Being critical online of one’s state, of one’s government, and of one’s national leadership is perhaps something we Brits take for granted. A quick scroll through Twitter under #UKPolitics (or anything remotely adjacent) will find seemingly infinite opinions of the Johnson ministry, ranging from left-wing criticism to right-wing praise. Similarly, searching for #Labour will return a wealth of virulent critiques, although my personal hope is the K-Pop stans will have already hijacked it. This freedom of criticism which we so gleefully engage with is not, however, universal. In an almost 80-page report published by Amnesty, Facebook has been accused of blocking or censoring material which criticises the Vietnamese government.
The people of Vietnam engage overwhelmingly with Mark Zuckerberg’s social media behemoth, with almost two-thirds of their population checking in to the platform, a similar figure to the UK’s own Facebooked populace. With state threats of a shutdown (or virtual blockade of the platform), Facebook seems more than willing to reject content by Vietnamese citizens which is deemed to be ‘anti-state’. At US Congressional Hearings, when asked if Facebook had shut down the account of a Vietnamese dissident who criticised governmental land policy, Zuckerberg responded with: “I believe that we may have done that”. Reports suggest such criticism can lead these citizens to being held as political prisoners. Criticism of the Vietnamese state for their people is not just an issue of digital censorship, but is also one of personal liberty.
Whichever way we decide to position ourselves on this issue of digital censorship, it is imperative we remain consistent. This isn’t to say the stance must be as simplistic as: all are de-platformed or none are de-platformed. This lacks nuance and allows space for grievous attacks on human rights and the active spreading of disinformation for malicious purposes. Excluding Alex Jones or Milo Yiannopoulos from Twitter is not the same as bloggers being imprisoned for speaking out against their governments. Everyone should be entitled to a voice, even if we disagree with their political bent, but no one should automatically be entitled to a platform.
In practice, this may seem to be advocating against Vietnamese citizens being invited to the mediated table – but it isn’t. When Alex Jones’ Twitter account was deactivated, his voice still existed in the world. His social capital afforded him access to other platforms and other channels of communication. When a Vietnamese citizen speaks out against their government, their opinion is muted and their liberty threatened. Being imprisoned, one loses not just their platform but also their voice. They are rendered invisible and unheard. This is the distinction we must make.
Therefore, we ought instead to say: political criticism must be exempt from state interference or castigation. Accusations of Facebook collusion with Russian, Israeli, Indian, and now Vietnamese governments suggest the platform is willing to become the arbiter of political truth. It appears Silicon Valley is prepared to decide which countries dissent can arise from and from which they cannot.
We must protect online spaces from active disinformation and weaponised propaganda. We must maintain access to digital voices from across the political spectrum.
And, we mustn’t allow Zuckerberg to categorise global populations into: ‘citizens with a voice’ and ‘citizens without’.