Four Reasons Why Vietnam Is A Hotbed Of Misinformation

The State plays a key role.

Lee Nguyen

In several parts of the United Kingdom during the 16th and 17th centuries, those who spread rumors would be forced to wear iron masks, with branks pointed at their mouths to prevent their tongues from moving, and were made to parade in public. [1]

Although such punishments no longer exist in the modern world, the spreading of rumors is never considered proper conduct.

Despite this, rumors and hearsay still persist. And in Vietnam, many people trust and believe all sorts of questionable information.

Four factors make Vietnam a hotbed for misinformation.

Before these issues can be discussed, it is necessary to expound on the mindset of the Vietnamese people.

Rumors are an Inevitable Part of Life

The most concise definition of "rumor" is information that has no origin and is unclear.

Many researchers claim that this is a primary human connection or communication method.

David Ludden, a psychology professor at Georgia Gwinnett College and author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach, likens the spreading of rumors to primate behavior. [2] While monkeys "confide" by grooming each other to remove lice, humans whisper to share information; the more information they have, the more valued the humans are.

In some cases, rumors also function as moral guidelines. [3] This is quite evident in gossip.

Gossip is a kind of rumor about the private affairs of an individual. Information about a person’s life is often spread and accompanied by feedback within a group or community. This positive or negative feedback can then serve to realign a person's behavior into the accepted framework of the group or community.

Therefore, rumors and their spread are natural products of humanity and not a distinctive feature of just Vietnamese society.

A common misconception about rumors is that people only spread what they believe is true. [4] However, several studies show that many people are willing to share information regardless of whether they think it is true.

As such, the spread of rumors has become rampant in society, and the more commonplace rumors tend to be the ones that have more people believing in them. And at some point, public perception regarding gossip and hearsay can go from skeptical and wary to convincing and persuasive.

Fake news is molded in the same way, and Vietnam's information environment has become a fertile ground for rumors in general and fake news in particular.

There are four reasons for this situation.

1. The State Monopolizes Information

When governments monopolize information, it is easy for them to craft a narrative automatically accepted by the general public.

With the entire domestic press system under the control of the state, all information has the same content and is told in the same tone. This one-way news flow paints an inaccurate picture of society, hence, the populace is forced to find information from unofficial sources.

More seriously, the group that monopolizes information also controls other resources in society, which almost always happens in authoritarian institutions.

In this scenario, unofficial information and rumors become tools to compete for the local Vietnamese population’s interest and attention, which leads to their rampant spread, creation, and prevalence in society.

2. The State Produces and Nurtures Rumors

The Facebook cyber group Force 47”. Photo: REUTERS

In March 2020, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published a list of the 20 biggest Internet enemies, including the Force 47 of the Vietnam People's Army. [5]

These government internet commentators are comprised of tens of thousands of soldiers and have been repeatedly named as a source of government propaganda. [6] With almost unlimited resources from the State budget, Force 47 can manipulate the information environment in Vietnam's social networks.

While producing rumors and fake news to serve its own interests, the government leaves the door open for other kinds of misinformation to spread online, as long as they do not affect the interests of government officials and the power of the State.

3. People Lose Faith in the Government

One of the prominent features of rumors is that it is difficult to stop their spread. The only way to challenge their claims is accurate and genuine information, supported by sufficient evidence, from a trusted and legitimate source.

The problem is that ordinary people have no reliable official sources to refute these rumors or fake news.

The government is only interested in dealing with false information that negatively affects its agenda and ignores the rest. But even in cases when the government denies hearsay, it is difficult for the public to trust its word.

For instance, at the beginning of July 2021, the Vietnamese government denied that it would isolate Ho Chi Minh City during the height of the COVID-19 surge. However, the state did just that a few days later. [7]

This inconsistency highlights the government’s untrustworthiness and leads several members of the local populace to become enraged.

In countries where freedom of speech and the press are guaranteed, the public can rely on information from independent fact-checking organizations. And if someone is harmed by rumors or gossip, they can sue for libel in an independent court of justice. These organizations and institutions do not exist in Vietnam, or if they do, they are not effective at all.

4. Crisis Nurtures the Spread of Rumors

According to psychologists Gordon W. Allport and Leo Postman, the intensity of rumors is directly proportional to the interest in a particular event and its ambiguity. [8]

In other words, when an event or incident has very little publicly available information, people turn to rumors to get a clearer picture of what is happening.

In crises or great difficulties, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, society becomes such an environment. During these times, resources are depleted, accurate information is scarce, and the populace slowly becomes wary, afraid, and fearful. Rumors serve as lifebuoys that people cling to overcome these feelings of doubt, isolation, and despair.

The sad reality is that ordinary people will not believe these rumors if the government deals with crises well and adequately manage resources. However, the Vietnamese government has shown that it is incapable of doing either, and as such, it is slowly losing its legitimacy and the faith of its people.


This article was first published in Luat Khoa Magazine on January 15, 2022. The English translation is done by Lee Nguyen.


Reference

1.  British Library. (2022). The British Library. Retrieved 2022, from https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/a-woman-wearing-a-scolds-bridle-1655

2.  Gottfried, S. (2019, September 25). The Science Behind Why People Gossip—And When It Can Be a Good Thing. Time. Retrieved 2022, from https://time.com/5680457/why-do-people-gossip/

3.  Ibid [2]

4.  Collective behavior | Definition, Types, Theories, Examples, Characteristics, & Facts. (2022). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/science/collective-behaviour#ref25293

5.  RFA. (2020, October 11). Cuộc chiến trên mạng giữa lực lượng chuyên trách và dư luận viên với giới hoạt động. Radio Free Asia. Retrieved 2022, from https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/in_depth/vn-s-47th-force-is-on-the-list-of-the-20-biggest-enemies-on-the-internet-03122020134230.html

6.  Luong Nguyen An Dien. (2021, March 3). 2021/22 “How The Vietnamese State Uses Cyber Troops to Shape Online Discourse” by Dien Nguyen An Luong. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Retrieved 2022, from https://www.iseas.edu.sg/articles-commentaries/iseas-perspective/2021-22-how-the-vietnamese-state-uses-cyber-troops-to-shape-online-discourse-by-dien-nguyen-an-luong/

7.  Yên Khắc Chính. (2021, July 8). 5 câu hỏi trong quyết định phong tỏa thành phố Hồ Chí Minh. Luật Khoa Tạp Chí. Retrieved 2022, from https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/07/5-cau-hoi-trong-quyet-dinh-phong-toa-thanh-pho-ho-chi-minh/

8. Ibid [4]

Freedom of ExpressionHuman Rightsfreedom of speechfree pressMisinformation