Mai Khoi is a Vietnamese singer and political activist.
Last year, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said: “Our job at Facebook is to help people make the greatest positive impact while mitigating areas where technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation.”
As a Vietnamese musical artist who grew up in a totalitarian society, I can attest to the positive impact Facebook can make. In the past, there was nowhere the Vietnamese people could go to express ourselves freely. Government control extended to every aspect of our social life. The advent of social media changed that. It provided a space where we could speak our minds, access uncensored information and organize peaceful protests. This meant that public discourse was no longer restricted to the state-run media, people could openly debate policy, and, at times, government could even be held accountable.
In 2016, I nominated myself as an independent candidate in the National Assembly elections. Prevented by law from campaigning in public, I used Facebook to spark a nationwide debate about democracy. When police raided my concerts and I was banned from singing, Facebook allowed me to circumvent the censorship system and release my new album online. And when I met with President Barack Obama after being unfairly rejected from running in the elections, Facebook was the only platform where people could access news about the meeting. But I have also seen how Facebook can be used to silence dissent. When I started a campaign calling for 1 million people to nominate themselves to run in the National Assembly elections, my account was locked immediately.
Today in Vietnam, Facebook is allowing its platform to be abused to divide and isolate people. Troll farms and cyber-army brigades roam the platform, manipulating public opinion and drowning out dissent. Paid government supporters abuse Facebook’s community standards to have critical posts deleted. In the past month alone, many of Vietnam’s leading independent journalists and human rights defenders have had their accounts frozen. The stakes are high as we risk losing the only space where we can speak freely.
But this is not just a Vietnamese problem. Similar things are happening in the Philippines, where Facebook is being used to silence dissent. Despite petitions from Vietnamese civil-society groups and members of Congress, the company has yet to take any measures to correct this.
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg testified under oath before a Senate committee. She said Facebook “would only operate in a country when we could do so in keeping with our values.”
I welcome her promise. However, if what she says is true, then Facebook has some questionable values. In Vietnam, where the company does operate, I could go to jail for writing this article. In September, two Facebook users were imprisoned for “abusing democratic freedom.” Earlier this year a peaceful democracy activist was sentenced to 14 years in prison for livestreaming a protest on Facebook. More recently, nationwide protests against the law on cybersecurity were brutally crushed; 40 activists have since been imprisoned. The law requires Facebook to set up offices in Vietnam (where operations can be controlled), hand over personal information to the government and remove content within 24 hours of government requests. In a context where no basic rights are guaranteed, Facebook needs to clarify its values and report on how it respects human rights.
A Facebook statement says: “There are also times when we may have to remove or restrict access to content because it violates a law in a particular country, even though it doesn’t violate our community standards.”
But what happens when removing content to comply with local laws violates international human rights law that protects freedom of expression? Free speech is criminalized in Vietnam. People are regularly jailed for “abusing democratic freedoms” or “spreading propaganda against the state.” The cybersecurity law bans content “opposing the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” and content that “offends the nation, the national flag, the national anthem, great people, leaders, notable people and national heroes.” Will Facebook comply with these restrictions? One case in which Facebook removed content critical of the royal family in the United Arab Emirates at the UAE government’s request suggests that it will.
Facebook, with more than 52 million subscribers in Vietnam (more than half the population), is an essential public utility in Vietnam. It is, however, not accountable to Vietnamese citizens. Unlike in the United States where civil society can freely organize and Zuckerberg can be subjected to congressional review, there is no independent oversight of Facebook’s operations here. Decisions about policy are made without public consultation (although a dedicated communication channel has been established with the government), and company executives meet with our unelected leaders while ignoring civil society. Given the influence Facebook exercises over social life in Vietnam, there is a dire need to deepen its public accountability.
To start, Facebook should stop government trolls from abusing its platform, report on how it is respecting human rights following the U.N.’s guiding principles framework and make a policy statement refusing to comply with local laws used to silence dissent and violate privacy. Further meetings the company holds in Vietnam should also involve civil-society representatives.
Facebook has been a huge force for freedom in Vietnam, but this positive effect is now being reversed as the social media platform is delivered to authoritarianism. I hold Mark Zuckerberg accountable for this.