Social networks have become a bigger part of Vietnam’s internet-savvy community, but it's too bad they all too often serve as an arena for public shaming and hate speech, a new study has found.
The Vietnam Program for Internet and Society (VPIS) at the Vietnam National University in Hanoi, which surveyed more than 1,000 internet users, found 78 percent were either victims or had witnessed public condemnation, the research team said at a conference on Wednesday.
Pham Hai Chung, a communications and internet expert from the team, said that hate speech and shaming mostly comes in the form of slanderous and defamatory messages.
The survey found victims were usually helpless and the only way they could fight back was to ask network operators to remove the messages, which usually took time and did not always happen.
“A verbal slur can be forgotten, but a statement made online can stay there forever,” said Chung, who received a lot of online abuse herself when she wrote an essay about poor Vietnamese reading habits on a news website in 2015. She was criticized for being condescending with her western education.
Online hate speeches spare no targets.
An automobile engineer was accused of “buying her diploma” after she failed a cooking question on a Vietnamese game show last November. A woman was shamed and teased for using her bra as a face mask to run from a fire in Hanoi. Two babysitters accused of child abuse in Ho Chi Minh City received continuous insults online after they were sentenced to three years in jail in 2014.
"Online hate speech undermines the free space and the safety for internet users and is a serious gender issue since it is often targeting women," said Andreas Mattsson, who teaches journalism at Lund University in Sweden.
"It is very important that we share experiences and solutions between us since similar patterns are shown in many places," said Mattsson, who attended the conference.
Dang Hoang Giang, deputy head of the Hanoi-based Center for Community Support Development Studies, said at the conference that online shaming is a continuity of a feudal ideology that says punishment must be made public and be watched by everyone.
Giang said that online hate speech occurs when people consider themselves vigilantes who can right the wrongs and judge anyone.
That kind of violence is the same as mob attacks against dog thieves or traffic violators, he said. “It’s the justice of fury.”
Experts at the conference said attackers should learn to accept other people’s differences, while the victims should be brave and fight back instead of staying silent and letting online shaming become part of our culture.
Cao Hoang Nam, a coordinator for the VPIS, said the Vietnamese government should ask social network providers to take greater responsibility to prevent online attacks and make the internet a fairer place.
Nearly 49 million people in Vietnam, or more than half of the country’s population, are online, and more than 35 million of them are active on social networks, mostly Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. A VPIS study found that Vietnamese spend an average of 138 minutes every day on social networks, 30 percent more than the global average.
But meanwhile, top officials from Vietnam's 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.”
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.”
In January, the 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.