Hanoi activists launch viral campaign

By Michael L. Gray/ The SecDev Foundation

For the first time ever in Vietnam, political activists are using viral social media marketing techniques to express dissent online. A brazen campaign has seen dozens of people in Vietnam post selfie photos to their personal Facebook pages holding signs reading “I don’t like the Communist Party of Vietnam.” A Facebook fan page for the campaign was set up on 7 January 2015 and drew thousands of likes and shares.

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The Facebook page called “Tôi Không Thích” (I don’t like).

 

Social media in Vietnam continues to challenge the state’s dominance of the mainstream press and its ability to shape public opinion. On 4 January 2015, this took a new form with what appears to be Vietnam’s first-ever ‘viral’ social media protest campaign. Activist La Viet Dung posted a simple self-portrait holding a printed page that read “I don’t like the Communist Party of Vietnam.” Another activist, Nguyen Lan Thang, soon followed this example, and also posted photos of a street demonstration held on 7 January 2015 in Hanoi, with several dozen people all holding signs that included the “I don’t like” phrase.

After Thang’s images were posted, more photos appeared on Facebook, the most popular social network in Vietnam. By 8 January, dozens of people inside Vietnam – many known activists, some not – had posted selfie photos holding printed or hand-written “I don’t like the Communist Party of Vietnam” signs. Almost none of the photos were anonymous – the vast majority included the person’s face and were posted to personal Facebook accounts. Many of the signs included reasons below the initial statement of dislike, such as “because they are mostly thieves,” or “because they are dishonest.”

Danluan.org, a popular news website, was among the first to comment on the campaign, reporting that its origins lay with a Hanoi activist who saw a VTV1 (Vietnam Television) report warning people to avoid open criticism of the government in their online activities. The activist decided to challenge the definition of ‘criticism’ by stating “I don’t like the Communist Party.” While the Danluan.org story did not mention the activist by name, a Facebook group page for the ‘I don’t like’ campaign appeared on 7 January, with some background text explaining that it was activist La Viet Dung (pronounced ‘Zoom’) who sparked the campaign after seeing the VTV report.

Blogger Nguyen Lan Thang, who in 2013 broke the news of his own detention via a Facebook status update, posted his own photo on 5 January, soon followed by photos of the street protest in Hanoi. Thang has 16,000 followers and over 4,000 friends on Facebook, and his original selfie post had 748 likes on 8 January, along with a similar number for the photos of the Hanoi street protest.

The ‘Toi Khong Thich’ Facebook fan page that appeared on 7 January uploaded over 100 ‘I don’t like’ selfies and garnered some 1,400 likes on its first day. The next day, the page advertised a writing contest to deepen participation. The contest rules read: “(Open to) All who live, work and study in Vietnam, regardless of age, religion, gender or political viewpoint; Articles should be written in Vietnamese with tones, from 500-2,000 words and explain why ‘I don’t like the Communist Party of Vietnam’.” First prize is listed as VND 2 million (about USD 100). There is a second prize and an ‘audience choice’ award, both for about USD 50. By 29 January, over 20 people had submitted entries. It is the photos that have attracted attention, however – as the activists themselves have noted. One blogger who posted a selfie photo, Huynh Thuc Vy, wrote on her Facebook page that after writing political tracts for years, she’s never had the same response as posting one photo: “It turns out a photo has more impact than words and discussion,” she wrote.

While not reaching ALS Icebucket Challenge-levels of viral reach and popularity, the photos and campaign page have been seen by thousands of people, with some of the selfies collected and re-posted on Vietnamese-language news aggregator sites hosted outside Vietnam (primarily for the diaspora audience).

Open political dissent remains rare in Vietnam, primarily the domain of political activists who know they risk arrest and harassment for sharing their views. As social media has spread across Vietnam over the past few years, however, it has offered a new terrain for activists to reach the general population with their views and opinions, and vice versa. Thang and other activists are often followed on Facebook by thousands of people – while the ‘activist blogger’ community itself is perhaps only a few dozen people. Last year, Thang was one of several activists who wrote about the controversy surrounding a measles outbreak that was badly mishandled by the Ministry of Health. It was social media posts by doctors and parents – in other words, everyday people – that broke the measles story, which was initially ignored or denied in the mainstream media.

The timing of the current photo campaign closely follows a government announcement in the last week of 2014 warning people to refrain from open criticism of the government online. The 10th Party Congress was held in Hanoi from 5-12 January 2015. Media controls are always tightened during major political events. Furthermore, surrounding this year’s Congress is a salacious, rumour- filled story of the supposed poisoning of a senior politician – a story that appeared on an independent blog widely thought to be controlled by an individual or group at the centre of Vietnam’s power structure. After letting the poisoning story run wild for several days, recent mainstream media editorials have reminded people to avoid rumour and speculation surrounding the strange illness (the politician, Nguyen Ba Thanh, has returned to Vietnam after seeking treatment in the US for a rapidly spreading cancer).

Vietnam’s moves to control the internet in recent years have included Decree 72 on the ‘Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Information Content Online,’ issued in September 2013. This decree requires internet companies in Vietnam to cooperate with the government to enforce its information controls; makes it illegal to distribute any materials online that harms national security or opposes the government; and bans the distribution of news from any official media outlet through social media. With Decree 72 in place, sharing or ‘liking’ a news story on Facebook – any domestic news story – is, strictly speaking, llegal. But Vietnam’s 22 million Facebook users continue to share stories online with relative impunity.

Independent news sites like Dan Lam Bao are blocked via DNS filtering, but large numbers of internet users circumvent the blocks. Government officials are thought to be the source of much material on these sites, as they use independent news channels to filter stories to the public that would not make it into the mainstream (state-controlled) media.

The Vietnamese state, in its approach to the internet, is walking a fine line between maintaining control and allowing access to information. The decision to permit relatively unfettered access to Facebook, after briefly blocking the site in 2010, is a prime example of the dilemma they face. Whether the dissident photo campaign will generate a response from the state is not yet clear. They may ignore it, or they may detain or harass Dung, Thang and other photo-bloggers if they feel the campaign has attracted too much attention (or mocked them too brazenly). The fine line being walked means it is hard to predict when internet laws and controls will be enforced. One thing is certain: as Vietnam builds toward a change of leadership to be decided at the Party Central Committee Plenum in early 2016, social media will continue to take a preeminent role as a domain of political contestation in Vietnam.

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