Mob fury: tackling social media vigilantism in Vietnam

By Nhung Nguyen   June 11, 2019 | 11:37 pm PT
Mob fury: tackling social media vigilantism in Vietnam
Cyber vigilantism itself is no stranger to Vietnam, but lately it has been occurring more frequently. Illustration by VnExpress/Nhung Nguyen.
Vietnamese netizens are lauded for acting on their online anger, but they are taking the law into their hands.

Late afternoon on May 1st, when Vietnamese across the country were wrapping up a 6-day holiday combining National Reunification Day and International Labor Day, a short live video made its way around Facebook – the country’s biggest social media platform.

It showed a middle-aged man standing in front of a shaggy thatched-roof restaurant on the side of a highway, his head covered in blood. Surrounding him was a crowd of idle onlookers, dotted with a few men in police uniforms.

He had apparently quarreled with a woman in blue pajamas, it was understood that the man was beaten by the restaurant’s employees for questioning his family’s overcharged drinks.

His wife who recorded the scene on her phone narrated in broken voice, "They hit him with stones. [...] One of them used a stick. Nobody dared to intervene."

"Please share," she pledged in the caption of the video on her Facebook account, "We are now in Long An," the province that stands between Ho Chi Minh City and Mekong Delta.

Illustration by VnExpress/Nhung Nguyen

Illustrations by VnExpress/Nhung Nguyen.

Within hours, the eight-minute-long video attracted hundreds of thousands of views, and multiplied by thousands of shares and reposts. Videos titled "Long An Province's restaurant beats off customers for questioning rip-off price" went rival on numerous Facebook groups.

"Does any brother here know the exact address of this restaurant?" one angry Facebook user asked. "That restaurant needs to be cleaned off. We can’t let these scumbags make the delta and Long An people lose face like this." The call was the most-liked in an 11K-comment repost of the video on a Facebook page.

In the same thread, some suggested throwing pig blood into the place at night; others wanted to burn it to the ground. The same outrage could be felt across other pages.

Before local media could pick up the story, the call was already answered: 24 hours after the incident emerged other photos of the same restaurant, with plastic tables and stools being shred into pieces on the floor.

The place was raided by dozens of unidentified men, storming in with big sticks and blades, chasing after the owner – the woman in blue pajamas in the video, and chopping everything standing on their way. One man was reported injured.

"Karma has arrived," "justice being done" and "that’d teach them and any other cheating businesses a lesson" were common themes in the gleeful responses the vigilantism elicited.

Photos by VnExpress/Hoang Nam, Illustration by VnExpress/Nhung Nguyen

The aftermath of the online vigilantes' raid to Long An restaurant on May 2, 2019. Photos by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

Worryingly, say experts, this is not an isolated incident.

So far this year, there have been at least four cases of online vigilantism in Vietnam, following the pattern of netizens setting off an online manhunt and the "culprits" being caught and "punished" before the authorities can step in.

Unlike the name and shame versions or the human-flesh searches taking place elsewhere in the world, the "justice quests" in Vietnam usually do not stop at the targets being shamed in their neighborhood, getting fired from their jobs, having their businesses shut down, or being run out of town. Violent retribution is often sought and cheered on by legions of online bystanders. At the very least, apologies for the wrongdoing are coerced out of the alleged perpetrators. 

Not new

"Cyber vigilantism itself is no stranger to Vietnam, but lately it has been occurring more frequently," said Nguyen Minh, a local researcher majoring in semiotics in media studies.

He cited a case back in the early 2010s – the peak of online forums in the country – when a teacher was attacked after an allegation of her beating her students spread on a popular forum.

Now platforms like Facebook have taken over and are playing a big part in Vietnamese modern life. On average, they spend seven hours a day on the internet, of which nearly four hours are devoted to scrolling Facebook alone, according to the Ministry of Information and Communications.

And for half of the netizens using these sites as their main daily news source, even a small controversial act shown in the virtual world is taken seriously and acted on.

"Such vigilantism happens when people cannot wait for the government to deal with the issue. So they take justice into their own hands, crowd-sourcing the social media," Minh said.

With people getting increasingly adept at sourcing and revealing personal information online, the identity and whereabouts of the "culprit" can be revealed in hours.

All it needs is a fairly credible page to share information. "One makes the call and an online crowd answers it immediately," Minh said.

The most famous case of dispensing such "instant justice" involved an ex-prosecutor caught on camera, apparently molesting a young girl inside an elevator in Ho Chi Minh City last April. A few days later, before the police started acting on the evidence, the home address of the suspect Nguyen Huu Linh, hundreds of miles away in Da Nang City, was published online.

Unknown vigilantes swung into action without delay. Soon, his gate was sprayed with the word "paedophile"; and for days people threw trash into the house, or gathered outside to take "check in" and take selfies in front of his house. The harassment prompted Linh’s wife to write a public letter posted on Facebook, apologizing and pleading that the family is left alone.

In the first days of the latest Lunar New Year, a man in the southern province of Dong Nai found himself at the center of a sweeping manhunt by netizens on Facebook. A day earlier, a blurry dash-cam video captured him slapping a female motorist for almost hitting his jaywalking son.

As the video went viral, netizens traced the number plate of his rented car he’d parked nearby, and narrowed down his likely whereabouts. Soon a mob of strangers showed up at his home and surrounded the car, waiting for a sighting of the owner. Another mob from the neighboring Ho Chi Minh City marched to his in-law’s house and verbally abued his wife. Tension only fizzled out when the "sinner" apologized to the female motorist in her house, video taped it and posted it on Facebook.

The anger-inflaming dashcam video capturing a Dong Nai Province man hitting a passing-by female motorist on Febuary 05 2019 was shared on Facebook by its user Bao Duong.

Is justice served?

The question is: Is this really justice?

Legally speaking, this is not justice. Lawyer Le Van Nam, vice chairman of Binh Phuoc Bar Association says these cases are being "solved," not by punishing or harassing the alleged wrongdoer but also by his or her family members who have nothing to with the wrongdoing.

"By flocking to their home to denounce the family, some just for the sake of filming and gathering more "shares" and "likes" on social media, these "vigilantes" are themselves violating the laws of privacy and breaching individual’s constitutional rights to honor, dignity and prestige," he said.

In other words, two wrongs do not make a right.

"The handling of such violations is the responsibility of the authorities," Nam added, and to ensure justice for everyone, the suspects included, "the process must comply with the procedures prescribed by law, and hence it would take time."

Relief valve

However, socially speaking, these outbreaks are a symptom of underlying erosion of trust in the system, said Nguyen Quang Dong, a public policy expert from the Institute for Policy Studies.

"Online Robin Hoods will always be there as long as people think justice is not being delivered or not delivered properly," he said.

In the case of Nguyen Huu Linh, the disgraced former deputy chief prosecutor, for instance, Vietnam’s poor record on response to child abuse ranking gave rise to concerns that the legal system would yet again fail to punish the violator.

And in the case of the Long An restaurant, it took local authorities a week to issue a VND13 million ($555) fine on the owner, not for the assault, but for the lack of food safety and hygiene certificate and for the owner doing business without a price listing. (The place has since been closed and the owner and her family have moved back to their hometown in Tay Ninh Province.)

Illustration by VnExpress/Nhung Nguyen.

Illustration by VnExpress/Nhung Nguyen.

Although members of the mob attacking the restaurant have been identified, and district police have recommended the filing of criminal charges against a group of nine youngsters, aged 17 to 25, for destruction of property, some netizens have offered to pay their fines, if needed.

"One way to see the online manhunts and ensuing violence is as a valve for people to release indignation that has mounted over the years," said Nguyen Minh. "Even if people are held legally responsible, the vigilantes are still viewed by the netizens as heroic people."

However, in the long run, the vengeance that netizens seek are not to be encouraged, Minh said, adding, "They can easily spiral out of control and there will be collateral damage."

Amidst an epidemic of fake news, social media users passing moral judgements without knowing the facts of the case or having first-hand experience can be potentially dangerous, and the possibility of false accusations being used to incite violence increases, both Nguyen Minh and Quang Dong say.

Crowdsourcing justice

They also say that the government should begin to act faster to prevent potentially horrendous consequences of being outpaced in the social media era.

"They have not done a good job at communicating with the general population about what is being done," policy expert Quang Dong said, analyzing violence arising from cyberspace.

"They have not picked up the law enforcement process for a time when the demand for justice is high."

If done right, netizens can actually help authorities make both online and offline worlds more secure.

"Social media allows information flow and gathers people power, and they can help the authorities by flagging problems as well as maintaining public pressure for laws to be enforced," Dong said.

Once informed, authorities need to respond immediately, by quickly investigating any potential crime and doing it in a transparent manner so people know what is happening, Dong said.

"In the end, it is just question of people's demand for justice. (In the era of social media), it is a need that needs to be met."

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