On March 9, a mother in a remote village in Long An province posted an urgent message on Facebook: “Does anyone know about my son? He was not allowed to make his five-minute monthly call from prison.” On March 11, her son, imprisoned for distributing pro-democracy leaflets, was allowed to call home and even sent a letter that he was okay. “My weapon is Facebook,” his mother wrote.
As social media have expanded steadily around the world, they have exploded in Vietnam. Vietnam has nearly 40 million people on the Internet, and added close to 10 percent last year alone. Facebook has become a key host for political discourse: it’s easy to use, connects people in direct ways, and spreads news rapidly. Activists can easily publish on Facebook and include names to instantly call specific people to a meeting at a cafe or to launch an appeal.
Ordinary Vietnamese citizens increasingly use social media to fight complaints. Human rights lawyers use Facebook to protest clients’ detention. “Information technology develops fast, allowing people to access news all the time everywhere at a high speed,” said the leading blogger and human rights activist Nguyễn Văn Hải. Blogging under the name Điếu Cày, he was imprisoned for six years and received a Hellman-Hammett grant in 2009.
Facebook’s leading role in anti-government protests around the world has not been lost on the Vietnamese authorities, who began a harsh crackdown on bloggers and activists in July 2014. The Facebook accounts of government critics were targeted and their identities revealed, like an anonymous blogger called Nguyễn Ngọc Già. In December 2014, he reported an attempt to hack his Facebook account. Two weeks later he was arrested.
In December 2013, a Facebook group called Hội Bầu Bí Tương Thân was founded to help political prisoners and their families. The goal was to reduce despair and isolation among families of those imprisoned by raising money and making their finances transparent on Facebook. Two members of the group even raise organic ducks and vegetables and sell them on Facebook to earn income.
The Hội Bầu Bí Tương Thân activists were beaten up by plain-clothes agents when they were visiting a recently released political prisoner in January 2015. The good news: In Vietnam, you can read all about that on Facebook, too.
Minky Worden is the Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch.