In recent weeks, well-known Vietnamese activists have found themselves suddenly unable to log in to their Facebook accounts. Their personal pages have been suspended for “abuse” even though there was no apparent violation of any Facebook policy.
According to Angelina Trang Huynh, who temporarily lost access to her Facebook account earlier this month, the culprit is the Vietnamese government’s online army, known as “opinion shapers” (dư luận viên). These opinion shapers used Facebook's “report abuse” system to orchestrate an onslaught of reports that likely led Facebook to suspend the targeted accounts.
With 25 million Vietnamese users, Facebook is the social network in the country. Since Facebook took off in Vietnam in 2009, authorities have tried unsuccessfully to restrict its explosive growth and role as a medium for free expression.
Early attempts by authorities to block Facebook did not succeed and only encouraged netizens to learn how to circumvent and became versed in civil disobedience.
In 2013, 30-year old Dinh Nhat Uy was 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 also used social media to express dissent. Uy’s arrest sparked widespread attention but did not temper enthusiasm for using the social network for political discussion and organizing.
It appears that Vietnamese authorities have given up on totally blocking Facebook. The country’s economy and image depend on authorities maintaining some semblance of an open Internet.
However, through “opinion shapers” authorities apparently hope to achieve their goal of stifling free speech. This online army has been blamed for creating an environment of intimidation and harassment, as evidenced by their tidal wave of toxic and profanity-laden comments.
By flagging an account en masse, not unlike a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, these government henchmen can quickly trigger the takedown of a Facebook profile or community page with content critical of the Hanoi government.
Facebooker Trinh Huu Long posted a list of accounts taken down recently. It reads like a list of who’s who in the Vietnamese online activist community:
15. Nguyen Lan Thang – blogger
16. Nguyen Tien Trung – former prisoner of conscience, recently released on April 12, 2014
17. Nguyen Tuong Thuy – blogger
18. Nhat Ky Yeu Nuoc – a news/media page
Expect Vietnamese netizens to strike back, says Angelina Trang Huynh:
Offline, the authorities wield security police to physically abuse peaceful activists. Online, they use ‘opinion shapers’ to silence bloggers. Does the Vietnamese government really think they can get away with this abuse?