Social media regulation, particularly relating to Facebook, was an agenda-topping item for various Vietnamese state agencies in 2017, highlighting the country’s apparent maneuvers to counter new threats in cyberspace.
With Vietnam’s tax authorities unable to develop a viable strategy to force Internet-based technology giants to pay taxes and the Ministry of Information and Communications’ concern that social media is providing an easily accessible place for publishing "toxic content," a Party-run agency has been created to focus on ‘orienting’ content on certain platforms.
Social media as a medium for ideology sharing
At a meeting in Ho Chi Minh City late last year to recap its 2017 action plan, Vo Van Thuong, head of the Vietnamese Party’s Central Commission for Propaganda and Education, spent a chunk of his speaking time focusing on issues related to social media content.
Thuong said social media can create profound impacts on public sentiment and make inpiduals more vulnerable.
“To some extent, [social media] also makes people more senseless and heartless,” he added.
The Central Commission for Propaganda and Education, an advisory organ for the Party, is in charge of articulating and developing the Party theory and ideology in such fields as publishing, culture, arts, and education.
Vo Van Thuong, head of the Vietnamese Party’s Central Commission for Propaganda and Education, speaks at an event in Ho Chi Minh City on December 25, 2017. Photo: Tuoi Tre
While two people may never engage themselves in an aggressive quarrel in real life, social media seems to fuel their willingness to verbally attack one another on social media, “using words and phrases even the rudest person is reluctant to say in the real world,” Thuong underlined.
The official added that these newly emerged non-traditional threats to security and sovereignty, previously rare and isolated incidents in Vietnam, are now becoming considerably more “visible” in the Southeast Asian country.
“Anybody can take part in or have a direct or indirect impact on these issues, but it is up to them whether to make it better or worse,” he said.
Thuong elaborated that many Party members have complained that too much "negative information" is disseminated online, though he says they only have themselves to blame.
As Facebook and other social networks have algorithms designed to automatically show users content related to their browsing history, “officials and Party members are likely seeking out ‘negative news’ on their own, which then causes their newsfeeds to become dominated by additional negative information,” Thuong explained.
As head of the propaganda and education body, Thuong expressed his belief that social media could well become a useful medium for "information orientation."
This caricature by Tuoi Tre depicts how mainstream media is losing to unverified news shared on social media in terms of the number of readers reached.
Vietnam’s position as the world’s 18th largest Internet market by users – with 60 million of its 90 million-strong population having access to the online world – makes these issues a matter of immediate concern, according to the official.
“If only ten to 20 percent of these online users join the education and propaganda effort, we’ll have much better results,” he said.
“For instance, if every official, Party member or Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union member uses social media to share a positive news report, video, or constructive comment on a daily basis, they will all contribute to enhancing the Party’s education and propaganda effort.”
Taxes and ‘toxic content’
Vietnam's regulatory agencies also spent a good chunk of 2017 scratching their heads over how to force Internet giants to pay taxes on income generated from their business activities in Vietnam.
The Southeast Asian country does apply a ‘foreign contractor tax,’ but global Internet-based companies such as Google, Facebook, and Booking.com have all found ways to subvert those taxes.
Some of these companies put their tax burden on their Vietnamese partners – companies that run ads on Google or Facebook or hotels that sell rooms via Booking.com – while others avoid taxes by failing to report income accepted from international credit cards.
A woman browses Facebook in this photo taken in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre
In the meantime, the Ministry of Information and Communications has insisted that Facebook and YouTube remove accounts and videos that Vietnamese regulators deem "toxic" and inappropriate.
Following these requests, Facebook removed 159 accounts in 2017 whose posts were meant to defame Vietnamese leaders and spread anti-government propaganda, the ministry said in late December.
Google had also deactivated some 4,500 “toxic” YouTube videos, whose content was either ‘fake news’ or anti-Vietnamese government.
“Vietnam is among those countries whose requests have been well complied with by Google,” Minister Information and Communications Truong Minh Tuan said at a meeting on December 22.
An illustration photo by Tuoi Tre
On top of efforts to regulate content on social media, a Vietnamese general has revealed that the country had employed a cyber task force to fight the dissemination of false and derogatory information on the Internet.
Force 47 consists of more than 10,000 “core fighters” against hostile forces in cyberspace, according to Colonel General Nguyen Trong Nghia, deputy chairman of the General Political Department of the People’s Army of Vietnam.
“As forces and countries suggest using cyberspace to fuel real war, [Vietnam] should also stay vigilant against wrongful views in every second, minute, and hour,” the three-star general said at a meeting on December 25.
With hostile forces having employed the Internet as a new medium for their effort to sabotage Vietnam, the country’s army has acknowledged that it should ready its forces for warfare in cyberspace alongside the conventional military, Nghia added.