A man uses a mobile phone as he sits next to empty seats with signs requiring them to stay empty for social distancing to halt the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in a boarding area at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi on November 18, 2021. (Photo: Nhac Nguyen / AFP)

Vietnam Wants to Impose News Uniformity Even in Cyberspace – at What Cost?

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Hanoi’s move to impose uniformity for print and online news media compels big technological companies to participate in taking down content that is objectionable to the authorities, but this is likely to backfire since the Vietnamese public's appetite for alternative news remains strong.

In a country where the mainstream media is already strictly controlled, the Vietnamese government is now seeking to impose news uniformity in cyberspace. This move crystallises Hanoi’s attempt to exert ever-tighter controls over the official narrative on all fronts.

According to an exclusive Reuters report, Vietnam’s government is drafting regulations that will allow it to dictate which social media accounts can post “news-related” content. Reuters said that details are expected by the end of the year. If passed as laws, these rules would serve as the official basis for Hanoi to rein in news dissemination on social media platforms, potentially enabling the authorities to order tech companies to ban any accounts found to be transgressing regulations.

If passed, the laws would attest to Vietnam’s increasingly clear moves to control the flow of news and to have a firm grip on the official narrative even in the cyber sphere. Reuters quoted an anonymous source as saying that Vietnam seeks to curb the “news-isation” of social media, a term reportedly coined by the authorities to characterise what they see as the luring of Internet users into thinking that certain social media accounts functioned as authorised news outlets.

The “news-isation” of magazines and aggregated information websites has also served as the key reason for the Vietnamese government to rein in press organisations across the country as part of a controversial shake-up since 2019. Under this plan, the government prohibits all magazines and aggregated information websites from misleading the public into thinking that they operate as news outlets. They cannot cover breaking news or any topics that are not aligned with the raison d’être of the state organisations with which they are affiliated.

The plan seeks to, among other things, augment and centralise state control over the mainstream media by axing or merging hundreds of press organisations. Hanoi aims to slash around 180 out of over 800 press organisations across the country by 2025. While the plan is legitimate to some extent, its critics have lamented that the authorities are using it as a smokescreen to crack down on news outlets perceived to be straying from the party line.

It is telling that the Vietnamese government appears confident in being able to foist their censorship model for the mainstream media even online. Indeed, Vietnam has arrived at a point where the authorities recognise that they can co-opt Big Tech into their online censorship regime.

Vietnam is an enticing and growing market of some 97 million people. The country ranks seventh among the top ten countries boasting the highest number of Facebook users. Facebook reportedly generate annual local revenue of more than US$1 billion in Vietnam’s market of nearly 70 million users. Government figures estimate that YouTube has 60 million users in Vietnam, and TikTok, 20 million.

But a more robust and independent press does not necessarily mean it will inevitably create regime change or undermine the Communist Party’s leadership.

The Vietnamese authorities’ confidence also shows how Big Tech companies have become inured to acquiescing to Hanoi’s censorship demands. According to figures from Vietnam’s communications ministry, Facebook complied with 90 per cent of Vietnam’s content removal demands in the first quarter of 2022, while YouTube went along with 93 per cent. By comparison, many other governments gauge the compliance rate of Western social media platforms by using the companies’ annual transparency reports. India’s government, for instance, has expressed its dissatisfaction as Big Tech’s self-reported compliance rate for New Delhi’s “legal demands” remains dismally low compared to that in other countries. In the second half of 2021, Facebook accommodated 64 per cent of requests to share “some data” with the Indian government, compared to 88 per cent with Washington’s and 89 per cent in the U.K.

But in a country where public appetite for alternative news sources remains high, the move to induce news uniformity on all fronts is likely to backfire on the Vietnamese authorities. At best, it could work only for a time because tech-savvy Internet users will likely find workarounds to technological or censorship barriers.

At worst, it could fuel and perpetuate a vicious cycle. The intensification of news uniformity could further nudge an already disenchanted public towards alternative sources of information, which, while welcome, are not uniformly reliable. Too much reliance on these sources, exacerbated by the lack of trust in official narrative, could leave the public primed to believe any account criticising the Vietnamese government. This could be so even if such criticism is not well substantiated and the state-sanctioned narrative is actually accurate.

The sheer volume of social media means that the Vietnamese public is all the more vulnerable to a deluge of fake news, disinformation, and propaganda online. The more people are exposed to fake news, the more they lose trust in the mainstream media and its narratives, according to a 2020 report by Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.

Vietnamese authorities have often highlighted their capabilities in strong-arming foreign tech giants into complying with their tough regulations, a domestic political selling point that has drawn international ire. It is time some of this leverage was used to push foreign tech giants to pay Vietnamese news outlets for reproducing and using the latter’s original content. So far, no regulation has been enacted to oblige Big Tech to steer its copious cash toward such efforts.

The government has to begin by empowering Vietnam’s mainstream media to produce more critical, objective and relatable journalism, instead of making it churn out uniform coverage. Vietnamese politicians are likely to be wary of doing so, however, having learned a hard lesson from their Russian counterparts. To many Communist stalwarts, under the helm of the late Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, there was too much media liberalisation and the free flow of information appeared to lead to disastrous consequences, even the demise of the former Soviet Union. 

But a more robust and independent press does not necessarily mean it will inevitably create regime change or undermine the Communist Party’s leadership. It could play a crucial role in improving effective policymaking, bolstering Vietnam’s ability to tackle rampant corruption and boosting economic reform by publicising crooked behaviour – all to fortify the regime’s legitimacy. 

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Dien Nguyen An Luong is Visiting Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.