“No, no. I think Facebook is worse than your communist government.”
That was a retort from a friend of mine, a foreign researcher on international laws on human rights, after hearing me comparing Facebook’s handling of its content restriction policies to the authoritarian ruling style of the Vietnamese regime.
“At least,” my friend continued, “Vietnam will charge an activist with a specific Penal Code, 117, 109, 331, or whatever, for writing stories that it disapproves of. From what you are saying, you don’t even know why Facebook deleted your articles. That is even more arbitrary.”
He made his comments as a joke. But he actually may have a point — a good one at that.
We had been talking on the phone, and I was venting that Facebook had decided to unilaterally delete four articles from the fan page of Luat Khoa magazine, an online publication that I manage with Trinh Huu Long, another Vietnamese activist. The reason? According to Facebook, the stories have violated its “community standards.”
No explanation was offered, our appeal was swiftly denied, and the decision was final. All four articles were gone a day after we posted them on Facebook.
How did we manage to offend the “community” on Facebook that it had to delete our stories that quick?
I wish that Facebook would care enough to explain to us why writing about the US-China trade war, Donald Trump’s life before he became president of the United States, and the border dispute between Vietnam and Cambodia, would be considered offensive.
The fourth and last “offending” piece, however, was a long, detailed analysis of different “isms” and why people choose certain ideologies to follow. Its removal, in particular, has caused me to believe that the requests to delete our stories must have come from the Vietnamese government. After all, discussing these issues — especially dancing around the idea that people can choose different ideologies for themselves — could only be “offending” to a regime controlled by the Communist Party in Hanoi. The one that penned a constitutional clause to designate its own political party to be the only leadership force in Vietnam’s government and society.
To add insult to injury, during the same time, Facebook allowed a comment from an Internet troll to remain on the review session of our page. The troll called us “animals that betrayed (the country and) not worth anyone’s attention.” Our report on this troll has remained unanswered to date; the hateful comment is still there, mocking us every day.
I have had to use a lot of my own speculations in piecing together what was going behind the scenes between Facebook and our government in this past year because Facebook has been keeping secret everything about its operation in Vietnam.
To start with, we do not have a country’s representative from Facebook to deal directly with civil society and independent media. Also, besides not telling the users which community standard a removed post has violated, the names of third-party firms that conduct fact-checking for Facebook in Vietnam are not disclosed. These entities, which hold such high authority to review and decide which content can to be allowed and what should be deleted, function totally in the dark.
That is why dealing with Facebook this past year, at times, has felt worse than writing and publishing in defiance of an authoritarian state like Vietnam: Because we have no idea who is on the side of Facebook.
With the new cybersecurity law passed in 2018 — which took effect earlier this year, in January — I would expect that in 2019, the compliance rate from Facebook to remove contents in Vietnam will increase more drastically. Now the Vietnamese government can just say that requests that may well compromise privacy as well as freedom of expression are all supported by its “legal process” under the new law. Under the new legislation, the law enforcement’s power to make requests to service providers such as Facebook has become potentially boundless. As soon as they open an investigation, the police could start making requests for data, private and otherwise, without any warrant and without any judicial oversight.
People outside of Vietnam may wonder, why do you still use Facebook?
It is a legitimate question. My reply is, if it is solely for personal leisure, I will not use it.
But we must put Facebook and its social-media platform in the context of a country like Vietnam. In Vietnam, we do not have a real-time civic space. People cannot organize or assemble peacefully on the streets without risking arrest and imprisonment. Independent media like our Luat Khoa magazine is slandered as a product of “reactionary forces” by state publications, such as the People’s Armed Forces online news site. Our website has been blocked by the government. If we attempt to open and operate from a brick-and-mortar office, it probably will get shut down by the police within 10 minutes.
The Vietnamese government could not even tolerate the political satire stirred up by Kim Jong Un impersonator Howard X, swiftly deporting him days ahead of the summit between the North Korean leader and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi in February 2019. It certainly would never allow the flourishing of an independent press.
And so both the activists and the public in Vietnam have turned to online activism and utilized cyberspace as our civic space. Since the first mass protests broke out in the summer of 2011 (and lasted for three months), protests have been organized on Facebook. Incidents of corruption, social problems such as child abuse, sexual harassment — these stories and more have been reported first on social media. Usually, they then become viral, and then get coverage in regular news.
The online civic-space movement needs to continue and not lose its momentum. Until the day that we find another, more suitable solution, Vietnamese activists will have to engage with the people and with one another on this platform that now has over 50 million users. Yet while we continue to use Facebook, we also push for it to be transparent about its policies and business practices. We are not asking Facebook to help us with our work. We ask that it be frank and up front with us.
“Secretive,” “non-transparent,” and “unaccountable” — these are words we often use to describe our government functions. We certainly do not want to start using them for Facebook.