Is Vietnamese campaign to build a Facebook alternative fighting fake news, or fostering censorship?
While the rest of Asia is trying to keep its head above water, Vietnam has enjoyed tremendous growth in the last 7 years. The economy is booming, a lot of new money is flowing into the country, and the number of internet users has more than tripled in the last decade. According to official government figures, there are currently over 49 million internet users in Vietnam (more than half of the 95 million population) and over 45 million social media accounts. While the digital age has many advantages, it also comes with a price: freedom of speech. For a communist country such as Vietnam, this isn’t very convenient.
During a parliamentary committee meeting earlier this month, Truong Minh Tuan, Minister of Information and Communications in Vietnam, said that the government is encouraging Vietnamese tech companies to build local replacements for platforms such as Facebook and Google (which are the most popular in their categories in Vietnam). It is part of a wider campaign to “strengthen cyber security” and the integrity of the country’s information. “The plan is to try and address the problem of how ‘fake pages’ with anti-government content grew uncontrollably on Facebook,” said Tuan. “Going further, we need social networks provided by local businesses that can replace and compete with Facebook in Vietnam.”
Tuan then explained that distortions, defamations, and fabrications usually occur on international platforms such as Google, YouTube, and Facebook, while most pages “licensed in Vietnam” comply with regulations. Tuan’s ministry recently asked Google to block and remove 2,200 clips on YouTube that contained “slanderous” and “defamatory” content against Vietnamese leaders. According to public records, Google had removed nearly 1,300 such clips as of April 12.
Going the China way
Unlike China, Vietnam does not have a “Great Firewall” and does not actively block access to websites on the world wide web. But that doesn’t stop the government from trying to control the content the local population consumes.
Unlike Google, Facebook does not publish their data on when they remove pages or accounts. Therefore, there is no way of knowing which of the pages were taken down due to government requests. However, the frequency and number of the pages removed point to some level of government involvement.
According to Tuan’s statement, Vietnamese authorities do not control international sites such as Google and Facebook and cannot prevent the spread of “inaccurate information,” slander of Vietnamese leaders, or fake news that provokes enmity and hatred in the local population.
Such content, though deemed illegal by the Vietnamese government, is lawfully allowed by the countries where those websites are headquartered. Tuan also called on the mainstream media and Vietnamese social networks to ensure speedy and accurate information.
Fake news or government censorship?
While the government expresses its interest in stopping the fake pages, not many ordinary Facebook users seem to feel bothered. Over a dozen local Vietnamese residents have told Geektime that they “do not really care whether they are fake or not.” They merely care that through social networks, they have access to news that is otherwise impossible to find in official government-controlled media.
Tong Thanh Pham, a local digital activist, said on his Facebook page that it is such a ridiculous request from the government, adding that the government has used its media monopoly to speak volumes about itself for a long time. Now, thanks to social media, other voices are heard.