Censorship by other means: Case study of Facebook’s community standards in Vietnam

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December 18, 2023

The Vietnamese government has traditionally censored the internet by blocking access to foreign-based websites, slowing down internet traffic, and directing technology companies to bar local users from accessing politically sensitive content. 

While direct government censorship remains a serious threat, Vietnamese activists and citizen journalists are increasingly censored by the so-called community standards of social media platforms. Facebook’s community standards, intended to protect users, are abused by malicious actors to protect the Vietnamese government and stifle free expression.

Abuse of Facebook’s Community Standards

The problem in Vietnam is as follows:

  • Accounts controlled by government actors mass report the content of individual accounts and pages run by activists.
  • The content, usually a short post or video in Vietnamese, is flagged for hate speech, violent content, or some other violation. Meta’s internal processes make an erroneous decision without understanding the context of the content or the nuances of the Vietnamese language.
  • The objectionable content is removed by Facebook and the user account/page receives a “strike” for violating Facebook’s community standards.
  • The vast majority of Vietnamese users have no avenue to appeal Facebook’s decision. In the case of activists who can communicate directly with Meta staff, the appeal process may take days or even weeks. Meanwhile, their Facebook account/page faces severe restrictions, including the possibility of being deleted from the platform.

For pages on Facebook, just one strike can get the page into yellow status and three strikes will put the page into red. Each strike stays with the page for one full year. 

A Facebook page faces increasing sanctions as it accrues strikes; and there are no amends if/when Meta reverses a strike.

Facebook Page Status

Number of strikes Page quality Penalties imposed by Facebook
0 Green  No restrictions
1 or 2 Yellow Curtailed distribution, page and individual posts not suggested to Facebook users
3 or more Red Severely curtailed distribution, lost monetization and advertising rights; page is at risk of being deleted

Viet Tan’s Experience

In 2023, Viet Tan’s Facebook page was flagged ten times for violating Facebook’s community standards. Upon further review by Meta, eight of the ten strikes were reversed. Viet Tan’s admin team believes that the remaining two strikes were also false positives and have asked Meta to reconsider the decisions.

As a leading citizen journalism platform focusing on social justice, the Viet Tan Facebook page is constantly targeted by government trolls. These malicious actors, through real and fake accounts, most likely report every single piece of content by Viet Tan as a violation, including content that is years old.

False Positives

Based on our analysis of the reported violations, the false positives against the Viet Tan page were either completely innocuous content or posts/videos in which Meta’s internal process missed the underlying context. Meta reportedly uses a combination of human moderators and AI-driven tools to make a decision. Notably, several of the Viet Tan posts that were flagged as violating Facebook’s community standards continued to be widely shared by other accounts on the platform without any interruption.


Real Punishments

The Viet Tan Facebook page started 2023 with zero outstanding strikes. Its page reach (the number of people who saw any content from the page) generally averaged 1 to 2 million per day and occasionally surpassed 4 million. Posts that went viral would boost the page’s overall engagement and reach. Over 90 percent of Viet Tan’s followers were based inside Vietnam as of December 2023.

As the following graph shows, Viet Tan’s page reach immediately decreased with the second and third strikes and usually took several days to recover following the reversal of a strike. 

On occasions when the page had three strikes outstanding, its reach plummeted to about 100,000 — or less than 10 percent of the previous daily reach. The constant mass reporting against Facebook Viet Tan and cycle of false strikes effectively silenced this important space for independent news and discussion for extended periods.

It is worth noting that just one initial strike caused Viet Tan’s page reach to immediately drop from 3.3 million to under 1 million. On March 30, 2023, Viet Tan received a violation for “suicide and self injury” — for a post that questioned why Vietnamese police frequently attributed suicide as the cause of death for individuals under police detention. The article criticized the practices of security police, but was reported as promoting suicide. This is an example of the abuse of Facebook’s community standards and how Facebook’s internal processes can miss the context and meaning of a post in Vietnamese.

Viet Tan’s experience is by no means unique. Many Vietnamese pro-democracy activists — including human rights lawyer Nguyen Van Dai, blogger Nguyen Van Hai, and journalist Thao Le of V5TV — have indicated that their user accounts and pages were severely restricted or deleted due to apparently false community standard violations.

Recommendations for Meta

Thus far, Meta has taken a mostly reactive approach to the blatant abuse of their community standards. This could be due to understaffing in the human rights and policy teams or — as some activists suspect — an inexplicable acquiesence by Meta in the face of malicious, government-directed actors. Whatever the underlying reason, the net effect is backdoor censorship.

To maintain the integrity of the Facebook platform, Meta needs to:

  1. Change its strike policy: questionable content could be taken down pending further review, but the page should not face sanctions until the appeals process has been completed. In addition, pages should not be sanctioned for trivial offenses or content that was posted in the past (e.g., more than a year ago).
  2. Revisit its community standards in authoritarian societies: this requires distinguishing between truly harmful content and citizen journalism that exposes official wrongdoing and social injustice. As a global company, Meta must invest in more sophisticated language filters as well as real life staff to review the context and nuance of post content, rather than relying on automated processes.
  3. Address fake accounts and harmful networks: accounts that constantly trigger abuse reports should be ignored; users or activist pages that are constant recipients of mass reporting should receive added protection against the inevitable “false positives.”

Meta’s community standards are well intended, but easily abused by bad actors — especially in authoritarian societies like Vietnam where free expression is under threat.

Recommendations for Stakeholders

We need to hold the technology companies accountable. Specifically, human rights activists, journalists, and elected officials should:

  1. Call on Meta to refine its moderation policies (as recommended above) and to provide transparency into the impact of mass reporting and harmful networks on the Facebook platform. 
  2. Consider how other social media policies and procedures (such as Facebook and YouTube’s copyright protections) are being abused by malicious actors to take down content.

The challenge to free expression in Vietnam is two-fold: the classic censorship by the Hanoi government and the moderation policies of social media platforms that are prone to abuse by harmful networks.

Duy Hoang, Michel Tran Duc

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