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Inside Vietnam's top-down disinformation campaign

March 31, 2024
topic:Freedom of Expression
tags:#Vietnam, #freedom of press, #censorship, #misinformation
by:Hướng Thiện
The Communist Party of Vietnam holds a monopoly over domestic news outlets and imposes increasingly strict regulations on social media. Yet voices of dissent continue to emerge.

Hanoi brimmed with festivities when US President Joe Biden visited Vietnam in early September last year to elevate bilateral relations between the two countries to a 'comprehensive strategic partnership.' The status transformation from adversaries to allies was extensively covered by Vietnamese media.

Numerous local outlets published the Vietnamese version of the speech delivered by Biden during his visit. However, his statement on human rights was omitted without explanation. 

"I also raised the importance of respect for human rights as a priority for both my administration and the American people. And we’ll continue to - our candid dialogue in that regard," said Biden in the scrapped part of his speech.

The removal of this statement did not come as a surprise to many, as human rights have long been a moot point between the two countries. Thus far, the US has been the most outspoken critic of Vietnam's human rights record and the most popular destination for exiled Vietnamese dissidents (FairPlanet’s contacts claimed that the precise numbers have not been disclosed for security reasons).

Vietnamese readers had not heard such a statement from an American top leader in quite some time, as Trump chose to turn a blind eye the country's human rights issues.

Under a one-party rule of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), the Vietnamese government severely restricts constitutionally-recognised rights to freedom of expression. According to Reporters Without Borders, in 2023, Vietnam's press freedom ranking dropped two places compared to 2022, and now stands at 178th out of 180 countries, coming only ahead of China and North Korea. 

In 2020, the Vietnamese government introduced Decree No. 15/2020/ND-CP, which established clear administrative penalties for individuals who spread false information on social media. These penalties come in addition to any civil or criminal consequences related to Party-defined acts such as distortion, slander and defamation.

All the while, the state has devised sophisticated, methodic ways to disseminate its top-down disinformation, as 78,1 per cent of the population use social media and rely primarily on Facebook as their source for domestic news. 

Mistranslation of international news

Discrepancies between international and domestic coverage of topics in Vietnam are not uncommon.

One example of that is the portrayal of the country's national anthem. On numerous international outlets, the Vietnamese anthem, Tiến quân ca (Army Marching Song) has been labeled as one of the world's most violent anthems for years.

Written in 1944 by Văn Cao and adopted as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam's anthem in 1976, following the country's reunification a year after the Fall of Saigon, this song is a staple in schools where students sing it weekly during the flag-saluting ceremony, with lyrics like "Đường vinh quang xây xác quân thù." (The path to glory is built by the bodies of our foes).

Yet in Vietnam's state-controlled media, the anthem is touted as one of the most glorious and heroic anthems globally, showcasing a stark contrast in portrayal.

Mai, a retired civil servant from Hanoi who does not speak English, received the news regarding the national anthem with pride. But when she shared it on Facebook, her English-speaking friends pointed out that it was "mistranslation."

"I was shocked," said Mai. "I have never thought of the song as violent."

Yet, Mai, like many Vietnamese citizens, was aware that party mouthpieces could not be trusted. Since 2017, she depends on Facebook as her main source of local news. 

"I listened to hard news channels to know the state's policies, but after that, I would check Facebook," said Mai. 

Omission of major news stories

Online media outlets in Vietnam are currently all controlled by the state. As per Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh's National Development and Management Plan for the Press, which is in place until 2025, news outlets have to be affiliated with a state agency.

According to the Plan, private media companies are no longer permitted to produce news. This top-down move was exalained by the government as a way to restrict the so-called "news-isation of media outlets."

As a result, significant current affairs that are deemed as likely to trigger social debates that could put the legitimacy of the CPV in jeopardy are often omitted. This is particularly true of news regarding democracy movements across the world, including the youth-led Hong Kong Umbrella Movement in 2014, youth protests in Myanmar following the coup d'état in early 2021 and the 2012 Arab Spring.

Unwritten rules must be obeyed by journalists working at state-owned outlets, otherwise the latter would face financial consequences. 

Clamping down on Domestic press

In 2018, Chu Hảo, former Deputy Minister of Science and Technology and Director of Tri Thức Knowledge Publishing House, was disciplined for publishing Western classic books including The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek and On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, which were deemed by as "subversive" the Party-state.

Hảo, who was born in 1940 and has long been a well-respected public intellectual, had largely escaped punishment thanks to his family’s close ties to founding president Ho Chi Minh and due to his positive contributions to Vietnam’s science and technology sector.

A few days later, he opted to withdraw his Party membership.

Yet, in the state-affiliated media, Hảo was reported to have been expelled from the Party by the Central Inspection Commission for his "moral degradation" and "refusal to make amends for his serious mistakes."

"Mr. Chu Hảo's actions have seriously violated the resolutions, directives, and regulations of the Party, clearly demonstrating a decline in political ideology, 'self-transformation,' and 'self-evolution,' as explicitly stated in Resolution 4 of the 12th Central Committee," read an article on a Party mouthpiece.

Vietnamese audiences are familiar with the concept of opinion shapers, informally known as dư luận viên. This includes the use of Force 47, a group of state-backed opinion makers active on social media to disseminate disinformation, alongside other journalists tasked with promulgating fake news.

Disinformation is generated by state-affiliated journalists under pressure to obey editors in chief and, above all, the Department of Propaganda (Ban Tuyên Giáo). As the government inspected Tiktok for national security reasons, state-affiliates were instructed to draft anti-TikTok news. 

"It is not accidental that many outlets criticised Tiktok together," said reporter Hà. "We have been told to do so."

Nguyễn Quốc Tấn Trung, a public international history doctoral researcher at the University of Victoria, Canada' Faculty of Law and a published author on human rights, observed "an ontological shift in Vietnam's younger population."

"The influence of Western identity politics and the 'banality' of globalisation seems to turn them into active defenders of the political regime, as the communist ethnic nation-state has become their fixed reality in the new world," said Nguyễn. "The regime's facts have become their facts."

"Therefore," he added, "the question is not about whether or how to combat these kinds of propaganda. It is about whether anyone can convince them that these 'constructed facts' are not necessarily facts. Due to this phenomenon, we can easily observe the organic and wilful projections of political propaganda onto social media like TikTok, initiated by the regime's epistemic domination yet enthusiastically adopted by ordinary internet users."

Even with Vietnam's membership in the UN Human Rights Council, the country continues to witness the imprisonment and persecution of activists and independent journalists. Accusations of defamation have surged against activists, independent journalists, public intellectuals and foreign-based outlets in Vietnam, with officials labeling them as "reactionary forces, hostile forces or bad elements to circulate propaganda against the state."

According to Nguyễn, the manipulation of information and political indoctrination extend beyond adulation of the Party leadership.

"Using U.S. politics as talking points and battlegrounds, radicalising young people to get involved in the so-called 'anti-imperialist' / 'anti-hegemonic' global activism (thus turning human rights discussions in Vietnam into foreign interventions), discrediting opposition groups by luring them into believing wrong information... are just a few tactics that I have observed in the past two years," he said.

Angelina Trang Huỳnh, Executive Director of VietnamRise, a US-based organisation that seeks to promote social movements in Vietnam, shared that her organisation is the target of verbal attacks on Vietnamese official media.

She and other leaders of the organisation are often framed as "hostile forces" or "terrorists" who wish to overthrow the Party despite the fact that they have never been approached or interviewed by state-affiliated journalists.

"At first we did publicly address it, but then we stopped doing so because many young people don't really pay attention to state media. They know it’s state propaganda," said Huỳnh. "Nevertheless, this kind of propaganda, or disinformation, can be harmful if it gets repeated enough."

Yet, she realised that as an NGO, her media coverage pales in significance to that of the Vietnamese government, which holds a monopoly over traditional media in the country of 100 million. 

"Instead of issuing public statements, we find it to be more effective to do direct outreach to the community," she said. "The key to fighting this kind of disinformation is to inform the community through first-hand experience, personal touch and word of mouth.

I think that independent media can certainly play a role in fighting this issue. They can reach out to us, shed light on our stories and work and not repeat state propaganda."

Social media companies' collusion

On 29 September, 2022, Reuters published an exclusive report unveiling the Vietnamese government's intention to tighten its grip over online news and information channels. The report states that the ruling CPV is in the process of formulating new regulations that will restrict the ability of certain social media accounts to share news-related content.

These rules aim to establish a legal framework that would control the distribution of news on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.

Meta and Google complied with the state by removing content considered "illegal" within 24 hours of receiving a request from the authorities.

Additionally, Meta has implemented an internal list of Vietnamese Communist Party officials that are not to be criticised on Facebook.

"I am really particularly concerned about the safety of journalists and of the people in Vietnam," said Vi-Quỳnh Trần, editor-in-chief of The Vietnamese, an English magazine covering justice issues in Vietnam that was blocked inside the country. 

Trần drew attention to the business sector, which she believes can help change the game.

"I hope that Western social media companies, such as Facebook, would care about the people they serve in the region," said Trần. "They enjoyed the freedom in their own countries. They should uphold those values for the people who do not have access to them."

Nguyễn Quốc Tấn Trung advocates for the adoption of the M&M (Moderation and Monitoring) method for wiser consumption of news.

"'Moderation' is vital because both ultra-left and ultra-right have been notorious for disinformation campaigns recently," said Nguyễn.

"Situating oneself at both ends of the political spectrum risks losing our rationality and our intuition. 'Monitor' means not consuming news or information as if it is just a minor part of our life. Scrolling is not enough. The sophistication of disinformation nowadays forces us to read news like it is a part of our job to survive daily. That might help to conceptualise the seriousness of reading news and develop an effective strategy for each individual."

Image by Ryan Le.

Article written by:
Hướng Thiện
Embed from Getty Images
The US has been the most outspoken critic of Vietnam's human rights record and the most popular destination for exiled Vietnamese dissidents.
Embed from Getty Images
According to Reporters Without Borders, in 2023, Vietnam's press freedom ranking dropped two places compared to 2022. It now stands at 178th out of 180 countries, coming only ahead of China and North Korea.
Embed from Getty Images
Online media outlets in Vietnam are currently all controlled by the state.