Internet censorship has evolved in Vietnam with the increasing role of government-directed “opinion shapers.”
In a new report titled “#StopVNtrolls — Combatting Force 47 and Cyber Censorship”, Viet Tan exposes the harmful networks that have been responsible for coordinated social harm and supressing public discourse in Vietnam.
The paper provides recommendations to Meta in order to cultivate a safe and authentic online environment.
Download the report in pdf.
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1. Coordinated Social Harm and Cyber Censorship
Vietnam has one of the fastest-growing internet populations in Southeast Asia, with an estimated 72 million users as of 2022.1 The widespread use of social media platforms, combined with the convenience and portability of smartphones, has emerged as a powerful tool for the Vietnamese people to express their political views.
But the unprecedented opportunity for millions of Vietnamese to share personal opinions and access unfiltered information is also seen by the Hanoi government as a threat to its monopoly on power. This newfound freedom, therefore, has come with significant risks, as users are increasingly facing harassment, intimidation, physical violence, and prosecution from state authorities determined to stamp out public debate.
Freedom House currently ranks Vietnam fifth from the bottom in terms of internet freedom, given the government’s limits on content and violation of user rights.2 Controlling access to information online has long been a priority for the Vietnamese Government.
In the 2000s and early 2010s, when the internet became more accessible to the wider population, the government blocked access using a wide-net firewall to international websites written in Vietnamese or that covered issues relating to Vietnam. As social media platforms gained in popularity, authorities sought to restrict blogging to only personal matters,3 require user data to be stored in Vietnam, and even throttle the platforms. On several occasions, Hanoi slowed traffic to Facebook when the social media giant refused to comply with requests to take down content criticizing the government.
Not able or willing to simply shut down popular platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, the authorities took a new approach. In December 2017, the government announced a 10,000-strong cyber unit to counter government criticism called Force 47.4,5 This cyber unit was tasked with trawling the internet and “being ready to fight wrongful views every second, minute, and hour”, primarily, but not only, on Facebook.6 Directed by the government, these harmful networks have been responsible for coordinated social harm with serious implications for public discourse in Vietnam.
2. Public Opinion Shapers
Vietnam’s neighbor, China, is notorious for controlling online consumption of information by way of its Great Firewall. From banning Facebook in favor of creating its own social media platform to blocking access to Google, China’s internet control is almost absolute. Hanoi, lacking the same resources, has had to carve out a different route for control. That route has manifested in the form of an imposing legion of public opinion shapers, made up of Force 47, the military’s cyber unit, and a civilian brigade, unofficially referred to as E47.7
The initial numbers of Force 47 were reported to be ten thousand strong, and while there are no official updates on the current size of the group, evidence suggests that it has grown into the many tens of thousands. The cyber army’s main target is Facebook, being the largest social media platform in Vietnam. It is, most notably, the platform where people have the relative freedom to receive and impart information, often on issues not adequately reported by the state-run media outlets. Personal profiles, community Facebook pages, and articles written by foreign journalists can all become the unwanted focus of the cyber army.8
3. Mass reporting
Internationally, social media governmental regulation remains a murky landscape and Vietnam is no exception. New cybersecurity laws passed in Vietnam in 2019, regulating content that speaks against the government, and in 2022, requiring a number of foreign companies to store data locally, have taken effect to regulate internet use. Presently, however, implementation remains arbitrary.
Social media platforms have also developed their own rules of conduct. Facebook’s guidelines as to what content is not allowed is laid out in their Community Standards. Profiles, pages, and groups that violate these guidelines receive penalties that affect their reach, monetizing privileges, and for repeat offenders, bans.
Cyber armies such as Force 47 are trained in strategies to report Community Standard violations with the end goal of causing a page or profile to be temporarily or permanently banned.10
One of the most used methods is to mass report profiles and pages for reasons that range from inciting violence to endangering public safety to spamming behavior. This can have the detrimental effect of flagging these pages to Facebook’s automated system as violating community guidelines and can lead to a significant restriction of a page’s reach or banning of a profile/page altogether. Pages run by citizen journalists and activist groups (such as Facebook Viet Tan) have been the target of such mass reporting, leading to multiple strikes that affect “Page Quality”.
A page that has zero community violations has a Page Quality of “green”, meaning the page does not have its reach restricted by Facebook. A standing of “orange” means that there are one or more violations, and Facebook is likely restricting the page’s organic reach to a certain extent. “Red” means a page has received multiple violations and faces a range of penalties that include significantly restricted reach and not being suggested to users. These penalties severely reduce the number of Facebook users who are delivered the page’s posts. The page is also in critical danger of being unpublished, although no specific details are given by Facebook as to how many more violations would result in a permanent ban. The violations (known as “strikes”) stay on the record for a year.
4. Fake Profiles and Doxxing
Creating fake social media pages of individuals and organizations is another tactic by government trolls. These accounts are used to post content inappropriate for public consumption and fake articles reversing their stance on social/political issues to change public perception of those entities. Facebook pages are also mass created aimed at creating smear campaigns against the targeted individuals.9
Controlling public perception about the government is achieved by maintaining a strong presence in the comments section of social media accounts. The comments sections are flooded with messages praising the government to create the illusion that there is grassroots support. This is referred to as “astroturfing”.10 The manipulation also includes flooding opinion polls posted about social issues/policy with pro-government answers and then exploiting the results as if to show that the people are content with the government
Finally, one of the methods used by Force 47 is to dox admins of Facebook pages. They instigate waves of harassment and bullying on personal profiles that may spill over into offline lives, creating an atmosphere of fear of speaking freely online.
5. Examples of Force 47’s Spamming and Effect
The automated systems by which Facebook monitors content on its platform has become the target of the cyber army. By mass reporting content for hate speech, bullying, and harassment even if this is not the actual case, profiles and pages are flagged by the system. As a result of these “false positive” community standard violations, posts are taken down and pages are sometimes banned. The ineffectual appeal process entirely comprises a button which triggers a request for review without allowing any input from the page’s admins. A decision is returned either withdrawing or reversing the violation.
In the case of a reversed decision, the post taken down by Facebook is republished. For a page like Viet Tan, whose activity centers around posting time sensitive news, having a post unfairly taken down and then republished by Facebook days after the news has gone cold is hardly a consolation.
Facebook’s lack of human employees who are trained in the local language and therefore able to notice the nuances between a legitimate report and a sham one skews the decisions in favor of the bad actors.11
Additionally, many of the historical and current events affecting Vietnamese society are violent in nature, such as the Tet Offensive in 1968 with well known photographs of people mourning loved ones massacred by communist troops. These images, which have been published in Western newspapers for decades, are now the pretext of mass reports triggering Facebook’s automated system. A Viet Tan post from February 2022 commemorating the anniversary of the Tet Offensive with the caption “The Tet Massacre – who was the key offender?” was falsely reported as hate speech. Facebook staff eventually reversed the decision after a prolonged appeal process during which the Viet Tan page faced restrictions due to the strike for hate speech.
Another example of suspected mass reporting against Viet Tan, which triggered a false hate speech violation in March 2021, was for a post with an image of a catholic nun kneeling in front of a group of policemen begging them to spare the lives of protesters in Myanmar. It was captioned “The actions of a Catholic nun touches the oppressors of the Burmese”. The post describing the selfless act of a nun was penalized for hate speech and the violation put the Viet Tan page in danger of being unpublished permanently by Facebook.
Coordinated attacks are not only focused on content, but also target certain time periods. There are two notable dates during the year when the cyber army is especially active: April 30th, the commemoration of the fall of Saigon, and September 2nd, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s national day. In 2022, on those two dates and for days after, the Facebook pages run by pro-democracy organization Viet Tan and media group Chan Troi Moi (New Horizon), received tens of thousands of derogatory messages in their Facebook page’s inbox, as well as had their posts flooded by thousands of inappropriate comments.
Orchestrated campaigns by the cyber army have become increasingly prevalent. A coordinated attack called #RIPVT was launched by one of the E47 groups to mass report the Viet Tan page, the end goal being to cause Viet Tan to lose the blue verification badge that labels a page as authentic. They were successful.
In October 2022, apparently automated spam messages falsely alleged that Viet Tan had abandoned one of its members in Thailand who was seeking political asylum12. For weeks, Viet Tan’s official page and the personal profiles of dozens of activists were inundated by hundreds of messages and comments a day. Many of the same activist accounts also faced spurious mass reporting that resulted in some profiles being temporarily or permanently banned.
These coordinated attacks are run through a network of public and invitation-only Facebook pages and groups, and phone app based chat groups on Whatsapp and Telegram. A rudimentary search for the term “Force 47” on Facebook will return a multitude of pages that regularly post “topics of the day” with which to watch out for on “enemy” pages that they are targeting. Followers of these Force 47 pages number in the tens of thousands. One page has over 140,000 followers.
The Intercept, a US-based news outlet, infiltrated a private E47 Facebook group and found posts about intended targets (often displayed with a red cross) and clearly laid out instructions of what members were to do7. A three step process for best results to have a page flagged was shared as well as lists of “state sanctioned” phrases and scripts were also distributed en masse to be used. In other posts, E47 members asked for help in identifying the accounts of commenters on anti-state posts to dox them and/or report them to the local authorities. Many E47 targets have been detained by the Vietnamese authorities such as activists Pham Doan Trang and Nguyen Quang Khai.
6. Facebook’s Response to Hanoi’s Demands
Once celebrated for its potential to advance freedom and democracy, social media is now facing scrutiny for its role in disseminating disinformation, inciting violence, and no longer being the force for freedom of speech it once promised. In the case of Vietnam, the reason lies in the apparent willingness of Facebook to bend to the will of the local government in order to stay operational in a market that is reportedly worth $1 billion annually.13
In February 2020, after refusing to give into the demands of the Hanoi government to censor “anti-state” content, Facebook discovered traffic to its platform in Vietnam had been significantly slowed almost to the point of inoperability.13 The stand off lasted seven weeks before Facebook announced that going forward the company would be amenable to the government’s take down requests. In the Transparency Reports published since Facebook changed its policy to comply with take down requests, there has been a 983% increase in content restrictions in Vietnam14. Facebook is becoming complicit in the Hanoi government’s censorship of political dissent.
7. The Role and Limitations of Facebook’s Oversight Board
To combat the increasing instances of the Facebook monitoring system being gamed by cyber armies, Facebook formed the independent Oversight Board which supposedly has final word on what content can stay and what should go. An analysis by Amnesty International of the Oversight Board’s bylaws, however, found that content that is restricted under local laws is not subject to review by the Oversight Board.15
In 2021, whistleblower Frances Haugen said that Facebook was aware of “adversarial harmful networks” in Vietnam that were used for the suppression of opposing voices to the government. “The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people,” Haugen told a Senate hearing. Haughen added, “If Facebook can come in there and just actively mislead the Oversight Board, I don’t know what the purpose of the Oversight Board is”.12,16
Again, even if the Oversight board were to reverse the decision to take down the content, by the time the post is republished, the window of peak distribution has long gone. Measures should be taken to prevent these events, rather than focusing on the fix after the fact.
8. Recommendations to Meta
In an effort to cultivate an online environment that is safe while fostering genuine and necessary dialogues, these are processes that Facebook should implement to eliminate the effects of harmful networks:
1) Delete the millions of reportedly fake Facebook accounts in Vietnam and consider policy changes to disincentivize flagrant “click-bait” behavior.
2) Shut down networks that engage in coordinated mass reporting and other social harms.
3) Reassess Facebook’s compliance with the Hanoi government’s requests for content takedown and increase transparency around decisions to unpublish certain content.
4) Provide an avenue for Vietnamese activists, journalists and stakeholders to appeal content takedowns and to work directly with Facebook staff when targeted by coordinated social harm campaigns.
5) Invest in training staff to filter fake community violation reports and update moderation tools to more effectively serve non English speaking communities.
Until Facebook implements practices that allow for voices of dissent to be heard over the incessant orchestrated noise of the cyber army’s mass reports, the right to uncensored political discourse in Vietnam will suffer.
Viet Tan’s Internet Freedom Campaign
The internet has helped open up Vietnamese society and connect the country with the world. In the absence of a free press, citizens have turned to social media to follow the news and debate national issues. The online political space has also nurtured the development of civil society offline.
As part of Viet Tan’s Internet Freedom Campaign, we are working with international stakeholders and Vietnamese activists to:
- Challenge arbitrary legal statutes and content takedowns restricting freedom of expression
- Urge big tech companies to ensure a safe and open online environment by addressing adversarial harmful networks and other social harms
- Support citizen journalists and imprisoned cyber activists
- Simon Kemp, “Digital 2022: Vietnam,” Data Reportal, February 15, 2022, https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2022-vietnam
- “Vietnam: Freedom On The Net,” Freedom House, October 21, 2022, https://freedomhouse.org/country/vietnam/freedom-net/2022
- Anh-Minh Do, “Yahoo To Shut Down Its Blogging Platform In Vietnam,” December 7 2012, https://www.techinasia.com/yahoo-shut-blogging-platform-vietnam
- “Vietnam army hires censors to fight ‘internet chaos’”, BBC, December 27 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-42494113
- James Hookway, “Introducing Force 47, Vietnam’s New Weapon Against Online Dissent,” The Wall Street Journal, December 27 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/introducing-force-47-vietnams-new-weapon-against-online-dissent-1514721606
- Nguyen The Phuong, “The Truth About Vietnam’s New Military Cyber Unit,” The Diplomat, January 10 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/the-truth-about-vietnams-new-military-cyber-unit/
- Sam Biddle, “Facebook Lets Vietnam’s Cyberarmy Target Dissidents, Rejecting a Celebrity’s Plea,” The Intercept, December 20, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2020/12/21/facebook-vietnam-censorship/
- James Pearson, “Facebook says it removes accounts which targeted Vietnamese activists,” Reuters, December 1, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/technology/facebook-says-it-removes-accounts-which-targeted-vietnamese-activists-2021-12-01/.
- Mai Nguyen, “Vietnam activists question Facebook on suppressing dissent,” Reuters, April 10 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-facebook-privacy-vietnam/vietnam-activists-question-facebook-on-suppressing-dissent-idUSKBN1HH0DO
- “Vietnam’s “cyber-troop” announcement fuels concern about troll armies,” Reporters Without Borders, December 1, 2018, https://rsf.org/en/vietnam-s-cyber-troop-announcement-fuels-concern-about-troll-armies
- Isabel Debre and Fares Akram,“Facebook’s language gaps let through hate-filled posts while blocking inoffensive content,” Los Angeles Time, October 25, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2021-10-25/facebook-language-gap-poor-screening-content
- “Harmful network targets Vietnamese civil society: Facebook must take action,” Viet Tan, October 28, 2022, https://viettan.org/en/harmful-network-targets-vietnamese-civil-society-facebook-must-take-action/amp/
- James Pearson, “EXCLUSIVE-Vietnam threatens to shut down Facebook over censorship requests – source,” Reuters, November 19, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/vietnam-facebook-shutdown/exclusive-vietnam-threatens-to-shut-down-facebook-over-censorship-requests-source-idUSL4N2I42EC
- “Vietnam: Facebook and YouTube ‘complicit’ in State censorship,” Amnesty International UK, December 2, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/vietnam-facebook-and-youtube-complicit-state-censorship
- “Viet Nam: Tech giants complicit in industrial-scale repression,” Amnesty International, December 1 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2020/12/viet-nam-tech-giants-complicit/
- Abram Brown, “Facebook Whistle-Blower Frances Haugen Will Speak With The Company’s Oversight Board,” October 11 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/abrambrown/2021/10/11/facebook-whistle-blower-frances-haugen-oversight-board
- James Pearson, “How Vietnam’s ‘influencer’ army wages information warfare on Facebook,” Reuters, July 8, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/how-vietnams-influencer-army-wages-information-warfare-facebook-2021-07-09/