Factoring social media into the checks and balances of governance

October 30, 2022 | 04:39 pm PT
Nguyen Khac Giang Researcher
My days start and end with scrolling through online news. I wouldn't be surprised if many of the 60 million internet users in Vietnam have adopted variations of this routine.

These days, instead of reading a newspaper first thing in the morning with one’s first cup of tea or coffee, or waiting for the daily news bulletin on Vietnam Television at 7 p.m., which used to be the main source of information for several generations, people can simply open their phones any time for news updates on social media.

The new habit is so widespread that almost 48% of Vietnamese people cited social media as their main source of news, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey. This is a staggering figure, which would have, we can safely assume, increased significantly after the prolonged Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions.

This major shift in how people consume media and news has many profound social impacts and implications.

One of the most visible ones, in my opinion, is how social media plays a role in monitoring public officers who can potentially abuse their privileges for personal interest.

Such abuses of privilege and powers are more readily unraveled when social media functions like monitoring cameras.

For example, the case of some traffic police officers in Soc Trang Province aggressively beating citizens for some alleged violation, or a public officer in Da Nang scornfully throwing spare change at normal people were recorded by fellow citizens, which eventually led to the formal disciplining of those public servants.

The government itself is reaping the benefits of an informal monitoring system that maintains discipline among public workers at almost no cost.

With the "homemade" videos of citizens, public officers who violate the code of conduct will not be able to deny any legitimate allegations with any credibility. This has slowly become a pattern. A good example of this is the fact that many citizens, upon being stopped by traffic policemen, take out their phones to record the conversation and this offsets the possibility of officers blatantly asking for bribes.

The aforementioned instances in Soc Trang and Da Nang are examples of clear admonitions for public officers abusing the power that is granted to them by the people. Nowadays, public exposure of inappropriate actions by social media could mean a harsher sentence than any internal punishment. It could even mean curtains to a career in public service.

Of course, this new manifestation of "public power" is not without its problems. In a world where every person can be an investigator and millions of online viewers are potential sitting judges, the possibility of deliberately produced fake news or information released with malicious intent could distort reality and even prosecute innocent officers for crimes they did not commit.

We have to recognize that there is no shortage of opportunistic people looking to profit from sowing confusion in a chaotic world or some ideologically-driven individuals looking to subvert an entire system. We have seen the social media manipulations that have been happening to influence major events like the election of the U.S. president or the Brexit discussions.

So how can the government control social media and to what extent should it do so? There are no easy answers to such questions. Nor is social media control an easy task, given the enormous volumes of online content generated every second.

So while there seems to be some understandable justification for authorities trying to tighten their grip on social media via administrative tools, we have to be clear that such efforts should not affect the constitutionally guaranteed rights of citizens to monitor the government and its officers.

Some salient points come to mind. First, instead of banning/controlling social media because of its negative side, we should aim to utilize the benefits it brings while minimizing its side effects. If managed properly, social media can contribute tremendously to monitoring the code of conduct of public officers, leading to a more efficient and transparent system. Monitoring the system is a democratic right of citizens that should never be limited or abolished.

Second, the government itself should realize that it is with such monitoring mechanisms being readily available that it can gain the support of citizens. When popular support seems tough to attain, some governments decide to use suppression as a way to control society – an undemocratic move. As Vietnam is committed to democratic rights, strengthening the right of citizens to monitor the government and providing the means to do so is an essential step.

Third, public monitoring is only the first step. Instead of punishing individual public officers who abuse their power, we should strive to restructure our systems to fundamentally eliminate the source of corruption and wrongdoing.

The undeniable right of citizens to monitor has been regularized and enhanced by the advancement of technology in the form of social media.

But just as there are checks and balances for preventing abuse of power, there should be checks and balances to minimize and prevent abuse of this "public power."

If this is achieved, we can benefit from an inexpensive but effective system of keeping public officials honest and making the governance apparatus more transparent, efficient and accountable.

*Nguyen Khac Giang, a researcher in policy making and government transparency, is a PhD candidate at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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