TikTok Influence in Cambodia

Background

Social media offers a medium for anyone to disseminate information on a large scale; however, this feature has also become its detriment. As observed with COVID-19 and the 2020 US presidential elections, the nature by which social media provides information speed and virality has allowed both state-sponsored actors and individuals to distribute messages of questionable quality with little friction. While Facebook has been the epicenter for recent disinformation contests, other platforms are demonstrating their utility for spreading propaganda—namely, TikTok.

TikTok is one of the fastest-growing apps in the world, with over one-third of internet users between 16 and 64 owning an account. The viral appeal of TikTok as a platform for widespread activism was most notable in November 2019 when 17-year-old Feroza Aziz (user @getmefamouspartthree) posted a video that appeared to be a makeup tutorial but quickly switched to highlighting China’s mistreatment of Uighur Muslims. This technique—baiting viewers through a particular message and then changing the focus partway through the video—has been adopted by other users but to distribute disinformation. 

For instance, IST Research conducted a deep-dive analysis into TikTok videos distributed by Cambodian user @manleyfischer873. While this user’s initial posts (less than 15%) include simple, quasi-risqué videos by Cambodian standards, recent videos use a joke or a bathing suit as clickbait before switching to anti-US themes.

IST Research downloaded all videos associated with TikTok user @manleyfischer873 and their corresponding metadata. From this data, we identified a hashtag frequently used in the video description—#votvo—and downloaded all TikTok videos containing that hashtag. This action netted around 20 videos, nearly half of which were from @manleyfischer873. The remaining video descriptions containing this hashtag were associated with TikTok user @edwinjosie54. Between these two users, most videos using #votvo in the description included disinformation.

Initial Findings

The @manleyfischer873 and @edwinjosie54 accounts appear innocuous because their videos begin with benign content (that is, content that is not radical or politically driven) to gain popularity before pushing propaganda in the second half of their videos. Both accounts use #votvo in some of their propaganda video descriptions as well as phrases in Khmer that may indicate malfeasance. These phrases include សហរដ្ឋអាមេរិក (United States in Khmer) and COVID-១៩ (COVID-19).

After manually reviewing the videos with #votvo in the description, we identified multiple mentions of the United States, biological laboratories, and COVID-19. For instance, “Chikungya fever” was mentioned in connection with US Medical Research Unit No. 2. This site likely refers to US Naval Medical Research Unit–2 (NAMRU–2), a biomedical research lab for studying infectious diseases of potential military significance in Asia. Both users mention NAMRU–2 in connection with a protest held at the site. Further, @manleyfischer873 and @edwinjosie54 pushed calls for action, rallying viewers to speak out against NAMRU–2. The videos distributed by these users also include narratives that suggest a biology lab in the United States leaked COVID-19.

Though most of @edwinjosie54‘s videos do not have English subtitles, these videos contain images of Fort Detrick and Dugway proving grounds that attempt to depict these sites as highly classified biological laboratories.

Examples

Figures 1 and 2 are screenshots from anti-US / COVID-19 disinformation videos disseminated by @manleyfischer87 that contain #votvo in the description. These videos begin with a game before switching to propaganda around seven (7) seconds into the video. This user includes both Khmer and English text, which potentially signals an intent to reach an audience outside Cambodia.

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Figure 1. @manleyfischer87 TikTok video; 1,018 plays at the time of this report. 

Video caption: “There are 13 biosecurity Level 4 (P4) laboratories in operation, expansion or planning.”

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Figure 2. @manleyfischer87 TikTok video; 2,399 plays at the time of this report. 

Initial video caption: “Uncomfortable nucleic acid test.”

Follow-on video caption: “The United States has set up the Naval Medical Research Unit No. 2 in Phnom Penh.”

Future Direction

Our analytic at IST Research intends to extract the text from videos of interest to assess their narratives and identify additional US sites used in COVID-19 disinformation. This first iteration will focus on extracting the English text. Included in future analysis will be Khmer and other non-Latin based languages.

The IST Research Pulse platform can currently scrape the open, deep, and dark web and select social media platforms (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, Telegram, VKontakte, and YouTube). As we are conditioned to evolve concurrent with the digital ecosystem; our team of analysts and data scientists is investigating data collection opportunities across various internet-based programs–to include TikTok, historical Instagram data, WeChat, and Weibo.