How have the authorities in Vietnam reconciled the task of controlling the online narrative with the need to placate a generation whose daily life is shaped by the Internet and social media? (Photo: Manan VATSYAYANA, AFP)

Long Reads

Placate the Young and Control Online Discourse: The Vietnamese State’s Tightrope

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A key challenge for Vietnam is to control cyberspace without alienating growing numbers of Internet-savvy youths. Unlike China, Vietnam has not been able to muster enough political and technological resources to craft sophisticated campaigns to boost youth nationalism. The gap is even more pronounced online.

Vietnam’s top echelons have indicated that the task of controlling cyberspace has never been more crucial. But how to do so in a country that boasts 72 million social media users without alienating the growing cadres of Internet-savvy youths is a daunting question. 

In fact, such a dual challenge is nothing new to Vietnamese authorities. It started when the Arab Spring uprisings – fuelled by social media – broke out a decade ago, raising the spectre of a similar movement in Vietnam. At that time, Vietnamese leaders had to confront what in the first place appeared to be a Hobson’s choice: Should the spirit of the Arab Spring be used as a rationale for catering to the people’s urgent needs or a pretext to tighten the screws on the Internet and social media? 

It turned out that Vietnam afforded to go both ways at the same time, ushering in an era in which the authorities constantly walked a very fine line between accommodating social-media-savvy youths and controlling the online discourse. Nowhere was this dynamic more manifest than in the watershed year of 2013. Vietnam has ever since then been finetuning its tactics to keep up with the helter-skelter growth of social media.

A pattern emerges: Citing the standard line of the ruling Communist party, the authorities first identify what they perceive as threats that social media poses to political stability, both outside and inside Vietnam. Then they use those threats to rationalise reining in the online sphere. At the same time, the authorities also increasingly look to social media as a useful yardstick to gauge public grievances and, wherever appropriate, take remedial actions to mollify the masses. 

Over the past several years, the continued intent of Vietnamese leaders on winning over youths and shaping nationalism in them has taken place against the backdrop of social media-fuelled youth movements besieging Taiwan, Hong Kong or Thailand. But meanwhile, in what has been called the weaponisation of social media, many Southeast Asian governments, such as The Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar or Vietnam, have also sought to exploit such Western platforms as a valuable proxy for authoritarian control. 

It is in that context that several major questions emerge: How have Vietnam’s leaders honed their message, particularly in the online sphere, to appeal to the young? How have the authorities reconciled the task of controlling the online narrative with the need to placate a generation whose daily life is shaped by the Internet and social media?

And perhaps most importantly, Vietnam has been successful in tapping into nationalism to coalesce the public around the fight against the coronavirus. But will the authorities be able to continue leveraging such nationalism in the post-pandemic era?

AN INCREASINGLY BLURRY LINE

A comic book featuring rhyming phrases of Vietnamese youth slang was reinstated after its editors took out some “violent or politically sensitive” illustrations that censors flagged as grounds for yanking it from stores a year earlier. The Central Communist Youth Union commissioned a Vietnamese rapper to compose a song to convey the content of a youth resolution. Vietnam’s then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung for the first time instructed the Central Youth Union to set up a homegrown social networking site that could rival Facebook and engage the young.

Those back-to-back developments all took place in 2013 as the authorities stepped up efforts in an explicit gesture to attract youthful eyeballs. The context was not hard to fathom: At that time, Vietnam was experiencing the rare phenomenon of a “golden population” with two or more persons of working age for every person of dependent age (under 15 or 60 and over), meaning it was endowed with a large population of young people. The challenge was also obvious: Harnessing the energy and dynamism of the young would be synonymous with bridging the yawning gap between a leadership line-up who came of age at a time of prolonged wars, and a generation that had never been through any war.

But there was a more significant underlying pull factor: Witnessing the dramatic events unfolding in Egypt and Tunisia, Vietnam’s leaders could have fretted over the ripple effect of social media that could trigger Arab-style uprisings in a country that prizes political stability above all else. To aggravate their concern, a forecasting model of non-violent uprisings for 2011 had also ranked Vietnam fifth among the top 40 countries where a non-violent rebellion “would most likely occur at some point”. A handful of activists tried to capitalise on this pretext to call for an Arab Spring-style uprising in Vietnam, a move that triggered heavy-handed responses from the authorities, including arrests. But against that backdrop, the Middle East situation elicited lacklustre attention from Vietnamese youths. Still, it would be a safe bet to assume that regimes outside the Arab world, particularly authoritarian ones like Vietnam, would consider those popular uprisings as a warning, leading the authorities to act in order to avert a similar revolution.

This is the context for which 2013 is marked as a critical juncture explaining how Vietnam justifies deployed censorship strategies to achieve the dual goal of maintaining its grip on online discourse without losing touch with the new generation. 

A vendor uses her smartphone while waiting atop her scooter along a street in Hanoi on 10 July 2020. (Photo: Manan VATSYAYANA / AFP)

In a blistering 2013 opinion piece in the Communist Magazine, a Vietnamese military official warned about the prospect of social media becoming a conduit for “hostile forces” to coalesce young people around what was labelled as anti-government movements. The article pulled no punches: “With these activities, the hostile forces will promote anti-government ideology among netizens, rally forces and establish opposition organisations to lead protests and provoke riots and insurrection against local administrations in certain localities and then take it as a reason for armed intervention to overthrow the political regime.” 

It was in 2013 that Vietnam for the first time acknowledged publicly that it had deployed groups known as “public opinion shapers” to spread views in defence of the state against detractors or “hostile forces”. The crackdown on social media also hit a crescendo in 2013, during the start of the second term for Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, crystalising in the implementation of Decree 72. Broadly worded and subject to various interpretations, the decree criminalises the sharing of news stories on various social networks and bans “the use of Internet services and online information to oppose the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; threaten the national security, social order, and safety; sabotage the ‘national fraternity’; arouse animosity among races and religions; or contradict national traditions, among other acts.” 

It is hard to downplay the evergreen significance of Decree 72. It has served as the oft-cited legal groundwork for Facebook and Google’s YouTube to restrict or take down content at the behest of the Vietnamese authorities. 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” (Chart 1) or ones that “oppose the Communist Party and the Government of Vietnam” (Chart 2).

CHART 1. Content restrictions implemented by Google in Vietnam

(Source: Google Transparency Report)

CHART 2. Content restrictions implemented by Facebook in Vietnam

As part of the fear-based censorship, considered Vietnam’s “key strategy of digital governance,” the authorities enacted a raft of laws and regulations designed to solidify the legal scaffolding of Internet controls. It is Decree 72 that has paved the way for other relevant regulations in the era of swelling social media (Table 1).

(Source: Facebook Transparency Report)

TABLE 1. Internet control regulations during the social media era (2008-2020)

RegulationsIssuedContent
Decree 98 – proposed by the Ministry of Information and Communications2008Seeks to reinforce Internet control with subsequent circulars issued to require blogs to be restricted to only personal content and blogging platforms to maintain records of their users which are to be provided to the authorities.
Decree 72 – proposed by the Ministry of Information and Communications2013Supersedes Decree 98. The decree criminalises the sharing of news stories on various social networks and bans “the use of Internet services and online information to oppose the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”
Criminal Code2015Articles 117 and 331 are most often invoked when charges are pressed against people for what rights groups perceive as their online expression
Cyber-Security Law – proposed by the Ministry of Public Security  2018Seeks to ensure a safe cyberspace in Vietnam and crackdown on misinformation, disinformation and fake news. Critics, however, fear it would give the authorities carte blanche to strictly police the Internet, scrutinise personal information, censor online discussion, and punish or jail dissidents.
Decree 15 – proposed by the Ministry of Information and Communications2020Seeks to impose fines on both Internet users and Internet service providers. The posting and sharing of what is considered “fake news” is also subjected to a wide range of fines.  
(Source: Institute for Policy Studies and Media Development and Amnesty International)

But the stability of authoritarian regimes is also contingent on three pillars that shed light on different approaches to social media: repression, legitimation and co-optation. Responsiveness and legitimacy are all the more crucial to the resilience of Vietnam’s leadership. Given that, netizens have still had some wiggle room to continue testing the waters of where the red line within Vietnam’s online sphere lies. But on the other hand, the authorities have also been able to bend the implementation of such a mixture to their own will, many times leaving Internet users in the dark about when toleration, responsiveness or repression would be enforced. Past and recent crackdowns on social media in Vietnam have shown repression taking place mostly when Internet users appeared to broach issues such as political multilateralism, improved human rights, freedom of speech, Vietnam’s dealings with China or regime change. This grey area has since set off an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the censors and Internet users. 

AN ONLINE TUG-OF-WAR

The post-2013 period saw both the youths and the authorities scrambling to make the most of their unlikely alliance with social media – chiefly Facebook – to plough ahead with their own agendas. For Vietnam’s youth, it was about having their grievances, which centred on environmental concern and the government’s mishandling of bread-and-butter issues, heard and addressed. Such grievances could be vented against a local move to build a cable car into what is billed as Vietnam’s cave kingdom, a plan to fell nearly 7,000 trees in the capital of Hanoi, or a calamitous fish kill along the country’s central coastline. In such movements, the challenge for Internet users was not that their voices were censored but about ensuring that they were not drowned out in a cacophony of public grievances in the online sphere. 

In 2015, then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung publicly admitted that it was impossible to ban social media platforms and that the government should instead embrace them to spread its own message. This landmark development was instrumental to youth-led online movements.

For the authorities, it was about trying to appear as responsive to public sentiment online as they could. But not without some caveats: Collective action or social unrest, their bête noire, could arise from the fact that criticism of the government’s policies in a certain area quickly spreads to another, perpetuating a spiralling cycle of public disenchantment.

Vietnam’s online movements – most of them initiated, coalesced and sustained by youths during the 2014-2016 period – have revolved around that dynamic, which remains relevant today (Table 2).

TABLE 2. ONLINE SOCIAL MOVEMENTS DURING THE FACEBOOK ERA

YearOnline movementWhat happenedGovernment’s response
2014“Save Son Doong”A Facebook page and an online petition that drew around 170,000 signatures were launched in the wake of vehement public protests against a local plan to build a cable car system into a cave near the Laos-Vietnam border. The cave has become known as the world’s largest.The plan was put on the backburner.
2015“Tree Hugs Hanoi”Vietnamese netizens formed an online movement on Facebook and essentially thwarted a plan to chop down 6,700 trees in Hanoi.The backlash forced the government to not only cancel the plan but also punish the officials responsible.
2016  “I Choose Fish”Environmental causes again coalesced Facebook users around another protest against toxic discharge from Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics’ steel plant on the central coast in what amounted to the country’s worst-ever environmental catastrophe in decades.The then newly-installed government immediately swung into action, forcing Formosa to accept its responsibility and ordering the Taiwanese group to pay US$500 million in damages to the affected fisherman.    
(Source: compiled by the author)

In 2015, then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung publicly admitted that it was impossible to ban social media platforms and that the government should instead embrace them to spread its own message. This landmark development was instrumental to youth-led online movements. But on the other side of the spectrum, the drafting process for Vietnam’s Cyber-Security Law was mooted as early as July 2016, just right on the heels of the Formosa protests. That is not to mention the official debut of Vietnam’s 10,000-strong military cyber unit a year later to counteract any “wrongful opinions” about the regime and protect it from “toxic information”. These turning points were emblematic of how realistic, pragmatic and opportunistic Vietnamese politicians were in striking an increasingly delicate balance between placating the young and manipulating the online sphere. 

MALAISES THAT LEAD TO UPRISINGS

The passage of the Cyber-Security Law in 2018 opened a new era that has seen Vietnam’s social media landscape coloured by several major factors: (i) a growing body of evidence that the role of social media as a force for democratisation has been somewhat misunderstood, mischaracterised, or even overhyped; (ii) the authorities’ fixation on curbing anti-state content online; and (iii) Vietnam’s relative success in containing the Covid-19 pandemic, which has enabled the leadership to earn the exceptional level of public support that it had been craving.

While some observers have talked up its role, social media alone could not have fanned the Arab Spring uprisings and the like. As past studies have shown: Other longstanding socio-economic reasons fuelled the uprisings such as unemployment, poverty or growing inequalities. Those pull factors, coupled with pent-up grievances exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, indeed played a crucial role in triggering ongoing protests across Southeast Asia. That appears not to be the case in Vietnam, at least for now. Aside from being able to rein in the pandemic, political stability has continued to be a selling point for top leaders. Vietnam’s economy has remained resilient, standing out among the few in the world notching up positive growth. 

But as a stern reminder to Vietnam’s leaders that it would be risky to let their guard down, the Milk Tea Alliance, a social media-fuelled youth movement spanning Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand, has kept evolving to spur young people across Asia to rise up. The movement has laid bare a stark reality: What has bonded youths across the region and galvanised them into action also epitomises the major concerns of Vietnamese authorities. Chief among them are:

  • The movement has rammed home a consistent message that it is seeking to push back against autocratic governments, such as the Chinese model after which Vietnam is believed to have modelled.
  • Social media has played an increasingly crucial role in enabling activists to coalesce networks online and translate them into real-life actions.
  • Those movements attest to youths’ growing disenchantment, further driving a wedge between them and the government, and undermining the legitimacy of the latter.

In a low key yet symbolic move, the People’s Police newspaper, an organ of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security, ran an article in February that warned about the dangers of having “depoliticised” armed forces independent of the ruling Communist Party. Citing the current political chaos driven by the military coup in Myanmar, the article delivered a scathing indictment of “subversive elements and hostile forces” who have sought to plot “vicious conspiracies” to neuter the state’s leadership role in the army, turning it into a force that “betrays the interests of the Party and the people.” Another article of the same newspaper in late March also castigated external forces for capitalising on the Myanmar crisis to lure young people into taking part in “subversive activities” such as “online colour revolutions” that would pave the way for “street movements”.

Those articles appeared at a time when the protest movement in Myanmar had been able to garner widespread support from the Milk Tea Alliance. It encapsulated the entrenched concern and official line of Vietnamese authorities that political chaos and social unrest could end up opening the floodgates of youth-led movements that challenge the legitimacy of the regime. But it was still just the first baby step in Vietnam’s playbook. As already mentioned, the next challenge is how to win over the youths while at the same time keeping close tabs on cyberspace.

Vietnam is not short of political rhetoric and exhortation on youth patriotism. Like their Chinese counterparts, Vietnamese leaders are probably well aware that in addition to the rising standards of living, nationalism remains a crucial part of the regime’s legitimacy. But unlike Beijing, Hanoi has not been able to muster enough political and technological muscle to craft sophisticated campaigns aimed at boosting youth nationalism. This gap is all the more potent in the online sphere. The reasons are not hard to pin down: A “national Internet” meant for blocking Western social media platforms has given China a carte blanche to shape a narrative at its will. That has also bred a generation of Chinese youths who have come of age without Facebook, Google’s YouTube, or Twitter. 

That may help explain why Vietnam has kept beating the drum for building domestic social media platforms that could compete with or even elbow out their foreign counterparts. But here is another Catch-22 for the authorities: Social media was built into a mechanism that incentivises click-baiting, sensationalism and fake news – all designed to increase public attention and engagement. Vietnamese censors will not want to make their homegrown social media network another fertile ground for “wrongful opinions”, fake news, or “toxic information”, the very rationale for them to control the Internet. But if Vietnam seeks to curb such elements by creating a new social network, people – the young in particular – are likely to switch it off.

Still, there has been a perhaps inadvertent edge for Vietnam: The leadership has been able to gain exceptional public kudos for pushing back the coronavirus. The Covid-19 pandemic also provides 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 State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey done by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, including academics, government officials and business people – respondents from Vietnam registered their strongest approval of their government’s handling of the pandemic. 

That success has been key to boosting patriotism in a population of nearly 100 million. In an attempt to shed light on this dynamic, we generate relevant keywords on the topics of Covid 19-era patriotism (Appendix 1) and the pro-youth movement sentiment (Appendix 2) and analyse the discussion on them in Vietnam’s online sphere since late July 2020. That was the time when the second coronavirus wave hit Vietnam, and the youth movement was gaining traction in Thailand. Online discussions on Covid-era patriotism overwhelmingly dwarfed the pro-youth movement during the corresponding period (Chart 3).

CHART 3. Covid-era patriotism vs pro-youth movement sentiment

(Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Isentia)

This is further exemplified by social media activity over time, where conversations on pro-youth movement sentiment averages only 6 posts at any given time, compared with 96 from the Covid-era patriotism topic (Table 3).

TABLE 3. BUZZ VOLUME ON PATRIOTISM AND YOUTH MOVEMENT

SubjectTotal Buzz VolumeLowest BuzzAverage BuzzHighest Buzz
Covid-era Patriotism26410096316
Pro-youth movement sentiment15840621
(Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Isentia)

Such positive sentiment dovetails with other findings of pre-pandemic surveys. During a recent national online exchange, the top leader of Vietnams’ Central Youth Union cited a past survey as showing that nearly 94 per cent of Vietnamese youths said they were “patriotic” and had “national pride.” According to data from the 2018 Asian Barometer Survey conducted by the Academia Sinica and National Taiwan University, around 90 per cent of Vietnamese polled said they trusted the Communist Party of Vietnam and the government at least somewhat.

With the mainstream media haemorrhaging readership to the online sphere, the authorities engaging youths just through slogans and banners or their propaganda playbook remaining riddled with humdrum, ideology-laden language, is likely to be a turnoff.

But despite such momentum, Vietnamese authorities are all poised to confront a vexing question: What’s next in the post-pandemic period?

THE $64,000 QUESTION 

Even if and although the prospect of a social media-fuelled youth movement may remain pretty distant in Vietnam, how to best appeal to youths remains an urgent task and a thorny question for the authorities. The Next Generation survey conducted last year by the British Council showed that three in four (78 per cent) Vietnamese youths polled said they had “no engagement” with the country’s politics. Around five in nine (55 per cent) expressed concern about “the lack of any opportunity to have their voice heard.” If there is a venue to do so, it is social media and close circles of friends and family, according to the same survey.

With the mainstream media haemorrhaging readership to the online sphere, the authorities engaging youths just through slogans and banners or their propaganda playbook remaining riddled with humdrum, ideology-laden language, is likely to be a turnoff. This is where the authorities may find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place: If they keep making the most of the digital space to reach out to the youths, any future move that seeks to tighten cyberspace could trigger a popular backlash.

In that context, it remains to be seen how Vietnam can afford to rationalise any further controls on social media. How they manage to do so without estranging the digital-savvy youth is another intriguing question.



This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2021/43 published on 14 April 2021. The paper and its footnotes can be accessed at this link.