As more Vietnamese get online, a new battlefront for the regime - social media

Force 47, a 10,000-person military unit, works to quell online dissent in the country. Vietnamese activists and journalists are fighting back
A Facebook page of a group called 'Believe in the Party' which was identified by Vietnamese state media as being controlled by 'Force 47' cyber troops

A Facebook page of a group called 'Believe in the Party', identified by Vietnamese state media as being controlled by 'Force 47' cyber troops. | Reuters

Raksha Kumar

In early July, Vietnamese police arrested Le Van Dung, a prominent activist and journalist who regularly broadcasts live on Facebook to thousands of followers across the world. Dung, who goes by "Le Dung Vova", was on the run for a month. He was detained on charges of "making, storing, spreading information, materials and items for the purpose of opposing the state", under Article 117 of Vietnam's Penal Code according to a Reuters report. If found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in jail.  

As more and more Vietnamese people like Dung take to social media to fight for their rights, the ruling Communist Party has geared up for combat in a new battleground: digital platforms. In 2017 Vietnam created a 10,000-person strong cyber military unit to quell dissent on social media. Party officials are very pleased with this group, said Nguyen Khae Giang, a Vietnamese scholar based in New Zealand. 

Popularly called Force 47 or Brigade 47, “the unit’s ultimate goal” is to “manipulate online discourse to enforce the Communist Party’s line in a country whose leaders have been fixated on curbing anti-state content,” according to Dien Nguyen An Luong, a Visiting Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

It is not uncommon for a ruling party to recruit “online opinion shapers” in other regimes. However,  Force 47 is unique for its association with the military and for its openness: Vietnam is the only Southeast Asian state to publicly acknowledge having a military cyber unit. 

Force 47 is also easy on the pocket for the party, said Giang, because military officials are trained to think of opinion shaping as a part of their jobs. “They would be less likely to seek extra pay,” he said.

In February 2021, the Vietnamese government appointed to head the Ministry of Propaganda Lt. Gen. Nguyen Trong Nghia, a senior military officer who helped set up Force 47. The unit is populated by military officials. They are called cyber troopers and can skilfully counter “wrongful opinions” or “toxic information” about the regime.  Importantly, there is no official definition of what constitutes a "wrongful opinion."

The unit uses a two-fold strategy: create favourable pages, groups and opinions on social media, and attack groups and opinions unfavourable to the ruling party. It is tough to determine who is one of its “opinion shapers”, says an academic researcher who prefers not to give her name. “A person can be sitting next to you and you will not know that they are attacking you online,” she said.

Not the only tool

The Vietnamese ruling party created this unit despite having a cyber security law which is so vague in its definition of “fake news” that it is mostly used to suppress dissent.

On 18 June, Vietnam also introduced national guidelines on social media behaviour. The guidelines encourage people to post only “positive content” about the country and its leaders. They also require state employees to report "conflicting information" to their superiors. According to a Reuters report, it is not clear to “to what extent the decision was legally binding, or how it would be enforced”. Such ambiguity in laws is not uncommon in the country.

While explaining the functioning of Force 47, Nguyen The Phuong, an associate researcher from the Saigon Center for International Studies at Vietnam National University, writes that there is minimal or even no command and control on the individual members of the unit. “This type of flexible mechanism enables members of the task force to be exempt from normally strict procedures within the Vietnam People’s Army’s traditional networks,” he adds.

State censorship and self-censorship

Vietnam is a single-party state. For the ruling party, protecting information flow and ensuring that its officials are on favourable terms with the public is very important. 

Large parts of the Vietnamese economy are either state-owned or state-run. The news media is no different. Although the country has thousands of newspapers and hundreds of television channels and radio stations, they are all expected to toe the party line. The Ministries of Propaganda, both at the federal level and in the provinces, keep a tight watch on these media platforms and their messaging. They famously hold weekly meetings with editors and brief them about the news they should disseminate. “We are only slightly better than the Chinese in this regard,” said scholar Nguyen Khae Giang. 

Such tight state censorship has overtime led to self-censorship. Media organisations know their boundaries and do not cross them. 

Journalists who breach these rules are often fined or their organisations not allowed to publish for weeks. In July 2018, Tuoi Tre, one of Vietnam’s popular online newspapers, was banned from publishing content for three months and fined $10,000, as it was accused of publishing "false and nationally divisive” content. The newspaper is run by a state-aligned group, the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union.

Several members of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN) were arrested in 2020 and three were given sentences ranging from 11 to 15 years in prison. Vietnam ranks 175 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders.

Here comes the internet

Since the arrival of the internet, the Communist Party has tried to control it tightly. However, social media has thrown official messaging off balance. As the economy grew, inequality increased and Vietnamese people began speaking out with greater fervour on digital platforms.

As blogs, Facebook and YouTube entered the country, each person became a media platform and the regime found it hard to regulate. Crackdowns became common. According to RSF’s figures, more than 30 journalists and bloggers are now held in Vietnam’s jails, where mistreatment is common.  

Vietnam cannot block out the internet the way China does. “It does not have enough money and technical expertise to build a web blocking system as overbearing and effective as China’s so-called Great Firewall,” writes Phuong.

Vietnam was Asia’s top-performing economy in 2020. In order to keep this momentum going, the regime cannot afford to ban online social networks because small and medium companies use them for marketing and advertising purposes. However, the economic growth has also ushered in increased corruption and inequality, which is pushing people to air their grievances on social media.

In January 2020, the BBC reported that up to 3,000 security personnel turned up at a Dong Tam village, about 40 kilometres from Hanoi. Local residents were protesting the takeover of their lands by Viettel Group, Vietnam's military-run communications company. Security forces clashed with residents in a clash live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube. Not only were the discussions and video censored, but a barrage of content demonising the protestors surfaced.

“Social media, particularly Facebook, is increasingly becoming weaponised by Vietnam to go after those who peacefully speak their mind,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Regional Director, in a statement.

Such land disputes, development-related issues and corruption will only increase in a rapidly growing economy. “In such a scenario, people who are oppressed and left behind in the development game have no option but to use social media to seek their rights,” said scholar Giang.

Several protesters at Dong Tam were sentenced to death or lengthy prison terms in March 2021.

Facebook – a double-edged sword?

The main problem for the government when it comes to censoring social media, Giang said, is that tech companies are not headquartered in Vietnam. They have their own ‘community standards’ to adhere to and the Communist Party seems to have found a way around it.

Reuters reported in April 2020 that Facebook’s local servers in Vietnam were taken offline until it complied with the government’s demands. Moreover, with the use of “opinion shapers” and Force 47, several Facebook groups praise the Party activities to high heavens. “Social media, particularly Facebook, is increasingly becoming weaponised by Vietnam to go after those who peacefully speak their mind," Giang said. 

According to a November 2020 Reuters report, Vietnam threatened to shut down Facebook in the country if it did not bow to government pressure to censor more local political content on its platform. 

Facebook has about 60 million users in Vietnam and according to sources quoted by Reuters, earns about $1 billion in revenue from the country. “It makes business sense for Facebook to comply with the Party,” said Nathan Trac of Viet tan, a human rights group which works with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international organisations.  

An investigation by The Intercept into Facebook’s actions in Vietnam concluded that the social network had given in. “Facebook, once briefly heralded as a godsend for a country like Vietnam, where social media allows citizens to squeeze past the state’s censorship stranglehold on traditional media, has now become just another means of strangulation.”  

​​Talking about Facebook’s response to the allegations, Human Rights Watch’s Brad Adams had said in December 2020 that the company was open to talk: “They have been willing to talk and their rights people seem sympathetic, but overall the response has been weak, inconsistent, un-transparent, and too ready to compromise basic principles.” 

Censoring Vietnamese abroad

Considering the strict censorship within the country, the onus of speaking up against atrocities and corruption within Vietnam falls largely on Vietnamese living abroad. “The Vietnamese government considers us terrorists,” said Michael Tran Duc of Viet Tan, the human rights group. 

Since the regime cannot censor people outside the country, it uses software to hack the correspondence of these pro-democracy groups, said Michael. “Names like Sea Lotus and Ocean Lotus are used by hackers who have been paid by the state to attack people like us online,” he added. Activists use TOR and VPN, and change IP addresses constantly to save themselves from these kinds of attacks.

Nathan and his family were one of the boat people who fled Vietnam right after the war. “We work everyday to bring back the democratic values that we envisioned our country will one day have, despite immense risks. We work with a hope for a better future,” he said.

Raksha Kumar is a freelance journalist, with a specific focus on human rights. Since 2011, she has reported from 12 countries across the world for outlets such as 'The New York Times', BBC, the 'Guardian', 'TIME', 'South China Morning Post' and 'The Hindu'. Samples of her work can be found here.