Vietnam’s Ambitious Politicians: In Facebook We Trust

Facebook poses a challenge to American lawmakers seeking to rein it in. In authoritarian countries such as Vietnam, however, the social media giant has become a handy accomplice and even a springboard for ambitious politicians.

Construction workers rest along a sidewalk in Hanoi on 29 September 2020. (Photo: Nhac Nguyen, AFP)
Dien Nguyen An Luong

Dien Nguyen An Luong

28 October 2020

A decade ago, observers witnessing the dramatic events unfolding in Egypt and Tunisia might have worried about the ripple effect of social media – chiefly Facebook – that could trigger Arab-style uprisings. Since then, however, a growing body of evidence has shown that the role of social media as a force for democratisation has been somewhat hyped up. In fact, authoritarian governments such as China, Hungary and Russia have become increasingly skilled at exploiting it to their advantage.

This is certainly the case in Vietnam. While American lawmakers may well have almost given up on reining in California-based Facebook, the social media giant has proven to be extremely compliant to Vietnamese politicians on various fronts.

It is an open secret that Vietnamese authorities have become increasingly adept at using Facebook as a yardstick to gauge public sentiment; they have also browbeat the social media giant into abetting online censorship. But there is a more insidious and significant pattern: in a country whose leaders once frowned upon it, Facebook has morphed from a perceived major threat into a handy political accomplice or even possibly a career springboard for the authorities.

Since 2019, it has become a standard routine for Vietnam’s Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Manh Hung to use the parliamentary floor to brag about how he has been able to rein in Western social media platforms, in particular Facebook.

Just this month, Hung told the National Assembly, Vietnam’s legislature, in a report that social media companies have entertained government requests at “the highest level ever”. A major highlight in the report is that Facebook’s compliance rate has skyrocketed to 95 per cent of the Vietnamese government’s requests to remove content – significantly higher than the 70-75 per cent range a year earlier. Notably, the number of posts Facebook helped to block or restrict also snowballed by 500 per cent to around 2,000 in 2020, compared to the previous year.

A recent Los Angeles Times feature … offers a detailed glimpse into how Facebook, facing shutdown threats by the Vietnamese authorities, has repeatedly failed to practice what it preaches about protecting free speech, by toeing the party line in censoring dissent.

The content removal centred around what had in the past made social media a bête noire of the authorities: anti-government propaganda. Facebook argues that such content removal stems from the urgency to respond to the global clamour for the tech industry to be more proactive in curbing misinformation. The social media giant has in fact bristled at accusations that its content removals were politically driven, citing its “community standards” to justify such take-downs. The fact is that it is not easy to judge whether Facebook has actually removed political content that should otherwise not have been taken down.

But evidence of the social media giant increasingly conniving with the Vietnamese government to squash dissenting voices keeps piling up. A recent Los Angeles Times feature underscored the transactional nature of a social media platform that prizes above all else the lure of a market where size matters. It offers a detailed glimpse into how Facebook, facing shutdown threats by the Vietnamese authorities, has repeatedly failed to practice what it preaches about protecting free speech, by toeing the party line in censoring dissent.  

In fact, Facebook’s complicity in the crackdown on anti-government content online is likely to enable Hung to score major political points in an apparatus where he is still young enough to be groomed for higher positions. The 58-year-old politician is the archetypal bad-cop in Vietnam’s online censorship scheme that consists of a calibrated mixture of toleration, responsiveness and repression.

At this, Vietnam’s sitting Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has been the perfect foil to Hung in his role as the good cop. In May 2016, Vietnamese Facebookers launched a major protest against the toxic discharge from Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics’ steel plant on the central coast. The incident was the country’s worst-ever environmental catastrophe in decades. Phuc’s newly-installed government wasted no time in appearing to be accommodating to public demands, forcing Formosa to accept its responsibility and ordering the Taiwanese group to pay US$500 million in damages to affected fishermen.

Since then, Phuc and what has been billed as an “enabling government” have become increasingly wary of public sentiment online and tried to be as responsive to it as they could. Just last week, a Vietnamese pop singer was able to raise over US$4.3 million for flood-ravaged victims in the central region. There was, however, a controversy online over the legitimacy of the funds. Almost immediately, Phuc called for the quick clearing of any legal hurdles that could stand in the way of such philanthropic activities. The move has earned him widespread kudos on social media.

Phuc and Hung are both aiming for higher places. If their ambitions are materialised when the new leadership is confirmed early next year, the role of Facebook is something that will not be discounted. This is no small feat for a social media giant which was built on the edifice of protecting free speech.

Mr Dien Nguyen An Luong is a Visiting Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/169

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.