People using smartphones to check the Internet over wifi at a coffee shop in Hanoi.

People using smartphones to check the Internet over wifi at a coffee shop in Hanoi. With internet penetration at 70 per cent by January 2020 in Vietnam, the online space is becoming the key propaganda battleground. (Photo: Hoang Dinh Nam, AFP)

Cyberspace: Vietnam’s Next Propaganda Battleground?

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Keeping control of the cyber-space floodgates while not alienating the social media savvy youth is difficult.

In late 2017, Lieutenant General Nguyen Trong Nghia, then deputy director of the military’s general political department, grabbed international headlines by officially unveiling Vietnam’s 10,000-strong military cyber unit. The unit, dubbed Force 47 and backed by the Ministry of National Defense, is tasked with countering any “wrongful opinions” about the regime online.

Just last week, in another surprise yet more low-key move, Nghia was installed as the new head of the Central Propaganda Department, the top propaganda organ responsible for dictating the party line to all state-run print, broadcast, online, and electronic media. Speaking on the sidelines of the Party Congress – a five-yearly event during which the new leadership lineup is picked – in late January, Nghia highlighted the crucial task of controlling cyber-space, calling it the “mission on a new territory” for the military.

The appointment of the military general behind the creation of their cyber unit as the Party’s new propaganda czar is testament to how the Party seeks to marshal itself on all fronts to shield the regime from what the authorities perceive as anti-state contents. For a regime that prizes political stability above all else, this task apparently has never been more important and difficult than in this era of swelling social media.

The entrenched focus on curbing anti-state content online has shaped how Vietnamese authorities have deployed censorship strategies to achieve the dual goal of creating a superficial appearance of openness online while maintaining control over online discourse.

This began even before the Internet was turned on in Vietnam. In December 1996, to get approval for the arrival of the Internet a year later, its crusaders reportedly had to prove to Vietnam’s top leaders that pornographic websites could be blocked. The need to censor pornographic content, however, belied the greater concern: that the Internet would open the floodgates of anti-government propaganda and facilitate a freer flow of information, which would pose major threats to the legitimacy of Communist Party rule.

In the early days of the Internet in Vietnam, Vietnamese authorities publicly pointed their fingers at pornography and other sexually explicit content as a legitimate rationale for reining in the Internet, citing official figures that 90 per cent of young Internet users had accessed such content online. Warning against the prospect of the Internet becoming a conduit for “erroneous or harmful news content [and] pornographic materials”, a deputy minister of culture and information was upfront: “If online information is not controlled well, it can [have] a bad influence.”

However, according to a OpenNet Initiative report, despite their public platitudes about cracking down on adult content websites, Vietnamese authorities blocked very little pornographic content between 2005 to 2006. Instead, the censors concentrated on what they perceived as politically and religiously sensitive sites that host anti-state content such as coverage of corruption, ethnic unrest, and political opposition.

From 2001 to 2005, regulatory actions against content under the category of “fine tradition and custom”, including pornography, were eclipsed by those under the “national security” category.

Since 2017 Facebook and Google’s YouTube, the two most popular social media platforms in Vietnam, have publicly released the number of items that Vietnamese authorities have asked them to restrict access to. According to both platforms, the majority of the restricted or removed items were related to “government criticism” or ones that “oppose the Communist Party and the Government of Vietnam”.

With internet penetration at 70 per cent and social media penetration at 67 per cent by January 2020 in Vietnam the online space is becoming the key propaganda battleground. The Party’s dual challenge of defining what is and controlling anti-state content while calibrating their online use and control to engage the Vietnamese youth is becoming more important and more difficult. Younger Vietnamese account for a major portion of the country’s social media users and are its heaviest and most reliant users.

According to both platforms, the majority of the restricted or removed items were related to “government criticism” or ones that “oppose the Communist Party and the Government of Vietnam”.

Reflecting the difficulty of this dual challenge, Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong has bemoaned the political apathy among “a segment” of Vietnamese youth, saying that they were hoodwinked by “hostile forces” into doing things “that run counter to the Party and the country’s direction.” A 2020 survey by the British Council showed that almost 4 out of 5 Vietnamese youths polled said they had “no engagement” with the country’s politics.

Against this backdrop, the Covid-19 pandemic is an illuminating case study of how Vietnam’s public communications strategies succeeded in making the most of social media platforms to reach out to the public – young people included – and enlist their support.

In the post-pandemic era, honing the Party’s message online to appeal to the growing cadres of social media-savvy youth is likely to pose a more daunting challenge for the propaganda apparatus.

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