Authorities in Vietnam are moving to cripple the online voices of dissidents by blasting a deluge of reports on their Facebook pages accusing them of abusing the popular social network, triggering an automatic shutdown of their public pages and profiles, activists said.
Among the pages recently attacked by the ruling Communist Party’s Vietnam’s online army of “opinion shapers” were those of Vietnamese opposition reform party Viet Tan and dissident journal Patriot Diary, as well as those of well-known activist bloggers Me Nam, Co Gai Do Long, Nguyen Quang Lap, and Nguyen Lan Thang.
A Vietnamese journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, provided RFA’s Vietnamese Service with a screenshot of what he alleged was the profile of a person paid by the Vietnamese government to post communist propaganda online and “report” on dissident Facebook pages.
In the screenshot, a recent post by the user bragged of having shut down Viet Tan’s Facebook page in June by bombarding reports in a space provided on the page for alleging abuse.
“After an attack using 5,000 accounts at once, our community iSocial stopped the main fan page of Viet Tan,” the posting reads.
It said that Viet Tan tried creating a new fan page but on the same day “in just five short hours through the strength of our community and with almost 200,000 accounts attacking with nonstop reports, this fan page is now dead, along with its predecessor.”
“This feat from our comrades deserves a medal for model keyboard soldiers from the party and government.”
Another method activists say these government-recruited opinion shapers use to try to cripple dissidents’ Facebook pages is posting a vast number of explicit and derogatory comments on them.
The overload of comments makes it difficult for the dissidents to edit the content being displayed, forcing Facebook to shut it down, activists said.
Viet Tan advocacy director Angelina Trang Huynh acknowledged the June attack, telling RFA that the “latest effort by the Hanoi government to restrict Facebook usage by Vietnam's online community shows how afraid the authorities are of free expression and social media.”
Huynh said that Viet Tan had been working with advocates of Internet freedom to “address the problem of government-sponsored ‘opinion shapers.'”
Facebook had been helpful in recovering the affected accounts, she said, “but we need to find a long term solution that prevents the abusers from faking abuse reports.”
It is unclear exactly how many people are employed by the government as part of its bid to censor Internet content, though their existence has been acknowledged, including early last year by an official, who said some 900 have been mobilized as monitors in Hanoi alone.
Facebook is Vietnam’s hottest trending social network, with 25 million of the country’s 36 million Internet users claiming to have an account with the site, according to a survey by the Danish marketing firm Epinion, conducted in April.
The survey said that Facebook has seen its number of subscribers double annually in Vietnam since it became popular in 2009, adding that some 78 percent of users say the social network is their preferred channel for sharing information online in the country.
Authorities view Facebook as a threat to their monopoly on the flow of information in the tightly-controlled nation, and activists say previous blocks to access of the full site were the work of the government, though there has been no official acknowledgement by Hanoi.
Blogger Me Nam told RFA that Facebook has allowed a large community of users in Vietnam to interact and spread information very quickly, which has intimidated the regime.
“If people read something that interests them and is easily accessible, they will actively seek out more information,” Me Nam said.
“That is the reason why I think media activists are given restricted Facebook access.”
An administrator of the well-known Facebook page Nhat Ky said that the site guarantees anonymity in a country that lacks a free press and where information is subjected to strict censorship.
“We don’t have any faster means of providing information which is free from censorship than Facebook,” the administrator said of why the government has repeatedly targeted the site.
Alleged government blocks to the full Facebook site within Vietnam have previously prompted users to employ proxy servers and other methods of anonymous web browsing to hide their origin and access the site by circumventing firewalls.
But by blocking individual pages within Facebook through reports of abuse, Hanoi can project an image of tolerance of free speech to the outside world by allowing the wider site to remain accessible while restricting the opposition from using it to voice their dissent.
An administrator of Patriot Diary said that the journal’s Facebook page had been under attack by “those who do not like the flow of many different points of views and opinions” since its launch.
“Since our establishment, those who do not like pluralism and want to impose the views of the current regime have reported our page,” he said.
Viet Tan’s Huynh said that the party plans to fight back against online censorship in Vietnam, but not through the use of methods favored by the government.
“We spend our time on Facebook aimed at promoting free Internet and free speech and providing true information to netizens. We don’t massively report [abuse] on [official government] pages. That’s their job,” she said.
“Only when the public has the right to true information—an issue that the country’s netizens have been most concerned about—will the government earn our support.”
In 2013, 30-year old Dinh Nhat Uy became the first Vietnamese activist known to be arrested for his activities on Facebook.
He was convicted for “abusing democratic freedoms” through status updates calling for the release of his younger brother, who had also used social media to express dissent.
Uy was released from prison in October last year after receiving a suspended sentence and is subject to strict surveillance under probation.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.