How Social Media is Transforming Việt Nam’s Sociopolitical Space

Published May 2, 2015 in Episode 2

Giang: Hi Trinh.

Trinh: Hi Giang.

Giang: So you've done some research into the numbers of internet users in Việt Nam, specifically people using social media. The numbers are just astounding!

Trinh: Việt Nam has a population of 93 Million. It has an internet user base approaching 40 million. Of those 40 million users, there are 30 million on Facebook. This is quite amazing considering in 2008, Facebook in Việt Nam had about 100,000 users and a lot of people were dealing with a block set by the government. So looking at internet penetration, around 40 percent of the population are online. This is more than the Philippines and Thailand, which is quite significant.

Giang: And it sounds like Facebook is one of the most popular social media sites. When people use social media in Việt Nam, what kind of pages do they visit, how do they use it?

Trinh: Like anywhere around the world, the pages with the most likes are celebrities and brands. We have our own Angelina Jolie for Việt Nam but for the paper we focused on pages such as non-state media. The numbers behind BBC Vietnamese, Voice of America (the Vietnamese service) and Radio Free Asia were quite significant because the likes of these pages surpass state media. That gives you a snapshot into people's thinking, that people understand they can go on Facebook and read posts from the BBC and like and comment on it versus going to local media.

Giang: I'm looking at the report right now and you have numbers here on BBC Vietnamese: more than one million people have subscribed to that page, more than 660,000 on VOA Vietnamese and Radio Free Asia: 200,000. That's quite significant.

Trinh: If you compare that to Thanh Niên or Tuổi Trẻ (Vietnamese newspapers), you'll see that BBC is much more popular than local media.

Giang: What are the numbers on other pages like citizens journalists pages and other activists groups?

Trinh: If you take a look in the citizen journalist group you'll notice that Radio New Horizon has about 200,000 likes. That is quite significant as we wanted to show the rise of citizen media. There is a consciousness and awareness amongst Vietnamese people that there are alternative sources to media in Việt Nam.

Giang: You talked a little about social media versus mainstream media. Can you talk about the push and pull, this kind of competition that exists between social media and mainstream media in Việt Nam?

Trinh: So for Việt Nam, social media has definitely pushed mainstream media to be more responsive to issues that are politically sensitive. Often times state media has picked up on stories that began online. This is interesting because for state media there are certain no-go areas: human rights, reporting on political dissent or popular movements. A good example of this is last year, there were two individuals slated to be executed in Việt Nam. A citizen media outlet, the Việt Nam Redemptorists’ News, they did an investigation on this and found that the charges and prosecution of this case was a bit suspect and certainly raised some questions regarding the execution. State media caught onto it, leading to those executions being commuted. And now there is an ongoing investigation into the entire case itself. We have never seen that before. This is a good example where mainstream media is following the coat tails  of social media.

Giang: The social media activity is creating a real problem for the Vietnamese government. In 2009 the government tried to block Facebook and failed. In 2013 they passed a law, Decree 72, that bans news on social media. Has this been successful?

Trinh: We can definitely say that Decree 72 had barely any real impact. Certainly no one has been arrested under Decree 72. The language of the law itself is quite vague and I can’t imagine there is really any real implementation. However there has been an arrest of an activist, Đinh Nhật Uy [Editor’s note: Uy was arrested under Article 258 of the Penal Code]. His charges were based on his Facebook postings and the government had charged him with “abusing his democratic freedoms” by posting online.

Giang: They specifically said Facebook postings?

Trinh: Yes. In his indictment they used his Facebook postings as evidence for his charges.

Giang: Besides Decree 72, what kind of tactics has the government employed against social media activists?

Trinh: If you are a Facebook user in Việt Nam you are quite familiar with this phenomenon of pro-regime commentators. They flood the commenting space with threats, harassment and crowd out regular commentators. They're called dư luận viên, which translates to public opinion shapers. I like to call them government-sponsored trolls.

The reason for that is that in 2013, the Party’s head of Propaganda and Education Department admitted to hiring these people. He went on record to say they hired 1000 of these individuals to "fight online hostile forces". For Facebook here it is a really great space for freedom of expression, for association.  But then the authorities have taken this as to mean freedom to abuse. They crowd the space, they render all the voices to silent, making it very difficult not only for page administrators but for other users to really engage in regular discourse.

Aside from that there is also recent examples of pro-regime or government sponsored trolls posting tips on how to take fan pages down. They actually take screenshots instructing people to report a page, essentially abusing the report button. This happened with Viet Tan's pages. We were rendered inactive for several days while we were working with Facebook to bring back our page and it wasn't only our page; it was also for other activist pages as well.

But I want to point out that you cannot trigger Facebook to take down a page. There is no magic number where, if you've surpassed 10,000 abuse reports that a page will be taken down. Facebook, like any other technology company, is made up by people and there are real life people looking at these reports.

So Decree 72 actually establishes that a company working in Việt Nam has to hire nationals, has to hire Vietnamese people. These Facebook employees and their Vietnamese nationals are looking at these take down requests and they see 10,000 abuse reports. With no context or training on this it's obviously gonna trigger the take down. That's why we want to work with companies like Facebook to really adjust their policies to make sure that the report button isn't being abused.

Giang: You also work with other Vietnamese netizens and democracy activists active on social media. What are they saying about the space that social media has created for them?

Trinh: I think you'll hear from a lot of netizens in Việt Nam that they are so happy with this space that is being given to them. A room to grow and investigate, a room to have political discourse that's not available in the real world.

We actually included a quote from a citizen journalist.  He's a priest with the Vietnamese Redemptorists’ News and he said this quote, which beautifully captured how he was feeling about social media in Việt Nam:

"The authorities are so afraid of social media's pervasive power to connect people and ideas that they have tried everything to block it. But so far they have failed and now they have to live with it."

I think that was a beautiful summary of how social media is used by them.

Giang: ...and the current space that social media has created and the challenges but also opportunities for activists as well as everybody who is supporting democracy in Vietnam.

Trinh: Correct.

Giang: Thank you very much Trinh. This has been very insightful.

Trinh: Thank you.