How Vietnam’s ‘influencer’ army wages information warfare on Facebook

A Facebook page of a group called 'Believe in the Party' which was identified by Vietnamese state media as being controlled by 'Force 47' cyber troop. (Reuters)
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Updated 09 July 2021

How Vietnam’s ‘influencer’ army wages information warfare on Facebook

  • Social media influencer groups in Vietnam, also known as 'Force 47', are an online army tasked with moderating and posting on pro-state Facebook groups.
  • Authorities in Vietnam threatened to shut down Facebook in the country entirely if it did not locally restrict access to more content and increase censorship.

HANOI: In Vietnam, where the state is fighting a fierce online battle against political dissent, social media “influencers” are more likely to be soldiers than celebrities.
Force 47, as the Vietnamese army’s online information warfare unit is known, consists of thousands of soldiers who, in addition to their normal duties, are tasked with setting up, moderating and posting on pro-state Facebook groups, to correct “wrong views” online.
According to a Reuters review of provincial-level state media reports and broadcasts by the army’s official television station, Force 47 has since its inception in 2016 set up hundreds of Facebook groups and pages, and published thousands of pro-government articles and posts.
Social media researchers say the group may be the largest and most sophisticated influence network in Southeast Asia. And it is now playing a prominent role in the country’s intensifying conflict with Facebook.
After being approached by Reuters this week, a Facebook source said the company had removed a group called “E47,” which had mobilized both military and non-military members to report posts they did not like to Facebook in an effort to have them taken down. The source said the group was connected to a list of Force 47 groups identified by Reuters.
A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that some groups and accounts were taken down on Thursday for “coordinating attempts to mass report content.” A company source said the action was one of Facebook’s largest takedowns initiated under its mass reporting policy.
But many of the Force 47 accounts and groups identified by Reuters remain active. Since they are operated by users under their real names, they do not violate Facebook policies, the company source said.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry, which handles enquiries to the government from foreign media, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the takedown.
Unlike in neighboring China, Facebook is not blocked in Vietnam, where it has 60 million to 70 million users. It is Vietnam’s main platform for e-commerce and generates around $1 billion in annual revenue for the company.
It has also become the main platform for political dissent, launching Facebook and the government into a constant tussle over the removal of content deemed to be “anti-state.”
Vietnam has undergone sweeping economic reforms and social change in recent decades, but the ruling Communist Party retains a tight grip over media and tolerates little dissent.
Last year, Vietnam slowed traffic on Facebook’s local servers to a crawl until it agreed to significantly increase the censorship of political content in Vietnam. Months later, authorities threatened to shut down Facebook in Vietnam entirely if it did not locally restrict access to more content.
In a statement to Reuters, a Facebook spokesperson said the company’s goal was to keep its services in Vietnam online “for as many people as possible to express themselves, connect with friends and run their business.”
“We’ve been open and transparent about our decisions in response to the rapid rise in attempts to block our services in Vietnam,” the spokesperson said.
Vietnam does not have the wherewithal to sustain a Chinese-style “Great Firewall” and develop local social media alternatives, said Dien Luong, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
“This has paved the way for Facebook to become the platform of choice for Force 47 to safeguard the party line, shape public opinion and spread state propaganda.”
’SKILLED AND MALICIOUS’
There is no official definition of what constitutes a “wrong view” in Vietnam. But activists, journalists, bloggers and — increasingly — Facebook users, have all received hefty jail terms in recent years for spreading “anti-state propaganda,” or opinions which counter those promoted by the Party.
Last week, Le Van Dung, a prominent activist who regularly broadcasts live to thousands of followers on Facebook, was arrested after more than a month on the run, according to a police statement.
Dung, who goes by “Le Dung Vova” was detained on charges of “making, storing, spreading information, materials and items for the purpose of opposing the state,” under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Penal Code.
He faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.
Force 47 takes its name from Directive 47, a policy document issued by the army’s General Political Department on Jan. 8, 2016. Analysts say it was created as an alternative to hiring civilian “opinion shapers” — or “du luan vien” — that had operated on a smaller, less successful scale.
“Since the ‘du luan vien’ were not as well trained in Party ideology or as conservative as military officials, their performance was not as good as expected,” said Nguyen The Phuong, a researcher at the Saigon Center for International Studies. “Force 47 is also less costly. Military officials consider it part of their job and don’t ask for an allowance.”
The size of Force 47 is not clear, but in 2017, the general in charge of the unit at the time, Nguyen Trong Nghia, said it had 10,000 “red and competent” members. The true number could be much higher: the Reuters review of known Force 47 Facebook groups showed tens of thousands of users.
The Facebook source said the E47 group it had taken action against was made up of an active membership of military and non-military members.
Nghia now heads the main propaganda arm of the Party. Vietnam’s information ministry recently promulgated a social media code of conduct that closely resembles Force 47 directives, urging people to post about “good deeds” and banning anything that affects “the interests of the state.”

’STRUGGLE ON THE INTERNET’
In March, conferences were held at military bases across Vietnam to mark five years since the creation of Force 47.
State media reports about the meetings named at least 15 Facebook pages and groups it said were controlled by Force 47 which collectively had over 300,000 followers, according to a Reuters analysis of those groups.
Rather than being a single army unit, Force 47 soldiers appear to carry out their activities alongside their usual duties and create locally targeted content, the reports revealed.
In addition to Facebook, Force 47 creates anonymous Gmail and Yahoo email addresses, and accounts on Google’s YouTube and Twitter, according to the reports.
YouTube said it had terminated nine channels on Friday for violating its policies on spam, including a channel identified by Reuters as a suspected Force 47 operation.
Twitter said it had not seen any activity by Force 47.
Many of the Facebook groups reviewed by Reuters played on patriotic sentiments with names such as “I love the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” “Vietnam in my Heart,” “Voice of the Fatherland” and “Believe in the Party.”
Some groups, such as “Keeping company with Force 47” and “Roses of Force 47” were obvious in their affiliation, while others — such as “Pink Lotus” and a few groups that used the names of local towns in their titles — were more subtle.
The posts varied in content, with many extolling Vietnam’s army, founding leader Ho Chi Minh, or Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong. Others showed screenshots of “wrong information” posted by other Facebook users, marked with a large red “X.”
“These developments unfolding in Vietnam are scary and have expanded with impunity,” said Dhevy Sivaprakasam, Asia-Pacific policy counsel at Internet rights group Access Now.
“We are witnessing the creation of a reality where people are not safe to speak freely online, and where there’s no concept of individual privacy.”
(Reporting by James Pearson; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in New York and Fanny Potkin in Singapore; Editing by Jonathan Weber, Lisa Shumaker and William Mallard)


Netflix to let more subscribers preview content

Updated 01 December 2022

Netflix to let more subscribers preview content

  • Feature allows selected members to preview shows or films

LONDON: Netflix Inc. is planning to let tens of thousands of users around the world to preview content from early next year, expanding beyond its current previewer base of 2,000-plus subscribers, sources reported on Thursday.
Netflix’s Preview Club, which started more than a year ago, allows its members to watch some shows or films before they appear broadly on the platform and review them, the Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter.
The video streaming giant did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
The move underpins Netflix’s efforts to ensure quality content, at a time when investors and analysts focus more on the profitability of streaming firms.


Taliban silence Voice of America broadcasts in Afghanistan

Updated 01 December 2022

Taliban silence Voice of America broadcasts in Afghanistan

  • Voice of America and Radio Free Europe are funded by the US government, though they claim editorial independence
  • Afghanistan has lost 40 percent of its media outlets and 60 percent of its journalists since the Taliban takeover

WASHINGTON: The Voice of America said Wednesday that Taliban authorities have banned FM radio broadcasts from VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Afghanistan, starting Thursday.
VOA said Taliban authorities cited “complaints they have received about programming content” without providing specifics.
VOA and RFE are funded by the US government, though they claim editorial independence.
The Taliban overran Afghanistan in August 2021 as American and NATO forces were in the final weeks of their pullout from the country after 20 years of war.
Despite initially promising a more moderate rule, they have restricted rights and freedoms and widely implemented their harsh interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.
Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Thursday that Afghanistan has press laws and any network found “repeatedly contravening” these laws will have their privilege of working in the country taken away.
“VOA and Azadi Radio (Radio Liberty) failed to adhere to these laws, were found as repeat offenders, failed to show professionalism and were therefore shut down,” he said.
The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said recently that Afghanistan has lost 40 percent of its media outlets and 60 percent of its journalists since the Taliban takeover.


As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?

Updated 01 December 2022

As crypto collapses in US, is Middle East going through digital renaissance?

  • NFT startups in region seem to think so

DUBAI: OasisX, the nascent curated multichain non-fungible token marketplace, which aims to drive adoption of NFTs in the Middle East and North Africa region is embracing Web3 in several ways integrating NFTs, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies within its platform.

Jimi Ibrahim, one of the co-founders of the company, who has described the new iteration of the internet as a digital renaissance, said: “Web3 has four pillars: Blockchain as a secure infrastructure, tokens like NFTs for proof of ownership and provenance, cryptocurrencies for store of value and transactions, and the metaverse, which is a combination of augmented reality and virtual reality.”

The adoption of Web3, however, has witnessed a slowdown as cryptocurrency and NFT scams have become rampant in markets such as the US. Despite the promise of a more secure internet, cryptocurrencies can be used and abused for fraudulent activities, as evidenced by the recent FTX scandal.

Founded by Sam Bankman-Fried in 2019, FTX is a cryptocurrency exchange, that rose to popularity thanks to celebrity endorsements and an aggressive marketing strategy.

In November, the crypto news site CoinDesk published the balance sheet of Alameda Research, a crypto investing firm also owned by Bankman-Fried, showing that Alameda held a large amount of a digital currency created by FTX called FTT.

“While there is nothing per se untoward or wrong about that, it shows Bankman-Fried’s trading giant Alameda rests on a foundation largely made up of a coin that a sister company invented, not an independent asset like a fiat currency or another crypto,” the article said.

However, if the value of the FTT were to drop, Alameda would essentially be at risk of insolvency.

The article set in motion a series of legal actions against Bankman-Fried, FTX, and the celebrities who promoted the crypto exchange, resulting in one of the biggest financial scandals.

The incident has slowed down the adoption of crypto, diminished faith in the industry, and cost a lot of people a lot of money. Although Ibrahim noted that it had “hurt the industry,” he pointed out that it had acted as a purge of sorts.

He said: “Foul play has to be shed light on, and such players have to be removed from the playing field so that the environment is much more safe and secure for natural growth.” He added that, ultimately, was the future where “decentralized finance is going to change the world for the better.”

The global NFT industry alone reached a market capitalization of $41 billion by the end of 2021, according to blockchain data company Chainalysis.

The space was also growing to include non-fungible assets, Ibrahim said, which would see it extending into the real world. For example, the real estate and NFT industries have been merging with several properties being sold as NFTs.

In February, US-based real estate company Propy sold an NFT-backed property, a 2,164-square-foot house in Florida, for $653,000 with the winning bidder receiving a NFT as proof of the home’s ownership.

“This is the future we’re looking to tap into, facilitate and expedite because it only makes sense to secure everything on the blockchain,” Ibrahim added.

OasisX aims to bring a new layer of security and accessibility to the world of NFTs in the MENA region for both artists and businesses.

Ibrahim along with co-founders Najib Khanafer and Ramzi Mneimneh started working on the platform more than one year ago and officially launched it at the NFT LB event in Lebanon in September.

The event featured the work of 23 artists, half of which were sold out during the event, as well as served as a platform for panel discussions, movie screenings, and AR and VR experiences.

The company’s marketplace features only vetted artists, unlike platforms such as OpenSea, which avoids any “bogus projects,” Ibrahim said.

Anyone can create and sell NFTs on OpenSea. Since the platform does not vet artists, many fraudulent NFTs end up on it. Earlier this year, OpenSea reported that more than 80 percent of the items on the platform were plagiarized works, fake collections, and spam.

“We want to keep the art community safe and secure with the right projects,” Ibrahim added.

Available in English and Arabic, the platform currently has 250 vetted artists and aims to grow into the biggest MENA-based marketplace. It also works with galleries through a referral program where the gallery receives a royalty over the first sale of any artist that gets onboarded and vetted on the platform.

It only charges 2 percent in transaction fees — among the lowest in the industry — because “artists should make the most of the sale of their hard work,” Ibrahim said. That was also why, he added, the company would never remove royalties.

Often, the technical skills needed to create NFTs can serve as a barrier to entry for both artists and brands. The company, therefore, created LaunchX, an NFT generator powered by artificial intelligence.

Recognizing that there are some still wary of NFTs and cryptocurrencies, the company has integrated options such as paying through credit cards, to make it more accessible.

The entire process is secured through a smart contract on the blockchain. Ibrahim said it was more secure than using traditional banking, especially in countries such as Lebanon, where the banking system was a shambles leaving many unable to use credit cards.

It was almost impossible to corrupt information on the blockchain making it more secure than traditional transaction methods used in Web2, he added.

Despite resistance and reluctance, Ibrahim forecasted that Web3, and cryptocurrencies, would become the norm in the next five to 10 years with people using it just as seamlessly as they use debit and credit cards today.
 


Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives

Updated 01 December 2022

Spotify Wrapped reveals the 2022 soundtrack to Saudi lives

  • The annual campaign reveals the most-streamed songs, artists and podcasts in the Kingdom over the past 12 months
  • Canadian superstar The Weeknd topped the list of the most popular artists in Saudi Arabia, followed by Taylor Swift and K-Pop group BTS

DUBAI: Audio streaming service Spotify has released its annual Wrapped campaign, which includes a roundup of the most popular artists, songs, albums and podcasts streamed in each country over the past year, as well as a personalized experience for each user based on their own activity on the platform during that time.

“Wrapped is such an exciting time of the year where we celebrate the role music and podcasts play in soundtracking our lives,” said Mark Abou Jaoude, Spotify’s head of music.

“This year, once again, we saw how open Saudi listeners are to different genres of music and it was great to see local artists making huge splashes.”

Canadian superstar The Weeknd topped the list of the most-streamed artists in Saudi Arabia, followed by Taylor Swift and K-Pop group BTS. Another Canadian, Drake, was fourth, followed by veteran rapper Eminem. Billie Eilish, The Neighbourhood, Justin Bieber, Imagine Dragons and Lana Del Rey completed the top 10.

Local artists experienced a growth in listeners, Spotify said, with Abdullah Al-Farwan the most-streamed Saudi performer in the country, followed by Abdul Majeed Abdullah and Sheilat artist Badr Al-Ezzi.

Spotify reported that there has been a massive growth in the popularity of Sheilat, lyrically driven folkloric songs, in recent years. According to 2021 data from the company, 80 percent of Sheilat listeners on the platform stream the music while they are gaming. This year, the top 10 list of most-streamed Saudi artists included a higher number of Sheilat singers, including Ghareeb Al-Mukhles, Fahad bin Fasla, Abdullah Al-Mukhles, and Mohammed bin Grman, alongside popular household names such as Abdul Majeed Abdullah, Mohammed Abdu and Rashed Al-Majed.

Most-streamed Saudi artists in Saudi Arabia

Abdullah Al-Farwan

Abdul Majeed Abdullah

Badr Al-Ezzi

Ghareeb Al-Mukhles

Mohammed Abdu

Rashed Al-Majed

Khaled Abdul Rahman

Fahad Bin Fasla

Abdullah Al-Mukhles

Mohammed Bin Grman

In terms of the year’s most-popular songs, “Ya Ibn Khamash” by Mohammed Al-Najm is the most-streamed Khaleeji track in Saudi Arabia this year. Assala Nasri and Badr Al-Ezzi each have two songs in the top 10: “Henain” and “Al-Sourah” from the former, and “Kalemni” and “Zikrayat” from the latter.

Most-streamed Khaleeji songs in Saudi Arabia

“Ya Ibn Khamash” by Mohammed Al-Najm

“Kalemni” by Badr Al-Ezzi

“Henain” by Assala Nasri

“Al-Sourah” by Assala Nasri

“Ghazal Ma Yensady” by Abdul Majeed Abdallah

“Shoft El-Nejoum” by Lamiya Almalki

“Qalby Jobarny” by Yasser Abdul Wahab

“Ashofak Kil Youm” by Mohamed Abdu

“Adaaj Oyoun” by Majd Al-Raslani

“Zikrayat” by Badr Al-Ezzi

 

Most-streamed songs in Saudi Arabia

“Another Love” by Tom Odell

“As It Was” by Harry Styles

“Middle of the Night” by Elley Duhe

“Enemy” by Imagine Dragons featuring J.I.D.

“Heat Waves” by Glass Animals

“Sweater Weather” by The Neighbourhood

“After Dark” by Mr. Kitty

“Close Eyes” by DVRST

“Save Your Tears” by The Weeknd

“Industry Baby” by Lil Nas X featuring Jack Harlow

A number of educational, motivational and cultural podcasts also proved very popular with Spotify listeners in Saudi Arabia this year, including “Kanabet El-Sebt,” “Finjan” and “Podcast Tanafuss.”

Most popular podcasts in Saudi Arabia:

Kanabet El-Sebt

Finjan

Podcast Tanafuss

Abajoura

Sa7eb

E7tiyal

Al-Salfah

Jinayah

Sokrat

Areeka

Spotify users can access their personalized Wrapped experience on the platform’s mobile app now.
 


Leading media outlets urge US to end prosecution of Julian Assange

Updated 29 November 2022

Leading media outlets urge US to end prosecution of Julian Assange

  • Guardian, NYT, Le Monde, El País and Der Spiegel editors and publishers said the indictment threatens freedom of the press.

WASHINGTON: The United States should end its prosecution of Julian Assange, leading media outlets from the United States and Europe that had collaborated with the WikiLeaks founder said on Monday, citing press freedom concerns.
“This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America’s First Amendment and the freedom of the press,” editors and publishers of the Guardian, the New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and El País said in an open letter.
Assange is wanted by US authorities on 18 counts, including a spying charge, related to WikiLeaks’ release of confidential US military records and diplomatic cables. His supporters say he is an anti-establishment hero who has been victimized because he exposed US wrongdoing, including in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Monday marked 12 years since those media outlets collaborated to release excerpts from over 250,000 documents obtained by Assange in the so-called “Cablegate” leak.
The material was leaked to WikiLeaks by the then-American soldier Chelsea Manning and revealed the inner workings of US diplomacy around the globe. The documents exposed “corruption, diplomatic scandals, and spy affairs on an international scale,” the letter said.
In August, a group of journalists and lawyers sued the CIA and its former director, Mike Pompeo, over allegations the intelligence agency spied on them when they visited Assange during his stay in Ecuador’s embassy in London.
Assange spent seven years in the embassy before being dragged out and jailed in 2019 for breaching bail conditions. He has remained in prison in London while his extradition case is decided. If extradited to the United States, he faces a sentence of up to 175 years in an American maximum security prison.
His legal team has appealed to the High Court in London to block his extradition in a legal battle that has dragged on for more than a decade.
“Publishing is not a crime,” the media outlets said in their letter on Monday.