How Vietnam’s state trolls are undermining free speech and democracy

Vietnam laptop in an Internet cafe

There are an estimated 70 million internet users in Vietnam. Photo from Flickr account of Professional Photographer Marco Verch, (CC BY 2.0)

Vietnam has deployed an army of online trolls and cyber troops who are spreading not just disinformation but also conducting vicious hate campaigns against human rights activists and suspected critics of the state.

The extent of the operations of these trolls is detailed in a new report released by the human rights watchdog Viet Tan. Titled “#StopVNtrolls — Combatting Force 47 and Cyber Censorship,” the report “exposes the harmful networks that have been responsible for coordinated social harm and suppressing public discourse in Vietnam.”

Viet Tan has members throughout Vietnam and among diaspora communities in many parts of the world who are advocating for democratic reforms. However, it is officially outlawed by the Vietnamese government.

Vietnam’s military has a cyber unit known as Force 47, whose principal task is to defend the ruling party by flooding the internet with pro-government content. It has around 10,000 members, but the figure could be higher since it collaborates with a civilian brigade unofficially referred to as E47.

But Force 47 members do not just manipulate content to shape public opinion favorable to the government since they are also notorious for doxing the online accounts of activists and other users who are critical of authorities.

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.

Force 47 members have also exploited the community standards of social media platforms like Facebook to campaign for the suspension or banning of pages that highlight the abuses of the government. Viet Tan, for example, is often targeted by mass reporting, which has led to the frequent suspension of its page.

Michel Tran Duc, advocacy director of Viet Tan, shared their experience in dealing with the state trolls through an email interview with this author:

It’s a daily struggle for a small number of volunteers who are facing several thousands of paid trolls. It’s like David against Goliath.

Our volunteers work by conviction. State trolls are paid to spread the régime's propaganda. So when confronted with factual arguments, they quickly run out of ideas and react with insults. The more heinous they are, the more people see their true face.

Michel Tran Duc added that Facebook should carefully review its mechanisms in enforcing community standards, especially in cases that lead to the suspension or even removal of the accounts of human rights groups.

On the mass reporting front, we rely on the Facebook human rights team to revert decisions taken by Meta’s bot. We urge Meta to cross check systematically all reporting on human rights NGOs pages such as Viet Tan to avoid falling in trolls’ trap.

Viet Tan’s appeal is supported by at least 60 groups and individuals who signed a letter urging Facebook to work with all stakeholders to prevent the platform from being weaponized to silence dissent.

Facebook has revolutionized how we consume, create, and share information. But it has also increasingly become a tool to suppress the very freedom of expression it was meant to promote, as political actors have manipulated the platform to curtail dissent and harass opponents.

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.

Facebook has yet to reply to the letter, but Michel Tran Duc believes that the collective effort is important in demanding accountability from the tech company.

We’ve received no response from Meta. Meta may ignore one voice, but if a large coalition of NGOs and elected people urge Meta for accountability, they’ll answer. We’ll continue our advocacy work and raise awareness on this issue.

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