Why Vietnam can’t hold back Facebook

By Dien Luong   September 10, 2017 | 07:00 pm GMT+7
Why Vietnam can’t hold back Facebook
Internet users browse the Internet near an advertising billboard for 4G connection service at a bus-stop in Hanoi. Photo by Reuters/Kham

Unlike China, Vietnam has embraced Facebook, with plans for creating a homegrown rival courting skepticism.

The dismissal of a high-ranking Communist Party bigwig. The “voluntary return” of a fugitive executive hunted in a widening corruption crackdown. The exposure of the shady assets of a public official.

Vietnamese readers first got wind of all those headline-grabbing developments thanks to Facebook, not the mainstream media, crystalizing how the social media giant is well ahead in a country where more than half of its nearly 92 million people are online.

Nguyen Cong Khe, Thanh Nien newspaper’s retired founding editor, wrote in a 2014 New York Times op-ed that Vietnamese readers, hungry for more up-to-speed news, were leaving traditional media outlets in droves for an anonymous blogosphere dominated by Facebook.

That has barely changed in the past three years. The Communist Party, which has repeatedly warned traditional media that it risks trailing behind digital technology, today urges the newspapers to capitalize on the Internet and social media to spread the Party’s messages.

“Nowadays, it is the early-bird newspaper, not the major one, that will triumph,” Vo Van Thuong, the head of the Communist Party's propaganda organ, said at a meeting last month. When social or digital foreign media break stories first, they've already won public recognition, leaving Vietnam’s mainstream media well behind, he added.

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More than half of Vietnam's population of nearly 92 million people are online. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

A local alternative to Facebook has been contemplated for years by Party officials. Just in April, information minister Truong Minh Tuan said at a parliamentary hearing that Vietnamese startups should eventually replace Facebook with their own networks. China, where alternatives like Weibo dominate, has been without Facebook for years.

But unlike in China, the social media giant is here to stay in Vietnam. Vietnam is among Facebook’s top 10 countries by users. The country now boasts more than 52 million active accounts to advertisers, Reuters has reported, citing social media agencies We Are Social and Hootsuite.

The reason is not hard to fathom: Vietnam lacks the financial wherewithal and leverage over Western firms like Facebook or Google to simply block them. The sheer size of China means that it can develop alternative platforms and put them under its control.

“As large as Vietnam is, attempts at establishing domestic social media platforms have failed,” Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based professor who authored a 2015 paper about the media and civil society in Vietnam, said.

“I can tell you, anecdotally, that my five Vietnamese Facebook friends account for almost 40 percent of the posts on my timeline,” Abuza said. “I think that if the government really tried to shut it down it would provoke such a backlash.”

Even former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung admitted defeat when the social network he instructed the Central Youth Union to create in 2013 failed to get off the ground. Two years after the project failed to materialize, he acknowledged at a cabinet meeting that banning Facebook would be impossible.

The bottom line is it is virtually impossible for the country to reach a critical mass of users required to prompt an exodus from the social media giant, according to experts.

Analysts agree, however, that Vietnam’s social media market is rife for growth even if local companies cannot supplant the multinationals from Silicon Valley.

“Vietnam's young and growing population, combined with rising disposable income will support an increase in smartphone usage and technology services in the coming years, helping to further fuel the popularity of social media platforms, such as Facebook,” Alice Mummery, the Asia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said.

Furthermore, Facebook has arguably already had a tangible impact on shaping government policy.

Recently, after Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc gave Quang Binh province the go-ahead to build a cable car in the UNESCO-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, the Vietnamese netizen community was left on tenterhooks.

The activists responded by initiating another online petition aiming to save Son Doong, whose fate is anything but certain as the authorities remain elusive on their final decision.

While it remains to see if online pressure will scrap the cable car project, it would not be the first time that Vietnamese internet users had successfully petitioned the government.

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 also 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.

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To Internet-savvy Vietnamese youth, there's always a lot of fascinating stuff going on on the internet and social networks. In Vietnam, organized opposition to dizzying development at the expense of natural attractions or colonial heritages has found an unlikely ally: Facebook. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

The government has conceded to Facebook’s popularity by setting up its own page to keep the public in the loop on its policies. It even live streams press conferences that take place after its monthly cabinet meetings.

Apart from trying to appear responsive to public sentiment, the Vietnamese government has also acknowledged that it has deployed "public opinion shapers" to both gauge public sentiment on Facebook and counteract “hostile online forces”.

But on the other hand, authorities have always sought to get a better handle on what is being published on social media. The Ministry of Information and Communications in January issued a circular asking Facebook and similar sites with more than one million Vietnam-based users to collaborate with authorities to block “toxic” content, ranging from ads for banned products to anti-state content.

The ministry also asked Google to block and remove 2,200 clips on YouTube that it said slandered and defamed Vietnamese leaders. Google partially obeyed, removing nearly 1,300 such clips in April,

“We have clear policies for removal requests from governments around the world, and those polices have not changed,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement in May when asked if the company would modify its rules to accommodate the requests of the Vietnamese government. 

Content that is sensationalistic, inflammatory or outright untrue is partially why Facebook, which has declined to comment for this story, is popular in the first place, said Tri Phuong, a researcher at Yale University who is studying new media technologies, urban youth cultures, and digital communities in Vietnam.

“The architecture of the Facebook page is designed to boost ‘followership' and encourage constant content production by users to boost their profiles,” Phuong said. “As such, this underlying digital architecture would provoke such phenomenon as click-baiting, sensationalism and fake news – all designed to increase public attention and followers,” he added.

If this is the context in which Vietnam looks to develop a native social media platform to rival Facebook, it is caught in a Catch-22. Obviously, the government will not want to make its homegrown social media network another fertile ground for dishonest online anarchy. But if Vietnam seeks to curb such elements by creating a new social network, “people will simply not use it,” Phuong said.

VnExpress International spoke to more than a dozen young Vietnamese Facebook users to ask whether they would switch to a homegrown social media if built. The result? An overwhelming majority of them said no; a few said they would try, but saw no reason to abandon Facebook altogether.

“I would switch to a homegrown network only if it offers services that are much cooler than Facebook’s,” a 24-year-old real estate agent in Hanoi said, declining to be named. “But can it?”

*Staff reporters contributed reporting.