On the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, Phuong sees nothing worth scrolling for on TikTok.
“It is an addictive app with bullshit, spam, fake news and unverified content,” he said, asking to be referred to by a pseudonym due to fears of official retribution from speaking with the press.
Phuong, 33, describes himself as a social activist, says he’s been routinely harassed by the police for his outreach and has seen friends arrested for expressing views critical of the government. So despite his misgivings about the video-sharing app, he sees cause for alarm in growing threats from Vietnam’s Ministry of Information to ban TikTok if the company refuses to censor what the state deems “toxic” content.
“I think that controlling TikTok can have a lot of impact on freedom of speech. A lot of people use [it] to express their views,” Phuong said. “[Authorities] want to control all the media, communication and information platforms.”
TikTok went live in Vietnam in 2019 and has soared in popularity since then.
From a choreographed handwashing dance to quell the spread of Covid-19 to the recorded gaffe of Minister of Public Security General To Lam being hand-fed chunks of a nearly $2,000 gold-leaf-encrusted steak by the internet-famous “Salt Bae”, the platform has won the public’s attention.
TikTok now boasts nearly 50 million local users – a number that ranks the socialist state sixth of 10 countries globally with the most on the app, according to research firm DataReportal.
But that success has also caught the eyes of the state, which has promised a probe of the company’s office in Ho Chi Minh City in late May. This comes amidst a recent campaign of dialled-up government rhetoric against the app. Rattled by the flood of unruly content, authorities look ready to tighten their hold over TikTok as the latest step of a decades-long battle to wrangle Vietnamese cyberspace.
A “comprehensive inspection” of the company that began on 15 May is not typical in its scope, said Kent Wong, a partner at business law firm Ho Chi Minh City-based VCI Legal in Ho Chi Minh City. Other large tech platforms, such as Youtube and Facebook, have avoided similar visits by keeping their offices out of the country.
“Having a local office in Vietnam is like wearing a football jersey to be grabbed onto,” Wong said. “This may be an exemplar for other platforms not to establish a presence in Vietnam, or face being a constant target for government inspections and investigations.”
These regular check-ins from officials serve to bolster the government’s tight system of online control. This includes regular crackdowns on activists, journalists and bloggers for “spreading anti-state propaganda” with speech perceived to be critical of authorities.
The government also makes frequent take-down requests of social-media sites, with the Information Ministry reporting that TikTok has already removed 2.43 million videos uploaded by users in Vietnam in the first quarter of this year.
Future controls could ramp that number up, but domestic concerns may just be a portion of Hanoi’s motivation.
Similar to bans and investigations of TikTok by neighbours in Southeast Asia and beyond, experts say the Vietnamese government could be concerned about data security, national sovereignty and China’s influence over ByteDance, TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company.
Nguyen Khac Giang, visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said an “all-out attack on TikTok” in the Vietnamese press would likely lean on articles about how the app “corrupts young people, how it wastes their time.”
“[But officials] want to know what TikTok is up to in the Vietnamese market,” Giang said. “They are worried it may promote some content that could supplant information about Vietnam’s national sovereignty or maritime disputes.”
The ongoing investigation of TikTok’s downtown Ho Chi Minh City office spans eight ministries and agencies digging into the company’s Vietnam operations.
A TikTok Vietnam spokesperson told the Globe by email that an “upcoming planned visit” would include inspections from the Information Ministry, Trade Ministry and the General Department of Taxation.
The inspectors are expected to dig into the company’s content distribution, e-commerce deals, advertisements and tax liability. Officials at the April press conference announcing the investigation said its purpose will be to “evaluate the impact TikTok has and its capacity to abide by the law”.
Despite the tough state rhetoric specifically against the app, TikTok’s spokesperson said the probe was “in line with local law for companies operating in Vietnam, not only TikTok.”
“We welcome the opportunity to listen and address any concerns, as well as share the progress we’ve made in Vietnam in the past four years,” they stated.
In general, more legal guidelines for tech firms’ operations are incoming. Vietnam’s first comprehensive data privacy law will take effect on 1 July and a draft law on e-transactions is expected to reach the National Assembly this year.
Enforcing these laws will likely incur new costs on both the state and private businesses alike, said Wong. On the other hand, he added, for measures pointed at online content, the “subjective and arbitrary” guidelines used to identify offending posts could motivate companies to leap into compliance.
“Being constantly concerned about receiving a ‘knock on the door’ or being banned, social media enterprises like TikTok will need to quickly adjust their activities,” Wong said.
Dissent and geopolitics
The government’s concerted approach to regulating TikTok has been years in the making.
The internet wasn’t a primary concern for the ruling party until the mid-2000s. But by the early 2010s, authorities were shaken by Vietnamese activists flocking to the internet – especially during the Middle Eastern social-media-connected protests known as the Arab Spring.
Command of the online space then became a priority, said Giang from ISEAS, and spurred a military push to suppress dissent online – an effort led by the notorious Task Force 47, a reportedly 10,000-member group. This motivation also led to the wide-ranging 2018 Law on Cybersecurity, which attempted to localise international tech platforms while expanding government control of online content.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia Division, said TikTok has not yet become a significant platform for Vietnamese activists. Still, some have taken to the platform to “badmouth” police and to express discontent over land confiscation.
“TikTok has potential of becoming an important platform to reach out to a big number of young audiences,” Robertson said. “The Vietnamese authorities restrict or even ban anything that poses a potential risk of getting too popular and thus out of control for them.”
But the clampdown on the Chinese-owned TikTok also showcases Hanoi grappling with the threat of “political interference”, Giang said.
Vietnam and China have a long history of maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Hanoi rejects the “nine-dash line” which shows the sprawling extent of China’s claims in the hotly disputed, resource-rich waters. Any maps shared on TikTok which mislabel Vietnamese islands in the South China Sea, including Hoang Sa and Truong Sa, or show the nine-dash line could be seen as a threat, Giang said.
High sensitivity over maps of China’s nine-dash line has precedent in Vietnam. The government there ordered Netflix to take down an Australian spy-drama which included the nine-dash line in 2021, and the same year there was an uproar over a map on the clothing retailer H&M’s website showcasing China’s disputed maritime claims.
Worries from the government in Hanoi over China’s potential political interference through curated TikTok content would not be unique. India banned the app in 2020, and Australia and New Zealand have banned it from government devices. The U.S. government officially prohibits state and federal employees from using the platform.
In Singapore, TikTok is only allowed on a “need-to basis” for government employees and Malaysia has banned political advertisements on the site.
“When I was in [Singapore] in November last year, officials were telling me that they were very aware of some pro-China narratives that have taken hold… and that was coming across in social media apps,” said Hunter Marston, a Southeast Asia geopolitical analyst and PhD researcher at Australian National University. “TikTok would be an easy avenue for that to take hold.”
Elsewhere in the region, governments have embraced the app for their own purposes. In the Philippines, TikTok played a key role in the campaign of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. – with influencers producing a steady stream of bubbly content revising the authoritarian history of Ferdinand Marcos Sr.
“[TikTok] is open to Chinese influence inserting subtle messaging and this has been big in the Philippines, especially around Marcos Jr.’s election. TikTok was huge in disseminating misinformation,” Marston added. “[Banning] would be an easy way for Vietnam to prevent that from entering the discourse in Vietnam.”
Some observers see the threats to ban TikTok as a fearful attempt by authorities to preserve conservative Vietnamese values.
Giang said the TikTok censure fits within Hanoi’s fight against so-called “ideological deterioration”, led by the country’s most powerful figure, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong.
“TikTok has a huge impact on the younger generation,” Giang explained. “If the Vietnamese government cannot find a way to control it – by frequent reports, by more censorship, maybe by pushing them to promote what they want them to promote – then there will be an issue for national security and losing younger generations.”
A Hanoi-born millennial agreed, declining to give his name for potential repercussions for discussing the government.
“There is an ongoing moral panic that the state and many nationalists are pushing, banking on the fear that TikTok is ruining our youth and destabilising the nation,” he said, noting the general secretary frequently emphasises “the importance of controlling popular culture.”
“They fear that the control may be slipping from them, and they do not even have the capacity to moderate this platform. So they do rely on public outrage,” the millennial added. “I’ll be honest, they care more about preserving stability and trust in the party than about protecting youth from hateful ideologies.”
The social activist Phuong surfs past harmful posts on social media but has concerns about the younger generation’s ability to do so.
Still, he has a bigger issue with the potential of the government to use TikTok to push its own agenda.
“I think the Communist Party will influence TikTok to release news that benefits their party,” Phuong said. “Even [they] will release political fake news to deceive the people.”