Marking the 10th annual World Day Against Cyber Censorship on March 12, press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) named Vietnam and the Philippines as among the top-four worst offenders for spreading state-sponsored disinformation online.
The findings were released as part of their campaign to highlight the 20 worst states and entities for online predatory behaviour, specifically the use of digital technology to spy on and harass journalists, thereby jeopardising their ability to gather news and information.
In the report, RSF highlighted Force 47 in Vietnam, an “army of 10,000 cyber-soldiers” run by the Ministry of Public Security, informally known as the public opinion brigades. Similar in nature to Russia’s Web Brigades and China’s 50 Cent Army, Force 47 are a highly organised unit of commentators and trolls that participate in online forums and on social media, as well as edit Wikipedia entries, to counter critical content and spread pro-government narratives.
“Their [Force 47’s] goal is to spread propaganda for Vietnam,” Dan Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk, told Southeast Asia Globe. “The soldiers of Force 47 misuse the Facebook algorithm to get [critical] bloggers banned from Facebook; they [facetiously] report blogs as someone violating Facebook’s terms and conditions. That’s a basic way of spreading disinformation and preventing citizen journalists and bloggers from spreading their own information.”
Vietnam is widely considered among the world’s most repressive states for press freedom, and in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index it ranked 176 out of 180 countries – above only China, Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan. Bastard characterised the press freedom situation in Vietnam as the country having “many media outlets, but only one Editor in Chief” ensuring they all follow the same party line.
On January 1st last year, the ruling communist party of Vietnam enacted a sweeping cyber security law that gave the government new powers to restrict online content by pressuring major platforms like Facebook and Google to cooperate with state restrictions on speech. The Vietnamese government has demanded these international providers store local user data as evidence and promptly remove “anti-state” information at the request of internet monitors.
To push back against online repression, RSF has announced they’ve built a platform designed to undermine strict media laws in five different countries, including Vietnam, by utilising Minecraft, one of the world’s most popular video games.
RSF has built “The Uncensored Library”, an open server for independent information hidden within the game-world. Players in Vietnam, Russia, Egypt, Mexico and Saudi Arabia can now visit the library to read articles by journalists who have been banned or censored. This content has been republished as Minecraft books in their original language and in English and is available to everyone in the game.
With more than 145 million active players every month, Christian Mihr, Managing Director RSF Germany, said Minecraft has the ability to provide access to millions of young people to read independent information.
Inside Vietnam’s Minecraft library, for example, RSF states players can access banned blogs by Vietnamese human rights lawyer and activist Nguyen Van Dai who was sentenced to 15 years prison for “attempting to overthrow the state” in 2018. Van Dai was later released after two months and was exiled to Germany, where he told RSF he supports the Minecraft initiative.
They’re not recognised, and the [Philippine] government does not want to recognise this troll armyDaniel Bastard, Reporters Without Borders
According to RSF, in the Philippines, the online disinformation campaign is less formalised but still prolific. And while its foot soldiers aren’t actually military personnel, their numbers are legion.
“They’re not recognised, and the government does not want to recognise this troll army,” Bastard said.
That’s because the purpose of this army is to spread rhetoric that supports President Rodrigo Duterte while attacking his domestic critics. Bastard said this troll army is staged from “call centres” and cited coverage from Filipino outlets that found major troll activity sourced from so-called click farms in India, Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia.
An Oxford University study found evidence of a major, paid social media push for Duterte just before his election in 2016 and, though the president denies this has continued, his critics still regularly come under coordinated fire from the troll front.
Though it’s “hard to say” how many trolls are enlisted in this private army, Bastard estimated the number to be somewhere in the tens of thousands.
When they’re on the job, these trolls promote a narrative that rule of law is in full effect under the Duterte government, which has for the past few years waged a national war on drugs that has killed at least 5,100 people, often in extrajudicial slayings.