Is Facebook letting down Vietnamese activisits ?

Mark Zuckerberg is under pressure from governments in the West as well as from authoritarian regimes. Photo courtesy AFP.

What is the difference between “toxic” content designed to cause chaos, and free and open discussion of current events ?

Portraying legitimate criticism and comment as subversion is the oldest trick in the book for authoritarian governments attempting to silence their critics – but it seems to be working with the techno geeks in faraway California.

The Vietnamese government has made no secret of its drive to combat “wrongful views” on the internet and has boasted that it has an agreement with Facebook to remove content it finds undesirable.

A group of some 50 civil society groups and rights activists have now backed up that claim – alleging that Facebook is working with the communist government to take down content and close accounts it finds objectionable.

In an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, they said that everything had changed after a meeting between Facebook executives and the Vietnamese government in April last year.

“Prior to 2017, your company’s assistance has been fruitful…since last year, however, the frequency of takedown has increased and Facebook’s assistance has been unhelpful in restoring accounts and content,” said the letter.

“We urge you to reconsider your company’s aggressive practices that could silence human rights activists and citizen journalists in Vietnam,” it went on.

Violates the law

Facebook’s response was telling. It said it was committed to protecting the right to free and safe expression of opinion in line with Facebook’s “Community Standards”.

However it added: “There are also times when we may have to remove or restrict access to content because it violates a law in a particular country, even though it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.”

Therein lies the problem.

Vietnam has just jailed seven pro-democracy activists for terms of up to 15 years for peacefully advocating more representative government and an adherence to the government’s own rules on human rights.

Does Facebook intend to align itself with authoritarian governments that criminalise political debate and any discussion of democratic values ?

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of social media, and Facebook in particular, on the struggle for free speech in Vietnam.

Over 50 million Vietnamese now have access to the platform, and have been exposed to a range of views that would have been unthinkable in the days when the Communist party exercised an all but watertight monopoly on information.

Disrupt free discussion

The government’s fight back, however, is now gaining momentum. The centrepiece of its campaign it to put pressure on Facebook and the others to conform to the Communist party’s view of what is acceptable content.

The army’s creation late last year of “Force 47”, a 10,000 strong brigade of cyber warriors to monitor and counter “incorrect” content, has added considerable weight to the government’s armoury.

By reporting alleged abuses to Facebook, the cyber trolls have been able to severely disrupt free discussion by all those interested in a free and more transparent political system.

Independent bloggers reported that their accounts were removed and they were prevented from posting during last week’s high profile trial of six political activists, who received long jail terms after a cursory trial.

Facebook may be under pressure at the moment, assailed on all sides for its data mining techniques and failures to curtail hate speech and terrorist sympathisers.

However, users in authoritarian countries are in danger of being written off as collateral damage as Facebook bends to pressure from Western governments.

Facebook has had a profound impact on the social and cultural climate of Vietnam – activists fear that all will be lost if it now chooses to cravenly conform to the whims and dictates of the Communist authorities.