When a Facebook experiment brought the Cambodian media and NGO industries to their knees
An older story written for the Phnom Penh Post. Fortunately, Facebook did listen to the protests and abandon its Explore experiment. However, this story remains a powerful reminder of just how much power the tech giant has in a land where it has long overtaken TV as most people's primary source of news. News outlets saw web traffic tumble by 45% back then, a figure that would likely be even higher today.
Kids at Tiny Toones, the hip hop NGO, who are featured in this opinion piece.
30th OCTOBER 2017. Perhaps you haven’t noticed yet. If you’re a light Facebook user, or shun it altogether, you may not have realised that the stories you see have changed – but they have. A week ago, Facebook chose Cambodia as one of six small countries for a radical experiment, where posts by newspapers (including The Post), businesses, NGOs and more have been banished to a separate feed called “Explore”, unless those organisations pay to promote them. This is bad news for Cambodia.
You might be thinking, “no, it isn’t”. You didn’t join Facebook for news, you joined to connect with friends. Fair enough, but there are serious implications for Cambodia, its journalists and small NGOs doing essential work here.
Whether you personally come to Facebook to catch up on current events or not, millions of Cambodians do. Forty-eight percent now own smartphones, including in remote rural pockets, and many use it primarily for Facebook. It has become a window into the world: a survey last year found that 30 percent of Cambodians consider Facebook their most important news source, eclipsing even TV.
By slicing news out of people’s feeds and sending it to a content graveyard where stories are buried, Facebook has cut off a source of information for millions of Cambodians. With a pivotal election rapidly approaching, it’s a worrying time for such an experiment.
It’s not just newspapers or politicians who will suffer, but also the growing civic society of Cambodia, particularly small, grassroots NGOs. Many, struggling to stay afloat and unable to invest in costly marketing, use Facebook as their key means of reaching supporters. I work with many of these NGOs and have already seen posts reaching far fewer Cambodians than before. Remember: these followers aren’t victims of marketing spam, they are people who have hit “like” on pages because they want to read these stories alongside friend’s updates. Now they can’t.
The biggest NGOs just gained another advantage in the battle for awareness and funds. They already have the money to spend substantial amounts promoting posts on Facebook; now they’ll be even more prominent in newsfeeds. Not so for smaller NGOs.
Facebook has been crucial to my pro bono work with Tiny Toones Cambodia over the past six months. A small local hip-hop-fuelled NGO, it barely raises enough funds to pay rent and a few teachers. Through a personal, human approach to storytelling, mixed with creative use of iPhone-filmed videos, our following has grown by 60 percent, leading to increased funding and bookings for performances. Two viral videos were seen by millions, without a cent paid for promotion. We were able to use creativity and the power of our results to compete with the big beasts. That just changed.
But this is bigger than any single NGO. During my three years here, it’s been a priority not just to raise funds from overseas donors but also to engage with Cambodians. I’ve witnessed a significant increase in Cambodians offering support to NGOs, whether through volunteering, spreading the word or donating. Increasing this local involvement is deeply important to the country’s future, one less reliant on foreign NGOs and foreign donations. Facebook was once a major ally in achieving this, less so now.
So what can we do about it? First, NGOs and the media need to speak out so that Facebook understands the impact of this change and considers adjusting its approach, allowing independent news providers and small NGOs to be heard in Cambodia just as in the rest of the world. In the meantime, NGOs need to get better at Facebook, writing sharper and more personally involving stories that connect with Cambodians and motivate them to share, so that they appear in their friends’ newsfeeds. Other social media options should be explored. Hello, Instagram!
Readers of The Post can also help. If there are news providers or NGOs you value, go to their Facebook pages and subscribe to notifications so you see when a story is published. Get actively involved with NGO initiatives online. Most importantly, hit that “share” button whenever you read something you like – it might be the only way anyone else gets to see it.