An internet user browses through the Vietnamese government's new Facebook page in Hanoi in a file photo. Photo: Reuters

Where is Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang? That was the question the country’s social media users were consumed with in recent weeks.

Online gossipers speculated Quang was either ill, poisoned by the Chinese or the victim of an intra-Communist Party political power struggle, along with other less-conceivable conspiracy theories.

Independent political blogs and popular social media accounts showed that nearly everyone had an opinion on the sensitive matter and were eager to express it.

Perhaps, then, it was only natural that a week before Quang finally made his reappearance in late August his office published a letter he supposedly drafted calling for more stringent internet controls.

Tighter rules are needed, he wrote, to censor “news sites and blogs with bad and dangerous content” – though, his letter made it clear politics was at hand. Tougher controls are required to prosecute those who “undermined the prestige of the leaders of the party and the state,” he stated.

Vietnam’s President and former Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang aims to clampdown on online freedoms. Photo: Reuters/Kham

Recent months have seen a crackdown on Vietnam’s pro-democracy and human rights proponents. Dozens have been arrested and more threatened unless they cease their dissident activities. The clampdown has particularly targeted social media users.

Nguyen Chi Tuyen, a prominent human rights defender, who goes by the online name “Anh Chi”, says that police are increasingly summoning internet users to police stations to “work with them” on what they have posted, as well as hacking accounts and blocking websites.

New users, he said, might be afraid of the government’s revanchist threats and perturbed by the increasing difficulty of voicing their opinions online.

“However, the defiant ones are not afraid of the government anymore… We find the solutions to overcome any difficulties caused by the government,” Tuyen said.

Social media, the modern-day samizdat, came to the fore in Vietnam last year when a Taiwanese-owned steel plant spilled tons of toxic waste into the sea, polluting almost 200 kilometers of Vietnam’s central coastline and killing massive quantities of fish.

The Formosa toxic spill disaster prompted netizens to post photos of dead washed-up fish and their own protests on social media. Demonstrations, some of the largest the country had seen under over four decades of uninterrupted Communist Party rule, were also arranged using Facebook, Vietnam’s most popular social media site.

As a result, the government temporarily disabled access to the information-sharing site for several days.

Jailed Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh (C) and his assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy (R) at a court in Hanoi on September 22, 2016, to appeal his five year-sentence for posting anti-government articles on his “Ba Sam” website. Photo: AFP

The Communist Party’s greatest fear, many speculate, is that social media activism is on the ascent. Vietnam doesn’t wield the censorial capabilities of neighboring China, which shields unwelcome content behind its so-called “Great Firewall.”

Moreover, environmentalism is now uniting disparate groups, as Asia Times recently reported, and anti-government critics are becoming bolder in their dissent, analysts say.

An estimated 40% of Vietnam’s population is below the age of 24 – more than 22 million are younger than 14 years old – and social media use is the new generational norm.

Vietnamese media experts noted as early as 2014 that local readers were abandoning traditional state-run newspapers and instead accessing news on independent blogs or through content and commentary spread on social media.

Vietnamese media experts noted as early as 2014 that local readers were abandoning traditional state-run newspapers and instead accessing news on independent blogs or through content and commentary spread on social media

The government continues to float the idea of supporting local social media startups to replace Facebook as the country’s most popular platform.

China, for one, has been successful in sponsoring homegrown social media platforms that it can easily control, namely Weibo. But Hanoi’s efforts so far have utterly failed to displace Facebook.

We Are Social, a social media marketing agency, reported in July that Vietnam is now seventh in the world for the number of Facebook users, surpassing Thailand.

In the first six months of this year, the number of active users increased by 40% in Vietnam, indication that Facebook is growing from strength to strength. Netizens commonly refer to bloggers as “Facebookers” in Vietnam.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (L), aka “Mother Mushroom”, was sentenced to ten years in prison on June 29, 2017. Photo: AFP/Vietnam News Agency

Unable to stem the tide, Party officials are instead targeting the most influential social media commentators, says Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. “They’ve gone after them with a vengeance in the hope of deterring others,” he said.

Another tactic pursued by authorities is to appeal directly to social media firms. In February, the government publicly complained to Facebook and YouTube about supposedly “toxic” anti-government content found on the websites, Reuters reported.

The government instructed local businesses and pressured foreign ones to withdraw advertising from the sites unless they agreed to censor what it perceived as anti-state content.

In April, Facebook’s head of global policy management, Monika Bickert, met with the Vietnam’s information and communication minister. After the meeting, Hanoi said the social media firm had agreed to remove content that violates Vietnam’s laws, which includes vague and exacting rules on what can be said about authorities.

Hanoi is not alone in pressuring social media firms to remove perceived as objectionable content. Even democratic nations, including the United States, have been keen to limit what can be posted online. Nor is Vietnam’s government the only one to threaten an advertising boycott, which appears to be an effective way of influencing the firms, industry analysts say.

In the second quarter of this year, Facebook’s revenue rose by 47% year on year, surging to US$9.2 billion.

With advertising now a key plank of the firm’s business model, and Southeast Asia one of the fastest growing regions for online ad placements, some think the threat of lost profits might be enough to force Facebook into censoring perceived by governments and media regulators as sensitive content.

A policeman blocks photographers from taking pictures during an anti-China protest in front of the Opera House in Hanoi in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Nguyen Lan Thang

The third method of censoring online content is far more complex. In May, the American cybersecurity company FireEye claimed that an Asia-based hacking group, APT32, has since 2014 attacked several domestic and foreign companies in Vietnam. Nine individual attacks were mentioned in the firm’s lengthy report.

The APT32 hacker group, also known as the OceanLotus Group, has been active since 2012 when it began threatening China-based entities, according to media reports. Afterwards it expanded operations in Vietnam and the Philippines. At the time, it was considered subversive to only state interests, but its tactics have recently shifted to private interests.

The government continues to float the idea of supporting local social media startups to replace Facebook as the country’s most popular platform

Nick Carr, a senior manager at FireEye’s Mandiant Incident Response team, says that APT32’s attacks are clearly aligned with the Vietnam’s government’s interests. They target victims, often private businesses, whose information would be of “very little use of to any party other than the Vietnamese government,” he said.

The timing of the cyberattacks often correspond with the “victims’ engagements with the Vietnamese government on regulatory matters.”

Not only private businesses are targeted. FireEye found two separate attacks on Vietnamese media outlets, supposedly directed by APT32, in 2015 and 2016.

The Associated Press reported in 2014 that another group attempted an unsuccessful cyberattack on a British reporter for the wire-service based in Hanoi, a France-based Vietnamese professor and democracy activist, and America-based members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an online activist group.

“We found the Vietnamese-aligned [cybercrime] actors to be very creative, flexible, and determined,” Carr said. “They also execute large-scale operations and infrastructure, indicating that they have better resources than many of their counterparts in other parts of the world.”