Father Anthony Le Ngoc Thanh daily publishes his writings on politically sensitive issues such as corruption and environmental abuses. For good measure, the Catholic priest also uses his Facebook account to call for religious freedom and political rights. He has attracted 14,000 followers in just a year after having had earlier Facebook accounts attacked by hackers. Father Thanh said he tried to meet public demand for sources of information other than that released by state-run media outlets. Vietnam bans private newspapers, so social media have become an effective way for people to share information and express opinions, he said.
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The internet constituted a “grace” that God offered to peoples living under authoritarian regimes such as in Vietnam, Father Thanh said. In late December, it was revealed that Vietnam had deployed more than 10,000 so-called cyber warriors
to counter “wrongful views” on the internet. Lt. Gen. Nguyen Trong Nghia, a senior military official responsible for political affairs, accused hostile forces of using the internet to try to undermine the country’s communist government. “In every hour, minute, and second, we must be ready to fight proactively against the wrong views,” he said. More than 60 percent of Vietnam’s 94 million people are online, according to Nghia. Father John Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong, a popular Facebooker based in capital Hanoi, said the government cyber warriors group called Force 47 was not acting alone. Another online brigade of opinion shapers — including students, teachers and former soldiers — operates under the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department. Father Phong said the primary aim of both outfits was to maintain authoritarian rule
. They promote state-run media reports as well as threatening dissidents and spreading fake or distorted news. Hacking popular sites run by activists is another tactic. Father Phong, who has 31,000 followers on Facebook, said he has had death threats and last year was banned from travelling abroad. Vietnam has stepped up attempts to censor the internet, calling for a closer watch over social networks and for the removal of content deemed to be offensive. Last year Facebook, at Vietnam’s behest, removed 159 accounts regarded as damaging to the reputations of leaders or promoting anti-Communist Party
views. YouTube took down 4,500 videos, or 90 percent of what the government requested. The National Assembly is debating a cyber security bill that would require foreign technology companies to store certain data on servers in the country. However, Father Thanh said the government’s online armies are unable to prevent tens of millions of netizens accessing non-government news sources. The priest said netizens easily recognized the boring and dogmatic comments disseminated online by government advocates. Father Thanh said it would be good that if more and more people were employed as government cyber warriors because they will have to read opposing views in order to respond. Gradually they would be personally influenced for the better by such exposure. “I only block comments offensive to religions, but accept comments smearing or threatening me as I want them to read my posts,” he said. The priest said the number of people who believe statements from leaders has fallen dramatically during recent years because of the impact of social media. “It is important that the Church teaches people how to use the internet healthily and properly select, analyze, comment and assess news based on Church teachings,” Father Thanh said. Many netizens had come to realize they had a legal right to openly express opinions on social media, he added.