In January 2023, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen live-streamed a speech on Facebook in which he threatened his opponents, vowing to send “gangsters” to their homes and to rally ruling party members “to protest and beat [them] up.”
The speech came back to haunt him on June 29, when Meta’s Oversight Board recommended that the company suspend the prime minister for six months for breaking the platform’s rules against threatening or inciting violence.
Later that day, Hun Sen beat the company to the punch and deleted his own page. It was a stunning move in Cambodia, where the prime minister has used the platform to trumpet his policy positions and lash out at his opponents to the nearly 14 million followers he has amassed since joining Facebook in 2015.
Some of his posts have had immediate real-world consequences. In February 2023, the forced closure of one of Cambodia’s last independent news outlets, Voice of Democracy, played out entirely on Hun Sen’s Facebook over two days. Angered by an article he claimed was erroneous, Hun Sen threatened in a post to revoke VOD’s license if the outlet didn’t apologize promptly.
After VOD expressed “regret” for any confusion the story caused, Hun Sen responded via Facebook that the statement was insufficient and said that the Cambodian Ministry of Information would revoke the outlet’s license.
“Is it acceptable to use words of ‘regret’ and ‘forgiveness’ instead of the word ‘apologize?’ For me, I cannot accept it,” Hun Sen wrote in the post. “Look for jobs elsewhere,” he added. Police and ministry officials arrived at VOD’s office the next morning with an order to cease publishing.
But now the future of Hun Sen’s page is uncertain. A few weeks after he deleted his account, his assistant reinstated it, ahead of the national elections. And Meta, which owns Facebook, has yet to officially decide whether to follow the recommendation of its Oversight Board and proceed with the six-month suspension. This means that the account could go offline again — and take with it a digital archive attesting to the more recent chapters of Hun Sen’s 38-year regime.
“Facebook was the key, important way for him to communicate his political messages to his audience and fans,” said Sokphea Young, a Cambodian research fellow at University College London who has studied the visual messaging of Hun Sen’s Facebook page. “However many people don’t like Prime Minister Hun Sen, the account is very important for the collective memory of Cambodian people and Cambodian history.”
And Cambodia is hardly alone in this. Around the world, speech coming from government officials has increasingly spilled over onto social media platforms. But companies like Meta and Twitter can decide to remove posts or entire accounts at any moment, regardless of how this might affect public access to information about state actors and institutions. Neither company has a policy on archiving state accounts, and, with a few exceptions, states don’t require companies to do this either.
In the mid-1990s, libraries, universities and governments around the world became concerned about losing electronic records to the fast-evolving digital sphere. But archiving from social media platforms has remained an “unloved” area of public policy, even as more and more government data has landed there, said William Kilbride, the executive director of the U.K.-based Digital Preservation Coalition, an advocacy group that works with public and private institutions around the world on archiving.
Some governments with robust archiving capabilities deal with social media platforms on an individual basis to maintain records. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, for instance, has worked with Twitter to “freeze” previous versions of accounts linked to the presidency on the original platform. The U.K.’s National Archives maintains a social media database with Twitter and YouTube archives.
But major platforms have not created broader global policies around such programs, and they aren’t always transparent about how long they internally retain deleted or suspended accounts or those of deceased people. There are also technical challenges: Meta actively works to prevent scraping, a technique that archivists use to gather and then preserve such data. Finding automated ways to capture pages’ full context — such as comments on posts — is also “really difficult,” Kilbride said.
Even within existing archival relationships, platforms still have the upper hand. After the January 6, 2021 riots in Washington, D.C., Twitter announced it would not allow a federally preserved version of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s @realDonaldTrump tweets — which the National Archives had been working to preserve — to appear on the site after it “permanently banned” him, as would be typical with other accounts linked to the presidency.
But after Elon Musk bought the company, the account was reinstated on Twitter. In an email exchange, the National Archives would not confirm whether its prior efforts to preserve @realDonaldTrump are ongoing but said to “continue to check back for addition[al] content as it is added in the future.” The handle does not appear alongside other accounts the agency has made separately available on its website.
“The public record has been privatized and now sits on these platforms,” Kilbride said. “Suddenly, it’s the National Archives’ or whoever’s job to try to figure out what on earth to do.”
“They have no duty of transparency,” Kilbride added of the platforms. “There’s no accountability.”
Although most governments have national archiving laws, many lack the resources to enforce them on social media or store mass amounts of data on independent servers, putting them at a further disadvantage in preserving material when accounts — or an entire platform — suddenly go dark.
In June 2021, former Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari received a 12-hour suspension on Twitter over a tweet targeting Igbo people, one of the biggest ethnic groups in the country, writing he would “treat them in the language they understand.” Two days later, he blocked access to Twitter countrywide, making his own and other government-related accounts inaccessible within Nigeria.
‘Gbenga Sesan, the executive director of the digital rights group Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, said that in his circles, “nobody cared” at the time about preserving Buhari’s account locally: He was more focused on the thousands of requests for help accessing virtual private networks (VPNs) pouring in from across Nigeria. Plus, digital experts knew that a local block on Twitter didn’t mean the accounts had been lost, he said.
In fact, as Nigerians continued to access Twitter with VPNs, Buhari’s account — mainly a place to share propaganda and party information — was little-missed for the roughly six months that Twitter was officially blocked. “I don’t ever remember going there to check what was said. A few times, I tweeted that silence was a better option for Buhari, because every time he speaks, the country gets angry,” Sesan said.
Still, Sesan wants to see social media platforms create archiving partnerships with governments on a global scale. But the Buhari episode also showed the need for a more expansive view of preservation: On its own, Buhari’s account would provide a slim portrait of Nigeria’s online history at the time. And what’s more, governmental partnerships would only work if both sides had mutual good will to preserve materials.
“You’ll find the digital aides sharing more historical facts than the president himself,” Sesan said. “That, I think, is the major context when it comes to presidential archives and information: That kind of information also matters.”
Challenges with archiving also arise when it comes to posts that shine light on human rights abuses, war crimes and other atrocities that demand documentation in the service of future legal investigations and historical inquiry, particularly on Meta and YouTube. Last month, Meta’s Oversight Board called on the company to publicly address archiving practices in a decision about a video of Armenian prisoners of war. The video showed the faces of injured and deceased soldiers, raising questions about revealing the identities and locations of prisoners in conflict zones. Although the board agreed Meta was correct to leave up the content with a warning screen, it recommended the company commit to preserving evidence of atrocities, develop public protocols for preservation and explain how long it internally retains data and considers preservation requests. Meta has not yet responded publicly and did not respond to a request for comment.
In recent years, social media platforms have faced scrutiny for helping to spread hate speech and disinformation in places such as Myanmar, Kenya and India, making the platforms eager to appear quick to remove content or accounts spewing violent rhetoric.
While deplatforming violent actors can be crucial to limiting offline violence, digital historians and researchers say it also causes public records to disappear from the internet before they have the chance to collect them.
The nonprofit Mnemonic grew out of the civil war in Syria and maintains four archives documenting evidence of potential human rights violations in Syria, Sudan, Yemen and Ukraine. As social media platforms have increased their use of automated tools that try to remove harmful content, the group has seen human rights-related material taken down more frequently, according to Maria Mingo, a policy and advocacy manager at Mnemonic.
The organization stores its archives on independent servers. About one-quarter of the two million YouTube videos it has archived from Syria since 2014 have disappeared from YouTube itself. About one-tenth of the 2,000 Twitter accounts from the same archive have been removed during the same period.
In May 2023, Musk announced that Twitter would begin removing and archiving “inactive” accounts. Mingo said that rule could present a “huge problem” for jailed activists whose accounts, and the information they collected at great personal risk, suddenly disappeared.
“If the content is taken down so, so quickly — unless platforms preserve and are able to engage with relevant stakeholders about the existence of the content — we won’t be able to do anything with it, we won’t be able to request it, we won’t be able to in any way try to use it,” Mingo said.
“We can’t preserve something that no longer exists, or that we don’t know exists,” she added.
In Cambodia, questions around preservation and collective memory have persisted for decades. During the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge genocide wiped out nearly one-quarter of the population. Images of torture, starvation and detention have become irreplaceable to “memorialize how things went wrong in that period,” said researcher Young.
Right now, Hun Sen’s Facebook page provides an unmatched record of the current regime, replete with personal exchanges between Hun Sen and his followers. But it also has a more reflective style. He has long favored posting black-and-white or old photographs of himself or family members, dating back to shortly after the Khmer Rouge era when he came to power. In a recent post after the account was reinstated, he shared an undated photograph of himself as a young man walking in a green, placid background, along with a message about the upcoming one-sided national election, which his party won in a landslide.
“Today is the last day of the party campaign, and also the day of great expectations for the Cambodian People’s Party in the upcoming election. I wish you all, the family of the ‘angel party,’ success countrywide,” the caption read, referring to the ruling party’s logo.
Such photographs have been central to the page for years, according to Young, who, over four years, has tracked the prime minister’s habit of contrasting black-and-white and color photos as a visual representation of his mythical political journey.
The idea is to show himself bringing Cambodia out of the darkness and into the light, a human representation of peace protecting the country from plunging back into civil war.
“As a copy of the history of Cambodia, maybe [his account] should be in a museum somewhere, in the next 40, 50 years, so the new generation can see,” Young said. “This is what Facebook was like, and this is what the prime minister was like, during the new era of digitalization.”