Facebook’s Community Standards Continue to Hinder Activism in Vietnam

Quynh-Vi Tran
Quynh-Vi Tran

For almost two months, a group of drivers in Vietnam continuously protested against a BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) toll booth near Ho Chi Minh City for collecting illegal fees after its contractual time had expired.

According to the group, BOT An Suong was collecting fees illegally when their contract with the government for the placement of the booth had ended about 32 months ago.

The owner of the BOT claimed that they had built other transport projects in the area, and hence received the right to continue to collect fees.

Regardless of who is right and who is wrong about BOT An Suong, the drivers should be allowed to protest and used social media to broadcast their campaign.

However, an unlikely aide came to the BOT’s owner’s defense: Facebook.

This is not anything new.

In Vietnam, Facebook has faced allegations coming from activists that it repeatedly upheld requests (most likely by anonymous users and suspected government’s hired trolls) to shut down or suspend Vietnamese users’ accounts at the request of the authorities to suppress free speech.

One of the latest casualties was Facebooker Huynh Long who became well known in the past year and a half as someone leading the protests against wrongful BOTs, including the latest one, BOT An Suong.

The tactics used by Long and his fellow drivers have always been peaceful.

They just refused to pay when they were driving by BOT An Suong and demanded evidence proving that it could still collect toll fees. They would often live-stream and broadcast the encounters so that others could watch and show support.

During many of these encounters, it was the community’s support that kept the drivers safe when the BOT hired towing trucks and unknown groups of masked men to intimidate Long and his companions.

But last night, Facebook informed Long that his account would be suspended for 30 days.

He joined the increasingly long list of journalists, bloggers, and activists whose accounts have been either shut down or suspended by Facebook in the last six months.

Activist Hoang Dung’s account has been suspended so regularly that it became a known fact among the activists’ community that Facebook took action against him every time his account disappeared.

Freelance journalists who published misconducts committed by government’s officials like Le Nguyen Huong Tra and Truong Chau Huu Danh were also among the victims.

Tra’s account received a blue badge for verification, but that did not help when her account was suspended twice in September 2018.

What has caused the most frustration to the Vietnamese Facebook users probably is the fact that Facebook would only give out notice of suspension for violating its community standards without any further explanation.

The users would never know which “standard” they might have violated even when they appealed their cases.

Moreover, no one knows what the standards that Facebook is using in Vietnam are, or who is the third party’s fact-checker for them inside the country.

Attempts from the activists’ community to get these answers from Facebook had gone nowhere. At most, they received some evasive responses from Facebook that did not resolve the problem.

Unlike its neighbor, the Phillippines, where an independent newspaper – Rappler – is one of Facebook’s fact-checkers, the identities of fact-checkers in Vietnam remain a secret.

In the meanwhile, living in a country like Vietnam where there are already a handful of arbitrary and vague laws that could put one in prison for exercising their freedom of expression, the secretive and non-transparent conduct of Facebook easily angered the community.

It was not a coincidence that during July 2018, over one hundred thousand Facebook users in Vietnam were signing up on Minds – another social media platform – in just one weekend to make their point to Facebook.

With the new cybersecurity law enacted and took effect already in Vietnam, Facebook does face pressure from both the government and the 60 million users’ community.

Vietnam’s Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Manh Hung had been quite upfront about the government’s desire to build Vietnam’s own social media platform, one that could compete and win over the market from Facebook.

Part of the main reason that many Vietnamese still rely on Facebook instead of Vietnam’s own Zalo or any other platform is the fact that it is an American product.

While it may surprise some foreigners, the preference for American made products is a known fact in Vietnam – the country that ranked No. 1 in finding the United States favorable in one PEW’s research in 2017.

Facebook is also benefiting from the U.S’ rule of law and its Bill of Rights where individual rights, including their right to privacy and free speech, are protected.

Whether Facebook will uphold these values is crucial to Vietnamese users.

Failing to demonstrate that it does and will continue to adhere to these democratic values and human rights, Facebook will no longer be attractive in Vietnam.

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Quynh-Vi Tran

Quynh-Vi was a litigation lawyer in California before becoming a democracy advocate and journalist in 2015. She is also a strong advocate for abolishing the death penalty.