned and perplexed that the initial reviewers concluded otherwise, but notes that Meta’s country experts, on review, recognized that the post violated the Violence and Incitement Standard.”
In a statement Thursday Meta said it welcomed the Oversight Board’s decision and plans to implement it once it has finished deliberating. The company says it will also begin a broader review of “ identical content with parallel context.” Meta was less committal, however, when it came to the Board’s recommendation to suspend Hun Sen’ accounts. To that end, Meta said it will “conduct a review of all the recommendations provided by the board in addition to its decision.”
What are the details of Hun Sen’s video and the Meta Oversight Board’s decision?
The case revolves around a 41-minute video recorded in January where Hun Sen threatened to take legal actions against political opponents who accuse his party of stealing votes in the upcoming election. Hun Sen has ruled in Cambodia for 38 years and has been accused by human rights organizations of engaging in brutal violence, massive corruption, and manipulated elections. The prime minister explicitly threatened his opposition during the speech.
“Either you face legal action in court, or I rally [the Cambodian] People’s Party people for a demonstration and beat you up,” Hun Sen said during the speech.
The video was uploaded to Hun Sen’s Facebook page, where it was viewed around 600,000 times. Three different users, the Oversight Board notes, reported the video between January 9 and January 26, 2023. Moderators initially kept the video under the justification that it was “newsworthy.”
Meta told the Oversight Board it initially opted to keep the video up because threats to use the legal system against opponents, in isolation, don’t violate the company’s policies since they don’t involve a physical threat of violence. The Oversight Board refuted that reasoning and said Hun Sen’s extensive authoritarian control over the country’s courts means threats to pursue opponents through the legal system are “tantamount to a threat of violence.”
The Oversight Board similarly said Meta’s decision to apply a newsworthiness allowance to this case were unjustified because the harms of keeping the content online outweighed the public interest benefit. Meta uses this newsworthiness allowance in many contexts to keep up posts that would ordinarily violate its terms but which it believes are important for the public. This carve-out often applied to former President Trump’s incendiary, policy-violating posts.
The ruling acknowledged a need to strike a careful balance when deciding when to limit political leaders’ speech but found that Hun Sen’s massive reach on social media enabled his threats to spread like wildfire, allowing Meta’s platform to be exploited for real-world harm.
“Rather than informing debate, applying the newsworthiness allowance in this case would further chill the public discourse in favor of Hun Sen’s domination of the media landscape,” the board noted. “Such behavior should not be rewarded.”
Oversight Board calls on Meta to suspend Hun Sen’s account
In addition to its ruling, the Oversight Board recommended Meta immediately suspend Hun Sen’s Facebook and Instagram accounts for six months to give the company time to review the situation and set a permanent suspension time. Before lifting a suspension, the Oversight Board said Meta should carry out an assessment to determine if the “risk to public safety has receded.”
If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s remarkably similar to the guidance the Oversight Board gave to Meta on how to handle former president Donald Trump’s account. In that case, Trump’s account was suspended for nearly two years before eventually coming back online earlier this year. Unlike the ruling, the Oversight Board’s recommendations to Meta are non-binding. That said, the company is required to respond to the recommendation within 60 days.
“Where regimes with a history of following through on threats of violence against its opposition use Meta’s platforms, the company must rely on its regional teams and expertise to assess whether threats to use the legal system against political opponents amount to threatening or intimidating with violence,” The Oversight Board said in its ruling.
Cambodia’s ruling could have wide-reaching effects on how Meta moderates political leaders’ dangerous speech
The Oversight Board only rules on a handful of cases every year despite receiving a new appeal every 24 seconds. Any one of Facebook or Instagram’s combined four billion users can appeal a content moderation decision and petition to have it climb up the appeal ladder. The Oversight Board has made efforts to fast-track urgent cases, but the sheer scale of Meta’s user base means its high court will only ever hear a small sliver of cases. Because of that, the Oversight Board says it chooses cases carefully, and, much like the US Supreme Court, picks borderline cases where a ruling one way or another could set a precedent and offer guidance to many other similar cases.
In this case, the Oversight Board says it focused on the Cambodian prime minister’s video because it provided “the opportunity to examine whether political leaders are using Meta’s platforms to incite violence and shut down political opposition.” Oversight Board members wrote that they ultimately made their decision by analyzing Meta’s content policies, values, human rights.
“It is vital that Meta’s platforms not be used as an instrument to amplify threats of violence and retaliation, aimed at suppressing political opposition, especially during an election, as in this case,” the board said.
Update 8:42: A.M. EST: Added statement from Meta.