Facebook Falls in Line for Vietnam Censors

Profit first for Zuckerberg

By: David Brown

When I phoned her, Giao Chi was winding up a 14-hour workday, spent connecting with staff and editing and posting stories. She is the heart and soul of an independent Vietnamese language news and commentary website accessed daily by hundreds of thousands of readers.

Most readers are in Vietnam. Others are in countries where anti-Communist refugees have settled. Hits soar into the millions when protesters hit the streets of Ho Chi Minh City (still “Saigon” to its residents), Hanoi, and other cities.

The previous day, we'd both seen a Reuters story that quoted two anonymous Facebook staffers as saying that the regime in Hanoi, and not Facebook managers, decides what content Facebook's 65 million users in Vietnam can or can’t see.

I told Giao Chi that I'm chagrined; Reuters had scored with a story that I've been sharing off and on for three years with readers of Asia Sentinel. I asked if I might write about her near-daily tiffs with Facebook “vetters,” the staff Facebook employs to detect violations of what Facebook management calls "community standards." She agreed.

I should take care to explain, Giao Chi added, that her running dispute with Facebook doesn't concern her website, which specializes in news and commentary on matters that Vietnam's mainstream media aren't allowed to cover thoroughly. It's a site with standards, she says, oriented to thoughtful critics of the Vietnamese party/state. As its masthead proclaims, it's proudly independent of any political faction.

Go-to place for discussion

For over a decade, the internet has been for Vietnamese the go-to place for discussion of current events. It's a space for questioning the state's management of incidents and issues, or for insisting that Vietnam's leaders pay attention to the views of the 93 million citizens who aren’t Communist Party members.

Since 2016, that space has been shrinking. For several reasons, only a few online Vietnamese language spaces like Giao Chi's survive.

First, it has grown much riskier to express a dissident opinion since Nguyen Phu Trong and his acolytes wrested control of the Vietnamese Communist Party from less ideologically-minded colleagues early in 2016. Even sharing a critical post on Facebook can have consequences. Perhaps the local police will stop by to admonish you, or warn your mom and dad or your boss that posts with “harmful content” or that “violate public morals” will not be tolerated. Perhaps they'll even take you down to the station and hold you there until you sign a confession.

Second, the technical capabilities of Vietnam's cybercops are now world-class. Most dissident websites aren't well enough armored to resist even a DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack, let alone sophisticated techniques that find and exploit vulnerabilities.

Reason #3 isn't unique to Vietnam: Facebook is where the action is. Two-thirds of Vietnam's 95 million people regularly sign on to the social media behemoth. As elsewhere, most just share photos and chat, but a significant minority of Vietnamese Facebook users post on politically-sensitive topics. And also as elsewhere, posts to Facebook in Vietnamese are an unmoderated free-for-all.

And fourth, Vietnamese netizens can readily access Facebook, but finding a way to Giao Chi's website and others like it, or to the Vietnamese language services of the BBC or Washington-based Radio Free Asia, requires more effort. Vietnam isn't China, however, so it's possible for ordinary citizens to breach Hanoi's firewall. In fact, a permanent feature of Giao Chi's website is a guide to doing just that, either by joining a virtual private network (VPN) or resetting their computers' DNS to an offshore server.

Giao Chi's team maintains a page on Facebook. They rely on it to drive Facebookers to the publication's website, assuring them that "this story and others like it will be found there."

She and her colleagues also harvest the best posts they find on Facebook. Some, in fact, are deliberately planted on Facebook before they are replayed on Giao Chi's site. That’s because posting comment critical of the state's management of an issue to Facebook is a relatively minor offense, not nearly as risky as collaborating with an online publication that the Hanoi authorities perceive as congenitally subversive.

If you were reading Asia Sentinel three years ago, you'd have seen "Vietnam Tightens the Screws on the Internet." That story featured a creepy illustration of a hacker in a hoodie, illuminated only by the grey glare of a PC, and reported, inter alia, that "the social media giants [have] yielded to Vietnam’s new leaders. Google and Facebook saved face by asserting that they’d decide whether to take down a post based on their own 'community standards.' In practice, however, they’ve been quick to oblige [Hanoi's censors], and often agree also to suspend or cancel the accounts of dissidents who persist in posting content that the regime alleges is obnoxious or defamatory."

Pressured to let Hanoi's cyber police decide what's OK and what's not, both Facebook and YouTube have bit by bit abandoned any pretense of applying their own criteria, what Facebook calls "community standards." Money talks, in this case the revenues that both of the US-based social media giants earn from Vietnamese advertisers who target Vietnamese customers. Vietnam is Facebook's 7th largest national market, where, in 2018, it reportedly pocketed US$235 million, fully half of Vietnam's digital advertising revenue. In the spring of 2019, and again this spring, the Hanoi regime demonstrated that it could dry up advertising revenues. Facebook didn't become a US$600 billion dollar enterprise by ignoring such signals, and that's the sense of the Reuters report.

In Giao Chi's corner of the internet, Hanoi's trolls flag just enough posts to her publication's Facebook page to keep it in permanent "risk of being unpublished.” More often than not the complaints they lodge are farcical, but insofar as Giao Chi can tell, Facebook doesn't argue with Hanoi. Nor does it tell her which content is deemed unacceptable or why. Instead, she says, Facebook simply admonishes Giao Chi for these alleged violations and, when they number five or more, it suspends her right to post again for a month or more.

Giao Chi doesn't quit. She has found ways to work around Facebook punishments. She can also rely on a couple of NGOs for help. One helps her beat back DDOS attacks and attempts to eavesdrop on her dialogue with colleagues in Vietnam. Another intercedes with Facebook on the publication's behalf, and occasionally embarrasses Facebook into doing the right thing with respect to suspensions.

Ideologues in charge

Vietnam's current slate of leaders was voted into office at the Communist Party's twelfth congress early in 2016. The ideologues won, and set out to root out corruption, heresy and ideological deviation. Backed by fairly astute management of the economy by Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his colleagues in Vietnam's government (the “state” element of the term “party/state” that commonly describes the Hanoi regime), party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong's tenure has not been without merit.

Still, at this point, there must be a substantial fraction within the party that chafes at General Secretary Trong's unswerving focus on issues of members' character. Nine months ahead of the 13th party congress, it's not easy to guess whether a majority of delegates would rather see the party/state emphasize economic growth and globalization at the expense of ideology.

What we do know, however, is that more than ever since Vietnam's “reform” era began a quarter-century ago, the party/state has the technical means and, especially, the commercial clout to police its corner of the internet. Using those powers may be good for the regime, but it's bad for the country.

And that's what keeps Giao Chi and her colleagues going, day after day.

David Brown, a retired US diplomat, is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel. Editor Giao Chi's website publishes many of these in Vietnamese translation.