Hanoi admits to army of 900 'internet public opinion shapers'
‘Public opinion shapers’ attempt to spread the Communist Party line in blogs and chat rooms
After harassment and prison failed to silence Vietnam's dissident bloggers, the communist government started building an army of propaganda agents to infiltrate chat rooms and sing the regime's praises.
One Hanoi-based pro-democracy blogger said: "Their favourite arguments are, 'Shut up and trust the government.' They don't engage in debate. They go in for personal attacks and spreading poisonous fallacies.
"If I write anything that attracts attention, they will jump in to 'guide the public'."
Hanoi's head of propaganda, Ho Quang Loi, confirmed last week that the city had a team of 900 "internet polemicists" or "public opinion shapers" tasked with spreading the party line.
His comments were the first official admission that the communist regime employs a Chinese-style system of internet "moderators" to control news and manipulate opinion.
The "teams of experts" has set up some 18 websites and 400 online accounts to monitor and direct online discussions on everything from foreign policy to land rights, Loi said.
A typical pro-government comment on one online forum read: "Don't listen to the anti-nation words of overseas reactionaries. They were hired by the former regime to spread propaganda and social disorder."
Loi was talking only about the Hanoi city authorities' use of internet agents and did not make clear whether the 900 people were paid employees.
But a post on the official website of Ho Chi Minh City on December 26 mentions paying subsidies to "stringers for social opinion", another euphemism for pro-government internet commentators.
Human Rights Watch's Phil Robertson said: "It's incredibly ironic that rights-repressing governments such as Vietnam forge groups of cyber-troopers to get their pro-government message out," yet they "see no contradiction in using harassment, censorship and firewalls to try and keep opposing opinions repressed".
Vietnam, branded an "enemy of the internet" by Reporters Without Borders, has jailed dozens of bloggers, including 15 since January 1 alone. Facebook is sporadically blocked and the communist regime's top leaders have repeatedly lashed out over online dissent.
Vietnam expert Carl Thayer said: "They let the genie out of the bottle. They promoted interconnectivity [and now] they're trying to suppress what can't be suppressed."
The bloggers agreed that the government's efforts, including their cyber-troopers, were futile.
"They may think that they have been successful in orienting public opinions, but I think they are completely wrong. People are not stupid," a second Hanoi-based blogger said.