Look around the streets of Vietnam, and you’ll notice crowds of young people glued to their smartphone screens. Such scenes are no different from elsewhere, but here, more than in almost any other country, there’s a good chance they’re interacting on Facebook.
Statistics put Vietnam in seventh place for its number of Facebook users, with 64 million accounts out of a population of nearly 93 million. In Southeast Asia, only Indonesia and the Philippines have more users. YouTube is also hugely popular among Vietnamese internet users. This means tens of millions of Vietnamese are accessing news and information online without having to go through state-backed news outlets, though major newspapers such as VnExpress and Tuoi Tre have large online followings.
Recent stories have highlighted the stark divide between news reported by foreign publications and the state press. Last August Trinh Xuan Thanh, a former government official seeking asylum in Germany, was kidnapped by Vietnamese agents in central Berlin and ferreted back to Hanoi to stand trial for corruption. State newspapers reported Germany’s allegations, but stressed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ assertions that Thanh had voluntarily turned himself in. In the pre-Facebook era, few in Vietnam would have known better, but articles featuring detailed accounts of the kidnapping from publications such as The New York Times and Reuters were widely shared on Facebook.
Aware of this challenge to their domination over the flow of information, Vietnam’s government has taken action: over the past six months officials have ramped up both their rhetoric and proposed actions against social media. The Ministry of Public Security introduced draft legislation in November which would require foreign tech companies such as Facebook and Google to set up servers inside Vietnam. This would have theoretically allowed the government to better monitor the flow of information across these networks and track certain users or posts. The proposal was recently dropped, but Google, in particular, is still facing official pressure to establish an office in the country so that the internet giant can better respond to requests from the government.
This phrase—”wrong views”—covers a broad range of discussion topics, from advocating for democracy to criticising economic policies
Truong Minh Tuan, the Minister of Information and Communications, has also voiced his displeasure with Facebook’s alleged failure to remove content which the government considers “toxic”. Facebook responded a month later by deleting 159 anti-government accounts, while throughout 2017 Google removed 6,423 of the 7,140 videos that Vietnamese officials had flagged on YouTube.
Perhaps the most striking move regarding Vietnam’s internet, which is classified by Freedom House as “Not Free”, was the December revelation of Force 47. This 10,000-member cyber warfare unit has been tasked with countering “wrong” views online, but their exact mandate and scope is unclear.
According to Reuters, Lieutenant General Nguyen Trong Nghia, deputy head of the military’s political department, told a conference in Ho Chi Minh City: “In every hour, minute, and second we must be ready to fight proactively against the wrong views.” This phrase—”wrong views”—covers a broad range of discussion topics, from advocating for democracy to criticising economic policies.
Facebook hoaxes are not new to Vietnam, but strident official reactions to them are
It’s not uncommon to see Vietnamese Facebook or Twitter users blame communism or the government for the country’s maladies, but this harder line on social media could change that.
Some Facebook users have even been punished recently for harmless posts, such as a young man who claimed it was snowing in a town that never sees snow, or a phone shop owner who compared holiday decorations in a Mekong Delta city to women’s underwear. Facebook hoaxes are not new to Vietnam, but strident official reactions to them are.
All of these actions received extensive coverage in Vietnam’s English- and Vietnamese-language press, but the reaction of the populace has been relatively muted.
“I don’t really worry about it,” says Diep Nguyen, who has run businesses in Ho Chi Minh City through both Facebook and Instagram. “I think it will change, but we will find a way. Sometimes when it’s a very sensitive time and Facebook and Instagram are blocked, you can always use a VPN.”
Vietnam has demonstrated both its capability and willingness to shut down social media. Following an enormous environmental disaster involving the Taiwanese company Formosa Plastics on the north-central coast in April 2016—several poor coastal provinces were devastated by a steel mill chemical release which wiped out fish stocks—protestors took to the streets around the country. The government allowed the demonstrations at first, but cracked down once anger turned towards the country’s leadership.
Facebook, YouTube and Instagram were blocked for several successive weekends, though Twitter, which is not widely used by Vietnamese, remained available. Once the protests ended, access to all social media sites returned to normal. This was the first time in recent memory that multiple social networks were completely blocked at the same time.
Thinh Pham, an entrepreneur based in Ho Chi Minh City, sees these actions as a cautionary tale. “It’s not something I’m thinking about, but I can totally see them doing it,” he says. “I talked to a couple of people and they brought that [blocking Facebook] up and said, ‘Oh, there’s no way they could do it,’ but they can.”
But while the government’s actions in mid-2016 demonstrated its ability to block access to social media platforms like Facebook, it might be too late for them to make this a permanent policy.
“Many Vietnamese get their news from the internet that the government just can’t control,” says Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington D.C. who specialises in Southeast Asian political and security issues. “They know that if they completely cracked down and create a closed internet like China that people would be on the warpath.”
Zalo, a privately-owned messaging app, is the only social media platform created in Vietnam that has attracted a respectable user base, but it still pales in comparison to its American rivals. “Vietnam does have Zalo, but I don’t use it much,” Nguyen says. “I think it’s because it’s very local, and it’s just a copy of WeChat, and only Vietnamese use it.”
The most intense digital battle this year will likely be between the Vietnamese government and activists who use Facebook and other platforms to shed light on issues such as corruption and environmental degradation.
For activists like Phong*, this access is key, and he too believes it’s too late for Vietnam to move against a free internet.
“I don’t worry about that,” he asserts. “The same story happened in China a long time ago, and their government… is more powerful and they have a longer vision than our government. When they saw that they could not control Facebook, they built another one, Weibo… and they forced their residents to use that platform only.”
Vietnam had tried to emulate the Chinese model, partially restricting Facebook—back when it was still fairly new to Vietnam—in the hopes of creating its own alternative native platform. “They did it back in 2008 or 2009, trying to create an indigenous alternative to Facebook and it was a dismal failure,” Abuza explains. “The government invested tens of millions of dollars and not a person used it because everyone knew why the government did it.”
Following this failure, the Vietnam government could only watch as the number of Facebook users in the country ballooned. “From that time, I always knew that they cannot do anything to prevent it anymore,” Phong says. Facebook quickly became the default site for everything from keeping in touch with your parents to shopping and keeping up with the latest news from the BBC.
He recounts the weeks following the 2016 Formosa disaster. “It was a bad time for me, my friends and family,” he says. “They did it [blocked Facebook and Instagram] because of that disaster only, but it affected lives. Our world was closed.”
They cannot prevent people from getting in touch with that data, that information, and the truth is the truth
Many people, he explains, were simply trying to go about their daily lives and weren’t involved in any protests, but their access was blocked anyway. Frustrations were voiced in personal interactions, and the fact that the disruptions were limited to weekends suggested that the government was aware of how upset people would be if access was blocked for a longer period.
“To me and many of my friends who really cared about the disaster, at that time the only thing we could do is talk about it,” Phong adds. “We wanted to talk about it and share our opinions, we wanted the government to listen to the young people.”
Phong was detained during a protest following the disaster and held with hundreds of other people for eight hours before his local police collected him. He was questioned for two more hours, though Phong says he was treated very well, and ultimately sent back home. His Facebook page is still monitored, he says, and he has received text messages from the police asking him to remove certain posts.
But even if he complies with the official requests, the news is out there in the international press. “They cannot prevent people from getting in touch with that data, that information, and the truth is the truth,” he says.
Battle lines drawn
The stage is set this year for a collision between the popularity of social media and the Vietnamese government’s desire to reign in what it sees as an unruly public space.
“You’ll probably see the government try to compel Facebook to open up offices and research centres in Vietnam physically, which will give them a little more criminal vulnerability,” Abuza says. “China has played this game with all of the internet companies for years, and more recently Indonesia forced Telegram to open up an office there so that they have some legal skin in the game if they do not comply with government laws.”
While the young Vietnamese interviewed for this story are optimistic that they won’t lose Facebook, Vietnam’s conservative leadership has consolidated power through a ruthless ongoing purge carried out under the banner of an anti-corruption drive and appears supremely confident.
Vietnam’s huge population of internet-savvy social media users has the upper hand for now, but 2018 is shaping up to be a crucial point in the country’s digital history.
* Not his real name, due to security concerns.
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Michael Tatarski is a journalist based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He focuses on the environment, urban development and social issues. Find him on Twitter @miketatarski.