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Online Political Discourse in Cambodia: Does Facebook Serve as a Public Sphere or the Spiral of Silence?

Seyha Chan

The University of Melbourne

With the emergence of web-as-participation platforms, social media such as Facebook allows users to discuss public opinion for political and social changes in both small groups and the public sphere. To understand whether Facebook is a free without-fear public sphere, this study aimed to investigate the attitudes and behaviours of Facebook users toward political opinion expression on the political Facebook platform called Politikoffee. To address this research gap, this study focused on Cambodian Politikoffee participants aged between 18 and 33, who are considered active tech-savvy and public activists. The data were collected through digital ethnography on the Politikoffee Facebook platforms and in-depth semi-structured interviews with 8 respondents. To gain comprehensive insights into the attitudes and behaviours of Facebook users toward political opinion expression, the results were analysed in conjunction with the ‘Spiral of Silence Theory’. The spiral of silence theory suggests that users tend to express their genuine ideas when they feel the majority supports their opinion. In contrast, they might remain silent if they realise only a small social group upholds their idea because they fear social isolation. In examining whether Facebook serves as a free and fear-free public sphere, the study discovered that Facebook users were concerned about online political discourse due to socio-psychological factors, including 1) the restriction of freedom of expression, 2) the fear of political arrest, 3) the prevalence of political nepotism, 4) worries about digital surveillance, 5) concerns about digital footprint, 6) political knowledge deficiency, and 7) the traumatising effects of civil war, which can trigger their self-censorship.



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