The ability of coercing American tech giants like Facebook into compliance is definitely a talking point to brag for the Vietnamese leaders. In October 2019, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated that “Facebook stands for free expression. In a democracy, a private company shouldn’t have the power to censor politicians or the news.” However, Facebook’s double standard is no novelty. In August 2019, the Minister of Information and Communications, Nguyen Manh Hung took the parliamentary floor and stated that Facebook was restricting access to “increasing amounts” of content in Vietnam. Further, Hung stated that Facebook was complying with 70-75% of the Vietnamese government’s requests for post restrictions. In October 2020, this number went up to 95% for Facebook. Facebook acknowledged that the amount of content on which restrictions were imposed jumped by over 500% in the second half of 2018 alone.
Unlike China, Vietnam has adopted a relatively open attitude to western social media. Vietnamese politicians consider social media beneficial, perhaps it helps the promotion of their missions, personal agendas and even propagandas. In fact, Vietnam happens to have a military unit—called Force 47—with the purpose to correct “wrong views” on the internet. Whereas, there is no set set definition of the “wrong views,” people—if found guilty—can be jailed upto 20 years.
Furthermore, blocking western social media might not be in the self-interest of Vietnam, as doing so can hamper relations with the U.S.—with whom Vietnam desires to strengthen ties. The top communist strata of Vietnam for decades, have been single-minded on what they identify as “toxic information”. The definition of “toxic information” has only broadened over the years and has enabled the authorities to bend the term as per their whims. Vietnamese leaders have misused the threat of “toxic information” by branding content unfavorable to their regime with the term.
Facebook removed over 620 supposed fake accounts, over 2,200 links and several thousand posts which are deemed to be ‘anti-state’ from Vietnam in 2020. In a country without independent media, Vietnamese people are reliant on platforms like Facebook to read and discuss vital and controversial issues such as the dispute in Dong Tam. Dong tam is a village outside Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, where residents were fighting the authorities’ plans to seize their farmlands in order to build a factory. 40-year-old Bui Van Thuan, a chemistry teacher and blogger, showed his solidarity to the fight and condemned the country’s leaders in one of his Facebook posts which stated “Your crimes will be engraved on my mind. I know you, the land robbers, will do everything, however cruel it is, to grab the people’s land.” On government’s insistence, Facebook blocked his account the very next day preventing over 60-million Vietnamese users from seeing his posts. A day later, Dong tam village was stormed by police with grenades and tear gas. A village leader and three officers were killed just as Thuan had anticipated. Thuan’s account remained suspended for three months after which Facebook informed him that the ban would be permanent. “We have confirmed that you are not eligible to use Facebook,” the message read in Vietnamese. Towards the end of murder trial held over the clash, a Facebook spokesperson said Thuan’s account was blocked due to an error and the timing of the lifting of restrictions was coincidental. The spokesperson denied censoring profiles as per the demands of the government. Thuan’s blacklisting illustrates how willingly Facebook submits to the authoritarian government’s censorship demands.
In April 2018, 16 activist groups and media organizations and 34 well-known Facebook users wrote an open letter to the CEO Mark Zuckerberg, accusing Facebook of assisting Vietnam to suppress dissenting voices. Force 47 or E47, a 10,000-member cyber unit was singled out in the letter. The letter called the unit “state-sponsored trolls” that spread misinformation about the Vietnamese pro-democracy activists.
Force 47 was deployed in 2016 by the state to maintain a “healthy” internet environment. The cyber unit took advantage of the very apparent loophole in Facebook’s community guidelines which automatically removes content if enough people lodge a complaint or report the post/account. The letter alleged that the government used Force 47 to target and suspend accounts or content.
According to a report by The Intercept, the modus operandi of E47 is that a member shares a target who is often a pro-democratic political dissident writer or activist. The information of the target who is nominated for censorship is accompanied with an image of the target with a red “X” marked over it. Anyone interested in victimizing the target needs to just report the account or post for violating Facebook’s pliant community standards regardless of whether the rules were actually broken. The E47 users are asked to rate the targeted page one out of five stars, falsely flag the post and report the page itself.
Do Nguyen Mai Khoi, a singer and a pro-democracy activist, popularly known as “the Lady Gaga of Vietnam” has been tirelessly trying for over two years to get Facebook to care about the censorship in Vietnam. She has tried to get Facebook’s attention to the fact that groups like Force 47, a pro-government Facebook group of police, military, and other Communist party loyalists have actively been collaborating to suppress the voice of dissidents both offline and online. Her evidence has been substantial and her arguments carry ample clarity. Despite several interactions with Alex Warofka, a Facebook product policy manager for human rights, Mai khoi’s efforts have not been sincerely addressed. Instead, what they claimed was more infuriating. They said “We were not able to identify a sufficient level of community standards violations in order to remove that particular group (E47) or those particular actors.” Since E47 actors are under real names, photos and authentic identities, Facebook dismissed Mai Khoi’s evidence. “At a high level, we require both widespread coordination, as well as the use of inauthentic accounts and identity,” Warofka told Khoi.
Dipayan Ghosh, a former public policy advisor at Facebook and the co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School stated:
“I think for Zuckerberg the calculus with Vietnam is clear: It’s to maintain service in a country that has a huge population and in which Facebook dominates the consumer internet market, or else a competitor may step in. The thought process for the company is not about maintaining service for free speech. It’s about maintaining service for the revenue.”
It wouldn’t be surprising to note that the inconsistency of Facebook’s ostensible community guidelines and policies extend beyond Vietnam. In 2016, during the time of political unrest in Turkey, access to Facebook and other social media were repeatedly restricted and further complied to the Turkish government’s request to restrict 1,823 pieces of content which the government deemed unlawful. In 2018, Facebook owned Instagram complied with demands of the Russian government to remove content related to opposition activist Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption investigation therefore making it inaccessible for over 5 million users who watched and followed Navalny’s investigation. Facebook also routinely restricts posts that governments deem sensitive or off-limits in countries including Cuba, India, Israel, Morocco and Pakistan.
While the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, claims that the platform protects free expression, Facebook has been an active facilitator and flag-bearer of autocratic regimes. The social media giant’s apparent indifference and ignorance has failed its users terribly.