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Vietnam’s social listening programme : big brother looming over Ho Chi Minh City ?

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Locals in Ho Chi Minh City worry that a new government initiative for social listening powered by artificial intelligence would jeopardise their privacy rather than improve public services.

Ho Chi Minh City has launched an AI-led social listening programme to access social media platforms and gauge public opinion so as to improve municipal services for nearly 10 million inhabitants in Vietnam’s largest city, according to state media. Already, some Vietnamese have privately spoken of their fear that this plan will become a means for Big Brother to watch over people’s lives and further curtail freedom of speech, rather than enhance public services.

The launch of Socialbeat, a social listening AI-enabled software able to process billions of pieces of information daily, came with fanfare in late February, with officials in a Ho Chi Minh City townhall hailing it as a milestone in the implementation of a nation-wide project to go digital and build smart cities across Vietnam. According to Mr Lam Dinh Thang, Director of Ho Chi Minh City’s Information Department, the city intended to monitor public opinion from over 20 million social media accounts so as to form “better policies to better serve the people”. Local officials also said that the software would be used to prevent “toxic information and fake news” from spreading.

Indeed, this is part of the National Information and Communication Infrastructure Master Plan (2021-2030), launched by the government last January. The plan contains two primary objectives: to make Vietnam a digital economy and to improve public services by gathering opinions about government policies. The need to control cyberspace is also embedded in the plan.

Social listening is not new in Vietnam. Foreign and domestic IT companies have offered this service to businesses for years. Several provinces in North Vietnam have even implemented a citizens’ feedback app to gather data from social listening software, but they failed to make use of the data – collected between 2016 and 2022 in Quang Ninh – to improve the performance of local governmental departments for healthcare, construction management and education, despite their low scores year after year.

The accuracy of the public sentiment data collected could well be compromised by self-censorship, trolling behaviour, and other forms of inauthentic online activity.

Is this listening initiative about becoming Big Brother or another state project wasting public money like the one in Quang Ninh? What is clear now is that Vietnam will rely mostly on global platforms like Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter), Instagram, and YouTube to gather the data necessary for social listening.

Between 2018 and 2023, most of the eight “Made in Vietnam” social media apps such as Zingme, Lotus, Hahalolo, Gapo, and Vietnamta had failed to attract enough users nation-wide to survive, except Zalo – a local app with over 60 million users in 2023. In short, no homegrown social media in the Vietnamese language can beat global giants like Facebook, with over 75 million users in Vietnam and several millions of overseas Vietnamese in the world. Even Vietnamese media admitted that the country will be “a market dominated by Big Tech” for many years to come.

Vietnam’s over-reliance on foreign social media platforms firstly means that the government will have to work within the Big Tech companies’ data protection policies to carry out its intended social listening programme. Vietnam’s relationship with Big Tech companies has never been plain sailing. Enacted in 2018, Vietnam’s cyber security law required Facebook and Google to take down within 24 hours, any online links and video content deemed to be threats to national security. Data released by the Ministry of Information and Communications in mid-2022 showed that in the first six months of that year, thousands of posts were removed by Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok.

Such takedowns however are only a small concession by the global platforms to protect their business interests in Vietnam. The key issue is whether Big Tech would accede to the government’s demands for access to customer data. In August 2022, a decree (ND 53/2022) by the government authorised the Ministry of Public Security, which oversees the police, to issue a decision forcing Big Tech “to store Vietnamese users’ personal data in Vietnam” but with a proviso that such a decision would be complied with “within 12 months”.  No such decision was reported by the Vietnamese press in 2023. The government’s fight over control of the internet and social media with the Big Tech platforms will continue in the coming years.

Second, the efficacy of using social listening methods for public sentiment analysis depends greatly on the accuracy and quality of content on the platforms in the first place. Almost immediately after the launch of Socialbeat in Ho Chi Minh City, some Vietnamese Facebookers raised concerns over privacy and control. They fear Vietnam may follow China and build a social credit system, which rates individuals based on the aggregation and analysis of the data from their interactions with government officials or whenever they share private comments about the government via social media, or share other people’s views on any public platform under watch. The accuracy of the public sentiment data collected could well be compromised by self-censorship, trolling behaviour, and other forms of inauthentic online activity.

All in all, Vietnam’s application of Socialbeat has raised more questions than answers. The programme’s apparent lack of transparency and the concerns among the public about privacy already outweigh any supposed utility in assisting Ho Chi Minh City to enhance public services in accordance with “the wishes of the local people”. Publicising a piece of AI-enabled software as a tool to replace checks and balances in government, a principle still non-existent in Vietnam, can only add to the confusion and even raise suspicion over the real motives behind the plan.

By Thanh Giang Nguyen – / ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute – March 28, 2024

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