8 votes

The Vietnamese military has a troll army and Facebook is its weapon

1 comment

  1. cmccabe

    On Christmas Day 2017, Vietnam’s defense ministry announced a military group devoted to policing the country’s internet, called Force 47. In the five years since, pro-government trolls have been a persistent presence on the side of the regime, operating more or less freely across major platforms like Facebook and YouTube. As speech laws tighten in countries like India, Turkey, and Thailand — and platforms lose interest in pushing back — the trolls consistently and successfully harass activists and journalists posting on Vietnamese Facebook, providing a troubling model for how censorship can flourish within social media, even reaching beyond national borders.

    In Vietnam, the fight has taken place largely outside the usual channels of law enforcement requests and court orders. In the first half of 2022, Facebook reported just under 1,000 takedowns based on local laws in Vietnam — above average, but still far fewer than neighbors like Taiwan, Thailand, and Indonesia. Over the same period, Facebook reported only one government request for user data within the country. By conventional measures, the Vietnamese government is not doing that much to restrict its citizens on Facebook.

    But according to local opposition groups, activists and reporters, these numbers conceal a far more aggressive campaign of mass reporting of any groups that question or critique the government. Michel Tran Duc, the advocacy director for the reform group Viet Tan, told Rest of World he has to dispute a community standards violation on Facebook at least once a month. Duc is then forced to appeal the decision through Facebook — a slow and difficult process.

    The trolls that weaponize Facebook community standards show the versatility and adaptivity of Vietnam’s domestic digital security unit Force 47, as it attempts to assert its grip over online spaces, in addition to the physical world, said Nguyen The Phuong, an expert on Vietnam’s defense and maritime security. Force 47 is hard to trace because its realm is social media, where users can make fake profiles and inflate or obscure their credentials, but Phuong and other researchers have seen evidence of coordinated attempts to spread pro-government content to manipulate the online dialogue, as well as target dissidents on social media – as they seem to do with community standard violations.

    “We pushed back on demands to silence peaceful political speech in Vietnam for several years, and explored every option to ensure people could still express themselves as freely as possible,” Meta said in an email to Rest of World. “However, as we shared in 2020, if we continued to push back on these requests, it is highly likely our platforms would be blocked in their entirety.”

    3 votes