Pic: AP.

Throughout the world, social media has proven itself to be a tool of the powerless to hold the powerful accountable. For many people in Vietnam, social media and blogging have become key tools as they seek to help reform their country and hold their leaders to account.

Currently in Vietnam, most news sources are state run. This includes newspapers, news sites, and TV channels. The government has a firm hold on the media and works hard to formulate stories in the manner it best sees fit. But there is a growing movement online that is challenging this social order and causing much worry for the government.

The ever changing nature of the Internet makes it hard for a country like Vietnam, without the human and financial muscle of a place like China, to police its citizens fully online.  As a result, for many Vietnamese, blogs and social media sites have become a key way for them to voice their thoughts and feelings about the direction their country is taking.

While the Vietnamese government claims that it only censors the Internet to protect its citizens from obscene or sexually explicit content, in reality much of the data that is blocked is of a political or religious nature.  Groups such as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have been openly critical of Vietnam’s efforts to control online content and access to information.

Vietnam’s “Bamboo Firewall” uses both legal and technical means to control what is seen. The government began its regulation of the Internet in 1997 when the Director of the Postal Bureau was granted regulatory oversight over every part of the Internet.

But many Vietnamese people are finding ways around this censorship, and there are an increasing number of online resources describing methods of evading detection. Like the Chinese who are eluding that country’s “Great Firewall”, VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, which allow users to get around much of the internet censorship, are becoming increasingly popular for online users in Vietnam.

In fact, the government may be fighting a losing battle against an ever-growing tide of online users who have access to both more information and more ways to disseminate it quickly.

Online power
At times, the Vietnamese government does not seem willing, or able, to fully crack down on the Internet as China does.  However, during certain moments of unrest or politically sensitive times, government censorship becomes much more evident.  Of particular worry to the government are social media’s potential effects on freedom of assembly and its use as a tool of collective action.

Facebook has been singled out in the past due to its political organizational power. The site, which currently has around 22 million users in Vietnam, has been blocked by the government on a number of occasions.

During the recent anti-China protests caused by China’s deployment of an oil rig in a disputed area of the East Sea (South China Sea), Facebook played a key role in organizing demonstrators. See here for an in-depth look at the oil rig protests.

Sites like Facebook, and the growing number of blogs, are a very efficient tool for people to get their message out to a large number of people very quickly and before the government can react and censor the message. A perfect example of this can be seen in the case of the banned political party, Viet Tan, which posted the time and location of an anti-Chinese protest, reaching more than 30,000 users. This occurred at a time when the Vietnamese government was actively trying to tamp down the level of the protests.

Additionally, social media has proven to be effective in bringing injustices to light.  For example, there are many instances of mistreatment by the police which have been caught on camera and then posted online where the images are instantly shared and viewed by thousands who then lead the call for accountability. Also, at events where traditional media organizations have been banned, people have live blogged, or tweeted, about what was happening – this has helped to spread the message about government actions and break through the official party line about the events.

While blogs and social media have given a voice to many, danger still exists for those who draw too much attention to themselves. Truong Duy Nhat, a Vietnamese blogger, was recently jailed for two years under the country’s notorious Internet law, article 258 of the country’s criminal code. Nhat had written critically about Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Shortly after Nhat’s arrest, a number of other bloggers were also arrested.

However, while bloggers such as Nhat are jailed for their writing, their work has reached far beyond the borders of Vietnam. Papers such as the New York Times have reported on the travails of these intrepid writers. Political action groups, like Human Rights Watch, have brought the plight of these bloggers to international attention and have inspired a wave of condemnation from many governments around the world.

Vietnam has responded to this condemnation by granting early release to previously jailed bloggers and refraining from imposing the maximum penalties on those who are arrested.  Article 258 carries a maximum jail sentence of seven years, but this has not been handed down to many people.

Perhaps the most powerful effect of social media has been the feeling of connectedness it has given to many Vietnamese people; they no longer feel that they are protesting by themselves, that even if they are arrested people will still support them and their families.