“This is a new attack on the freedom to inform in a country that continues to apply its tight media censorship model online,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “At a time when 25 Vietnamese bloggers are in prison, this announcement has explicitly confirmed that Vietnam is bent on tracking down and silencing citizen-journalists without compunction.”
Vietnam is one of the world’s top users of Facebook. Unlike China, the Vietnamese government does not block access to Facebook. Instead it uses online propaganda to control and censor social media.
At least 30 countries have set up similar troll armies of government-paid commentators to combat online dissident, according to the Freedom of the Net 2017 report by the NGO Freedom House. One of the methods used is “astroturfing” in which orchestrated comments create the illusion of spontaneous grass-roots support for the government and its authoritarian policies.
“The increase in the number of troll armies that identify, target and attack journalists is very disturbing,” said Elodie Vialle, the head of RSF’s Journalism and Technology Desk. “Disinformation by authoritarian governments using methods such as online harassment and the massive circulation of false informations is a new form of censorship that aims to discredit journalists and create confusion, and directly threatens the freedom to inform.”
Behind the screen, activists and poorly-paid hired hands are being exploited by press freedom predators who want to turn the Internet into a digital public space that serves their totalitarian ambitions. In the Philippines, for example, people are paid just ten dollars a day to spend their time on social networks posting content in support of the president.
These new online mercenaries include Russia’s troll factories, China’s Internet red brigades, Narendra Modi’s yoddhas in India, Erdogan’s AK trolls in Turkey and the revolutionary cyber-guards for a Halal Internet in Iran.
In Thailand, more than 100,000 students have been trained as “cyber scouts” to monitor and report online behavior liable to threaten national security, while government supporters have been waging a campaign to identify and report Facebook users expressing the least criticism of the monarchy.
Vietnam is ranked near the very bottom of RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index – 175th out of 180 countries.