Facebook & Hà Nội's Relationship Status: It's Complicated

Published November 23, 2015 in Episode 31

Việt Nam’s government has had a complicated relationship with social media. The government lacked the kinds of controls over social media that they enjoyed over traditional media, so their response was to try to ban it. They targeted Facebook, the most popular social media platform in the country. Six years later, they have now reversed course and jumped onto Facebook themselves.

Their new page is called Thông Tin Chính Phủ, meaning Government Information. It debuted in early October, designed to disseminate the government’s version of the news, and now has over 56,000 likes.

The move on to Facebook may be attributed more to a sober acceptance of reality than to a tolerance of online access. Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng penned a November 19 memo that was shared on the Government Information page. In the memo titled “For a Pure and Clean Internet Environment,” the prime minister praises internet technology for the impact it has on society while encouraging the country to keep social media “pure and clean.” He promises that the government will do its part to uphold this ethical standard and to protect citizens from harmful content.

As a quick and dirty test to determine what might be considered harmful content, I posted a link to a BBC Vietnamese article on the Facebook page. The article quotes a former Vietnamese official criticizing the prime minister for being too weak in dealing with China over the South China Sea conflict. I revisited the Facebook page the next day to find my post, and its replies, deleted. And my experience wasn’t unique.

A Bloomberg article quotes a comment posted to the page: “This government information page is full of applause, supportive comments. Contrary opinions are all deleted and blocked. So is there freedom of speech?” That comment was also deleted.

How awkward.

Here are four things to know about this Facebook friendship.

1. Hà Nội hated Facebook, before it liked Facebook.

In late 2009, Facebook was catching on quickly with Vietnamese internet users. Following China’s footsteps, Việt Nam started its own campaign to ban the site. The block was unsophisticated and technically easy to circumvent. Digital activists brought awareness to this clumsy censorship with a satirical video titled “Bring Facebook Back.”

Savvy Internet users began to teach others to get around the block, rendering it relatively ineffective. The government continues to deny they were behind the ban.

2. Resistance is futile.

According to the government’s latest numbers, half of Việt Nam’s 92 million population are online. And nearly 30 million of those log onto Facebook daily. Some have been using Facebook to rally others to get behind causes they care about. The latest example is an online page calling for Hà Nội to rescind the November 5 invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Việt Nam.

It took six years, since the beginning of the attempted ban on Facebook, for Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng to admit that social media cannot be banned. Addressing high-level government officials earlier this year, he urged them to use social media to compete with dissenting messages instead:

“All of you sitting here are on social media, checking Facebook for information. How can we ensure the information is correct, since it is impossible for us to ban social media? We must give correct and timely information to guide opinion. Regardless of what is being said on the internet, people will believe official information from the government.”

3. Health comes first.

Health Minister Nguyễn Thị Kim Tiến became the first government official to create a Facebook page. Her page was launched in March of this year, following public outcry over her handling of a 2014 measles outbreak that killed over 100 Vietnamese, many of whom were children. The government was criticized for not being proactive enough in bringing the outbreak to the public’s attention and left many unaware as to how to respond to the spread of the disease. Angry citizens went on social media to call for her resignation and prompted a rare acknowledgement from Prime Minister Dũng on the government’s failure in dealing with the outbreak. While Health Minister Tiến still holds her position, Việt Nam News reported that she would “receive public opinion through social media.”

4. The “Government Information” Facebook page opens a new chapter for activists and digital freedom advocates.

Michael Gray, Việt Nam Program Director for The SecDev Foundation, tells Loa that advocates for freedom of expression should find opportunity amid the propaganda. He outlines three steps:

  1. Lead by example in terms of active use of social media.

  2. Directly advocate for the government to publish guidelines that will help state offices use social media in a productive manner.

  3. Civil society organizations can interact with and train government offices on developing social media strategies.

“If we don’t see civil society taking a stand at trying to advocate for an improved, stronger use of social media by state offices, then I think what we will see is just the continuation of the kind of dry reposting press release style use of social media,” says Gray.

Looking back, what we have seen is that Việt Nam’s connected population can compel the government to change their policies and approaches. Há Nội’s Facebook pages may very well be an opening for meaningful engagement between the people and government officials.