When logging onto Minds, an open-source social media platform, it is hard to miss the huge number of posts written in Vietnamese.
Of the platform’s over one million users, about 10% hail from Vietnam, according to recent media reports. What’s more, roughly 100,000 of those Vietnamese users signed up in the period of just one week, the reports said.
That number is set to grow as internet users in the authoritarian nation seek out new secure online communication platforms after the ruling Communist Party passed a new cybersecurity law last month that requires big technology companies like Google and Facebook to open domestic offices and store their users’ data locally.
They will also be expected to censor any offending content within 24 hours of being asked by a ministry. That means “there is now no safe place left in Vietnam for people to speak freely,” said Clare Algar, Amnesty International’s director of global operations, in a statement.
Securing the internet under the new law, which takes effect in January 2019, means restricting content that authorities deem as “propaganda against the state,” a catch-all term that has landed scores of activists, dissidents and writers in prison over the years for criticizing the Party and its policies.
Some of the major tech firms – including Facebook and Google, the country’s most popular websites – reportedly tried to lobby Hanoi against certain caveats last year, but since the law has now been passed it remains unclear whether they will abide with it.
There are unconfirmed rumors that Facebook has already setup hundreds of data servers inside Vietnam. For years, Vietnam’s persecuted independent journalists referred to bloggers as “Facebookers” because it was their preferred secure platform for disseminating their news.
Earlier this month, Information and Communications Minister Truong Minh Tuan boasted that during the first six months of this year Facebook has deleted roughly 1,000 posts that were considered in violation of local laws and deactivated 137 accounts that “slandered” the Party, according to media reports.
Activists confirmed to Asia Times that some of their Facebook posts have been erased without any explanation from the US-based social media giant. (Tuan was removed from his position this week for apparently unrelated reasons.)
In response, over 10,000 Vietnamese Facebook users called on its chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg in an online petition this month to publicly reveal information about Facebook’s working relationship with Hanoi. If no reply was received by September, the petition said, then they would consider boycotting the platform outright.
They now have allies in a bipartisan group of almost two dozen US lawmakers, led by Christopher Smith, a Republican, and Democrats Alan Lowenthal and Zoe Lofgren, all of whom co-chair Congress’s Vietnam caucus.
An open letter signed by the lawmakers called on Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, to “refrain from storing user data within Vietnam” and to publish the number of requests from Hanoi for content removal, among other demands. They also said Congress would diplomatically support the tech firms if they did so.
“Companies like Google and Facebook have tremendous market appeal in Vietnam, they have both an opportunity and a moral obligation to promote free expression and other human rights in Vietnam and to push back against the limitation of those freedoms by the new cybersecurity law,” said Congressman Smith in a statement.
It remains unclear if Facebook has already handed over the personal details of users to Vietnam’s Communist Party-led government. But the US lawmaker letter mentions reports that Facebook and Google removed user accounts in California and Germany after requests by the Vietnamese government.
In one sense, Vietnamese activists and campaigners are right to think they would be better off sharing information on platforms like Minds, which encrypts private messages and doesn’t require users to provide personal data (unlike Facebook) which can be given to authorities.
These same privacy concerns motivated some Vietnamese activists last year to transition from Facebook to encrypted instant-messaging apps like Signal when speaking to journalists or conversing with each other.
Leaving Facebook completely behind, however, will be difficult. That’s because Facebook allows activists to distribute information freely and easily to millions of Vietnamese, many of whom would not be aware of political or social problems if it wasn’t for their online messages.
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 48% of Vietnamese use social media as their primary source of news. That figure rises to 81% for those aged between 18 and 29, a demographic that makes up roughly a fifth of the population.
Facebook is by far Vietnam’s most popular social media platform, with roughly 53 million users out of a population of 96 million. Vietnam has been one of Facebook’s fastest growing markets worldwide in recent years.
But even if the number of Vietnamese users of Minds, for instance, continues to rise, it may take months if not years until it has a fraction of the number of users that Facebook currently boasts. That means a much smaller, fragmented audience for sharing information critical of the Communist Party regime.
One human rights activist who requested anonymity said this is a dilemma for the growing movement that is agitating for multi-party democracy and promotion of human rights. Do they endanger their own safety for the sake of reaching a larger audience, the activist asks, or cut back from raising awareness of issues for security reasons?
Some have attempted to mitigate the risk through a division of labor. The more secure platforms like Signal or Minds are used when it comes to more risky information, while Facebook is still used for sharing blog posts and news articles.
Still, more prominent activists on social media are defiant. Nguyen Chi Tuyen, a well-known human rights defender who goes by the online name “Anh Chi,” says he still uses Facebook as well as Minds, on which his channel has attracted 15,000 subscribers and surpassed 1,000,000 views after just three weeks.
“We don’t fear of the so-called cybersecurity law at all,” he says, adding that he is confident that activists won’t lose their audiences even if they switch to other social media platforms.
“The main reason we choose Minds and other platforms is that we got sick of Facebook for having recently taken down many statuses and stories on our accounts without reasons or vague reasons,” he says.
“And we want to send a message to Facebook that we, the users, have the right to choose and are the ones to make the social media become valuable.”
Between fear and defiance lies the fact that social media in Vietnam is becoming a cluttered public space. Pro-human rights and democratic liberal groups are only one of many protest movements active on Facebook. Some well-followed social media voices, mostly those in the diaspora, openly call from the re-establishment of Republic of Vietnam, the anti-communist South that fell to the North in 1975.
Others, known as “red flag nationalists,” are forming more organized groups that demand even greater censorship by the government and for the Party to return to its historic socialist values, which they reckon it has gone soft on in recent years.
The Party has its own social media voices who are paid and backed by the state, often referred to as “opinion-shapers,” or dư luận viên. Meanwhile, a 10,000-strong cyber-warfare unit of the military, dubbed Force 47, is tasked with spreading pro-Party propaganda and flagging content for authorities to investigate.
It is thought to be responsible for several Facebook user accounts being deactivated.
The Party appears to have a two-step plan for dominating the online sphere: censor content of its critics and at the same time try to promote its message on social media. There are certain indications that the Party’s public relations machine is getting better at shaping online opinion.
One case in point were the nationwide protests that erupted in early June over the government’s plans to introduce new special economic zones (SEZs) that many thought would sell Vietnamese land to China, the country’s historic enemy. Many also protested the new cybercrime law.
The Party’s public relations machine, from state-media to aligned Facebook users said that the government actually supported some of the demonstrations but the violent scenes witnessed in several provinces were the result of “anti-state” radicals who had “taken advantage of people’s sentiments,” as state-owned Vietnam News put it.
As proof, they pointed to the events in Binh Thuan, a southeast coastal province, where some protesters attacked the local People’s Committee with Molotov cocktails. Many people sympathetic to the protests were actually won over by the Party’s message, analysts say.
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc publicly said that elements of the SEZ leases would be amended, while the National Assembly, which was voting on it at the time of the protests, delayed its adjudications until later this year. While some saw this as the Party being forced to stop its plans, its public relations machine claimed on Facebook and other media that it was evidence of Vietnamese democracy at work.