In mid-January, soon after news of the Quang Binh provincial government reviving plans to build a cable car into Son Doong Cave started circulating on the internet, droves of Vietnamese netizens launched an online petition to protest the project.
The petition was widely shared on social media, chiefly Facebook, compelling local leaders to quickly assure that they had no plans to build the gondola lift into Son Doong. The cave, which contains at least 150 individual grottos, a dense subterranean jungle and several underground rivers, has become known as the world's largest cave.
It was not the first time that such plans left Vietnam’s Facebook community in a frenzy. In 2014, after vehement public protests, including the “Save Son Doong” Facebook page and an online petition that quickly drew thousands of signatures, the Quang Binh authorities had to shelve plans to build a cable car system into the cave, near the Laos-Vietnam border.
In Vietnam, organized opposition to dizzying development at the expense of natural attractions or colonial heritages has found an unlikely ally: Facebook.
In 2014, a Facebook petition which garnered nearly 3,500 signatures from architects, researchers and students also helped to save certain historical elements of the Saigon Tax Trade Center, a colonial structure opened in 1924, before the developer razed it to make way for a 40-story skyscraper in Ho Chi Minh City. A year later, Vietnamese netizens formed an online mob on Facebook and essentially thwarted a plan to chop down 6,700 trees in Hanoi. The backlash forced the government to not only cancel the plan but also punish the responsible officials.
“In the last couple of years, Facebook has been nothing short of a revolution in Vietnam,” said Tim Doling, a British historian who has been involved in several Facebook pages that upload thousands of historical and current photos of heritage sites in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Many of the members of the various Facebook groups I'm involved in are overwhelmingly young Vietnamese people. There's been a complete sea change in how people communicate online,” Doling said.
Nearly 49 million people in Vietnam are internet users; 60 percent of the total population of nearly 92 million are under the age of 35. It is in this context that the Vietnamese government has taken steps to embrace Facebook to reach out to a young, internet-savvy population.
The first explicit gesture from the top echelons was seen in 2015, when the then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung made international headlines by acknowledging that it was impossible to ban social media like Facebook.
"You here have all joined social networks, you've all got Facebook up on your phones to read information. We cannot ban it,” Dung told his cabinet at a meeting. “We must publish accurate information online immediately... Whatever is being said online, people will believe official information from the government."
Since then, top officials from the ruling Communist Party have repeatedly warned the press against the risk of trailing behind digital technology, urging them to capitalize on the internet and social media to spread the Party’s messages.
The government has set up its own Facebook page to keep the public in the loop on its policies or to livestream the monthly cabinet meetings where decisions on hot-buttons issues are made. The authorities also acknowledge that they have deployed a group known as "public opinion shapers" to gauge public sentiment on Facebook and to deal with “online hostile forces.”
Even the police, often the target of widespread flaks after their staff’s misconduct was exposed online, have also shown signs of embracing the platform. In Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City, police officials have used Facebook as a venue for the public to report traffic-related information or crimes.
An internet user browses through the Vietnamese government's Facebook page in Hanoi. Photo by Reuters
Analysts see Vietnam’s move to embrace Facebook, which boasts around 35 million local users, as a no-nonsense move in a country where the sudden explosion of space for free and open discussion has created a kind of high-pressure catharsis online. In 2013, the government did plan to develop its own social network for young people; but such attempts have never materialized ever since.
“The internet infrastructure developed far faster than the [Vietnamese] government's ability to regulate and control it,” Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based analyst who authored a 2015 paper about the media and civil society in Vietnam, told VnExpress International. “There is nothing the government can do to shut it down. And there are plenty of technical workarounds.”
Unlike China, which has simply blocked access to the social network since 2009, “Vietnam is surprisingly different,” Abuza said.
“The sheer size of China means that they can develop alternative platforms that they can control,” he said. Also, “the potential of gaining access to the Chinese market has given Beijing incredible leverage over western firms who have shared source code, restricted access to sensitive websites, and given back door access to Chinese authorities.”
The New York Times reported last November that in a bid to get back into China, Facebook has quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas.
Last month, the Vietnamese Ministry of Information and Communications issued a circular asking Facebook and similar sites that have a Vietnamese base with over one million users to “collaborate" with the authorities in blocking “toxic information” on these platforms. Under Vietnamese laws, such information ranges from ads for banned products to anti-state content and state secrets.
Under its new circular, the Vietnamese government will give Facebook, among others, up to 48 hours to block information falling under such purview. Failure to do so will allow local authorities to take the matter into their own hands. But when the information is considered posing a threat to Vietnam's national interests, the authorities will reserve the right to block it immediately.
All this came at a time when Facebook, which declined to comment on the circular, has raised eyebrows over its role in spreading fake news. Last September, the social media giant also came under fire for removing an image of a Vietnam War-era photo of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack. The censorship triggered a global uproar, forcing Facebook to reinstate the iconic 1972 “Napalm Girl” photograph.
Despite these issues, and amid growing concerns about superficial “clicktivism,” many Vietnamese netizens have not budged on using the platform to spread out their messages.
Tran Huu Khoa, who initiated the online petition that called for the preservation of the now-gone Saigon Tax Trade Center, said he would continue to make the most of Facebook to rally support for changing popular attitudes about urban development. He has also joined volunteer groups that seek to raise awareness among students about protecting the environment and heritage.
“I’m optimistic that a strong civil movement is growing in Vietnam,” Khoa said.