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December 21, 2018

Vietnam: How Facebook is being abused to silence critics in Germany

The cases of blocked content came to light after Trung Khoa Le turned to RSF Germany for help in mid-November (photo: phanba.wordpress.com).
Facebook is being systematically abused to censor Vietnamese bloggers living in exile. According to the information available to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in the last few months the social network has repeatedly deleted posts and also blocked the accounts of such individuals due to alleged violations of its “Community Standards”.

The most recent case to come to light is that of Trung Khoa Le, a journalist living in Germany whose Facebook account was blocked, preventing him from posting a video in Germany which was critical of the Vietnamese government. Facebook later admitted that it had been the victim of a “malicious attack” and announced improvements. Research has revealed that Trung Khoa Le’s case was not an isolated incident. RSF Germany has presented Facebook with 23 similar cases, including that of the Vietnamese blogger Bui Thanh Hieu.


“Our research shows that the Vietnamese government is apparently using digital space to suppress critical voices outside the country as well,” said RSF Germany’s Executive Director Christian Mihr. “Those responsible must end these attacks and respect press freedom.”


Mihr added: “For many journalists Facebook offers the chance to report freely, but apparently the company is unable to prevent this censorship-like abuse. Democratic oversight of the company is needed to effectively strengthen the rights of users.”


“Malicious attack”


The cases of blocked content came to light after Trung Khoa Le turned to RSF Germany for help in mid-November and made his case public. Le runs the bilingual news site thoibao.de, which he says gets 2.7 clicks per month and reports on Vietnamese politics. Le was denounced as a “traitor” online and received death threats after he researched a critical piece on the alleged kidnapping of Vietnamese businessman Trinh Xuan Thanh in Berlin. On the evening of 8 November Le announced that the next day he would post a video of an interview with the Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Van Dai on Thoibao.de’s Facebook page. Dai had been invited to a meeting of the human rights committee in the German Bundestag.


Shortly afterwards Le received an email from Facebook informing him that his account would be blocked due to violations of the Community Standards. He used Facebook’s appeal mechanism to try to prevent the block, but it wasn’t until several days later that Facebook, under pressure from RSF and other activists, finally announced that the journalist had been the victim of a “malicious attack” and unblocked his account. According to Facebook unknown persons had made Le the administrator of a page containing gross violations of its Community Standards without his consent. The social network did not give any details or provide any information about the presumed attackers. However, the methods and expert tactics used point to a political background.


One of the reasons Facebook is so popular in many countries with limited press freedom is that it is very difficult to censor content on the platform with purely technological means. The only option open to governments is to completely block Facebook – but most are reluctant to go that far. It is, however, possible to report users for violations of the “Community Standards” and thus have content or users blocked from the platform with Facebook’s help.


“Violations of Community Standards”


As soon as Trung Khoa Le was able to access his account again he launched an appeal on his Facebook page asking users to report similar incidents and provide evidence in the form of screenshots. Within just a few days he received 23 reports of similar incidents from persons inside and outside Vietnam who had posted political comments on Facebook. RSF examined these cases and forwarded them to Facebook on 27 November. In some cases, Facebook had deleted individual posts, in others it had blocked users entirely for days or months. In each case it had justified its actions by pointing to “violations of its Community Standards”.


Bui Thanh Hieu, a Vietnamese blogger and writer who lives in Germany, is also among those affected. His blog is one of the most popular in Vietnam and is disseminated for the most part via Facebook. His Facebook page had more than 160,000 followers. Since January of this year Bui Thanh Hieu has repeatedly been blocked due to alleged copyright infringements. The attackers’ strategy was apparently to copy Hieu’s own images, upload them onto their pages and then report him to Facebook for not owning the copyrights for the images – even though exactly the opposite was the case. On 2 October Facebook finally banned Bui Thanh Hieu from the network altogether as a “repeat offender”. RSF has the corresponding email.


Facebook’s lack of explanation


Asked about the case of Trung Khoa Le, Facebook explained that it had taken immediate measures to ensure that it was no longer possible to add persons to pages or groups on Facebook without their prior consent. It said that the case of Trung Khoa Le had not been key in this decision but there had been other cases outside Vietnam that prompted it to take action. Commenting on the other 23 Vietnamese cases, a spokesperson for Facebook said that some of them had been victims of the same “malicious behavior”, and that the platform was in the process of unblocking their accounts. Facebook gave no explanation as to why the other bloggers and critics who were not victims of this particular method had been blocked, however.


With at least 26 media workers in prison, Vietnam is among the states with the highest number of journalists behind bars because of their work. It is ranked 175th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.