Although nominally democratic and with a large youth population, Cambodia has so far failed to enjoy the sustained success of other Southeast Asian economies such as Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. One specific area where Cambodia lags behind many of its neighbors is Internet penetration, which was as low as 5 percent in 2012 and is just 30 percent today (approximately 5 million people).
Given this background, it is truly remarkable that Cambodia is the U.S. State Department’s greatest social media success story. The U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh Facebook page has more than 784,000 fans, making it the sixth largest U.S. Embassy Facebook page in the world in absolute numbers and almost certainly the largest relative to population. Of Cambodia’s three million Facebook users, nearly 20 percent follow the U.S. Embassy. Most of this growth is recent, with more than 500,000 fans signing up in the last 18 months. We currently add more than 1,000 new fans per day.
Beyond the Embassy, social media is reshaping Cambodia’s political, economic, and social development. Social media played a significant role in the contested 2013 national elections and will certainly be a major factor in the 2017 and 2018 elections, although there are some signs that the ruling party may attempt to restrict or limit social media usage in the future if it feels threatened.
We have some educated guesses about the reasons behind the growth of social media, but in order to truly understand what is going on (and whether it can be replicated elsewhere) we need quantitative research and analysis, which is sorely lacking in Cambodia. We are looking for a multi-disciplinary team that can dig behind the numbers to see what is really going on and to offer recommendations about how we can continue to build our social media presence in the future. We’re also interested to know how Cambodians are adapting to other platforms besides Facebook and what the future of social media might look like.
Lead Researcher: Ellen Zegura, Computer Science