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In Vietnam, the existence of any opposition force is seriously questioned due to the thorough destruction of any independent power centers; which is a consequence of the Revolutionary Wars (1945–1975). Despite this, cyber dissent has been on the rise and is likely to become organized in a more cohesive way. In response, the party-state has recognized the importance of managing and disciplining cyber-dissent. It has been able to adopt a combination of repressive and responsive measures to mitigate the adverse effects of economic mal-performance and public frustration in cyberspace. These include technological measures such as access restriction by firewalls, filtering and list blocking, and political measures such as the extensive use of compliant networks and legal measures to force compliance (Thayer 2009; Wells-Dang 2012; and Kurfürst 2015)
Vietnam has been one of the fastest growing countries in terms of Internet usage, both in the region and the world, with a very high Internet penetration rate and youthful users. By the end of 1997, the Internet had started to become commercial in Vietnam, albeit with limited users, initially from state agencies. Within 15 years, the number of Internet users had exploded. According to the Vietnam Internet Center under the Ministry of Information and Communication, 31.3 million people, or 35.58 percent of the country’s population, had been Internet users by November 2012 and this number has continued to grow.  In 2013, there were approximately 20 million mobile broadband Internet users (3G subscribers). Most of the Internet users are young, urban, educated and middle class. Just as the Internet has done worldwide, Vietnamese society is now increasingly empowered to spread information, build ties among geographically separate peoples and connect them via common interests. However, one caveat is that citizens in Vietnam do not have equal access to the new technologies and the skills to fully participate in the political discussion in the social media. As Kurfürst (2015: 144) correctly pointed out, most social media users are among the country’s highly educated and urban-based populations.
The high level of Internet penetration in the population has had a number of important implications for virtual association in Vietnam. There are now numerous Internet communication vehicles, such as blogs, microblogs, social networking sites, chatrooms, emails, mailing lists, instant messaging, and online forums, that can be used to connect dissenters and distribute their opinions. The Internet and mobile phone data services have provided fertile ground for the blossoming blogosphere and cyber activism that challenge the mainstream press owned by the state in many significant ways. Social media users are the important target audience of the emerging players in the development of civil society in Vietnam, such as NGOs and independent organizations and informal groups that have no ties to the party-state. The new players have been taking advantage of the blogosphere and social media to circulate their contestations and dissent over governance ideas and norms. They include informal groups of intellectuals, retired government officials, professors, students, writers and independent activists.
The rise of the Internet in Vietnam has been a major landmark for a disproportionately expanding independent cyberspace of discussion and deliberation. It has provided crucial support for the re-emergence of civil society elements in Vietnam (Bui 2013: 79–80). The Internet has increased access to different sources of information and advanced freedom of information. In doing so, it has helped reduce the party state's control over information flows and has helped some aspects of civil society to thrive. There has been a marked increase in the social interactions over the Internet. In the context of an authoritarian state with strict control over the physical association, the virtual association has tended to encourage political involvement and active citizenry as it is “typically more anonymous than traditional group membership, and usually is less formal” (Kittilson and Dalton 2008: 4). Similar observations have been made by other Vietnam researchers, such as Thayer (2009), Wells-Dang (2010, 2012) and Kurfürst (2015). Anonymity and information access are among the important reasons why an increasing number of people have chosen to use Internet communication tools.
The use of anonymity in online life also reflects societal worries, ranging from possible detection by the state regarding taboo issues like politics, to fear of higher authorities, such as bosses, parents, and teachers. In essence, Vietnam’s society structure has partially transposed onto the Internet where the older generation is less prominent than they are in real life. 
The rising influence of social media has contributed to noticeable changes in public awareness and in the role of the traditional media. David Brown (2015) pointed to the power of the social media in “stealing readers from the conventional press.” Facebook has become the most important and influential outlet for information. Mainstream journalists now have to rely on the key issues debated on Facebook to develop their stories on the print media. A majority of the 18,000 journalists licensed by the state have active personal Facebook accounts and proactively interact in this cyberspace. As a result, mainstream print media is increasingly moving online and mobile. Pressure on mainstream media is building in face of the challenge of losing the interest and trust of readers. Although the state has been seeking to promote Internet usage and online participation on the government-controlled websites, there is little evidence that the state actively invites citizens’ online participation in social media where the state finds it more difficult to control. Kurfürst (2015: 135–136) made a similar point about the two-fold response by the Vietnamese state to the development of digital communication.
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Infographics for References - Added by IndraStra Global Editorial Team, Not part of the original publication)
Infographic Attribute: Vietnam Mobile Users Behavior 2015 / Source: Slideshare.net
Chart Attribute: Mobile Internet Use Surges in Vietnam / Source: The Wall Street Journal
Cite this Article:
Bui, Thiem Hai (2016), The Influence of Social Media in Vietnam’s Elite Politics, in: Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 35, 2, 92–94.
Published by GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Institute of Asian Studies and Hamburg University Press in The Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs which is an Open Access publication under the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
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