Government wrestles with Facebook dilemma

The blogger, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known as Mother Mushroom, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for her online blogging.

Vietnam’s leaders have sniped, cajoled and threatened for years, but they are increasingly accepting the reality that Facebook is here to stay.

Vietnam still resorts to violence, intimidation and long prison terms to intimidate its online critics, but even state media are now acknowledging that they cannot compete with the free flow of information on social media.

The world’s other surviving communist states were all quick to see the danger and ruthlessly suppressed free expression on the internet: China has its “Great Firewall”, Cuba has very low internet access and monitors users closely, and North Koreans have no access at all.

But Vietnam now has more than 50 million Facebook users, and acknowledges that it’s far too late for a ban.

“Nowadays, it is the early-bird newspaper, not the major one, that will triumph,” said Vo Van Thuong, the head of the Communist Party’s propaganda organ, in comments quoted by the state sanctioned online newspaper VNExpress International.

“When social or digital foreign media break stories first, they’ve already won public recognition, leaving Vietnam’s mainstream media well behind, ” continued the newspaper.

The appearance of such an article in an official organ shows how far the media environment has changed over just a few years.

Threatening or insulting

A Communist party that once tightly controlled all information now finds itself outflanked on all sides as millions of ordinary citizens openly discuss formerly taboo subjects.

Some officials still talk about replacing Facebook with home grown social media platforms, but little has materialised and few take such plans seriously.

Attempts have also been made to persuade Facebook, Google and Youtube to take down material that the government finds threatening or insulting.

Another tactic is to use pro-government trolls to threaten and intimidate online activists.

But VNExpress, in its article, acknowledges that activists have been successful in applying pressure on the authorities through social media networks.

“Vietnamese netizens ….helped prevent 6,700 trees in Hanoi from being chopped after expressing their outrage online. The backlash forced the government to not only cancel the plan but also punish the officials responsible,” said the article.

Enhanced repression

Government departments have publicly accepted the importance of social media by setting up their own Facebook pages to try to get the official story out.

But clearly the government’s fight back is a work in progress, marked by trial and error.

The speed and scale of Facebook’s growth and its erosion of a once jealously guarded Communist party monopoly remains a profound challenge for the leadership.

For now, the authorities appear set on a policy of enhanced repression.

The police and courts are under orders to make an example of high profile independent bloggers by sentencing them to long prison terms in highly publicised trials.

More than 15 bloggers and other activists have been arrested this year alone and charged with criminal offences, including the use of “propaganda against the state”, and “attempting to overthrow the people’s administration”.

If the policy is designed to make ordinary citizens hold back and think twice about their posts, it has not worked.

Facebook and other platforms have released decades of pent-up demand in Vietnam for free expression; the public seems in no mood to be shut up again.