Vietnam tries to tame Facebook

The Minister of Information and Communications Truong Minh Tuan (R) and Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, at the working session. Photo courtesy Vietnamnet

Vietnam is claiming a step forward in its drive to rein in social media, saying that Facebook has agreed to cooperate in the fight against “toxic” content.

A government statement said the company would set up channels for close coordination with the communication and information ministry, and would close fake accounts and those with false information about government leaders.

The statement came after talks in Hanoi between the information minister, Truong Minh Tuan, and Facebook’s head of global policy, Monika Bickert.

Vietnam is urgently seeking ways to control the free use of social media, which has swept away the Communist party’s once jealously guarded monopoly on information.

Peaceful outcome

The power of Facebook and Youtube was once again highlighted in the recent conflict between farmers and government officials in the commune of Dong Tam near Hanoi.

Observers believe the peaceful outcome, after angry farmers took police and officials hostage, would have been far less likely if state media had been able to manipulate the story the way they did in the past.

Officials have put increasing pressure on international platforms, including Facebook and Google, to stop what they call hate speech, slander, fake news and articles that violate Vietnamese law.

The campaign puts the foreign companies in a difficult position as they face similar pressure in the West to control the online activities of terrorists and criminals.

Vietnam, as one of the world’s most prolific jailers of journalists and bloggers, is hoping to enlist the foreign companies to suppress all criticism of the government.

Revolutionised media landscape

It is not clear how far Facebook is prepared to go in its cooperation with the Vietnamese government.

A statement put out by the company said it had a clear process for governments to report what they saw as illegal content.

“We review all these requests against our terms of service and applicable law. We are transparent about the requests we receive from government and content we restrict pursuant with local law in our Global Government Requests Report,” it said.

Some 35 million Vietnamese have Facebook accounts and its use has revolutionised the media landscape in the country.

Civil society activists, independent bloggers and ordinary citizens can now exchange information and opinions in a way that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

The exponential growth of social media clearly took government officials by surprise. Unlike their counterparts in China and Cuba, they missed their opportunity to block the use of foreign based platforms.

The Vietnamese government says it is working to develop locally based companies, but the former prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, acknowledged that it was no longer possible to bar Facebook.

In the meantime the government will continue to pressure, cajole and induce Facebook, Google and the rest to comply with its own version of what constitutes “freedom of speech”.