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.”
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.”

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)

Dubai’s Arab Media Forum wraps up with insights into AI-led future

Updated 27 September 2023

Dubai’s Arab Media Forum wraps up with insights into AI-led future

  • Forum had two key themes: impact of artificial intelligence and influence of film and drama

DUBAI: The 21st edition of the Arab Media Forum wrapped up in Dubai on Wednesday, with leading media figures, ministers, heads of local Arab and international media organizations, as well as intellectuals and writers coming together to discuss the future of the industry.  

The two-day forum had two key themes: the impact of artificial intelligence on the media, and the influence of film and drama as sources of soft power.  

Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammad Al-Maktoum highlighted the importance of culture in society, saying it is intertwined with creative economy, the basis for countries’ development.  

Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, spoke of the importance of finding common ground in the region in order to coexist peacefully.  

”This pillar is stability. This stability is not just for the UAE but for the entire region as this cannot be achieved in isolation. There is a need to calm the region and not focus on disagreements. Confrontation leads to a high price for all parties. So, the first pillar is stability, and this is an established fact. The second pillar is geo-economic more than a geo-strategic. Economic growth is important,” he said.

Most of the attendees and panelists shared the view that AI can be beneficial in terms of solving problems in a cost-effective and timely manner. However, some journalists warned of its dangers in terms of spreading fake, unverified news, as well as its possible impact on job losses in the media sector.  

Bahraini Minister of Information, Ramzan Abdulla Al-Nuaimi, and H.E. Karam Gabr, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation, discussed the differences between Arab media operations and their counterparts in West.

“Each country has a different set of laws, morals and culture; we Arabs have been stereotyped on how we handle our journalists and our media, but what the West fails to understand is that we live according to our values and not theirs,” Al-Nuaimi said.  

Both agreed there should be economic opportunities for the youth to express their creativity, and channel their opinions and frustrations in positive ways.  

Egyptian journalist warns of threat posed by AI to media sector

Updated 27 September 2023

Egyptian journalist warns of threat posed by AI to media sector

  • 'We now live in a fake news era; times have changed, so did copyright laws,' said Adib at the Arab media Forum

DUBAI: Egyptian businessman and journalist Imad Eddine Adib has issued an ominous warning about the potential threat posed by artificial intelligence to the media industry.

Speaking at the Arab Media Forum in Dubai, the self-confessed “crazy pessimist” predicted that the future for the sector looked neither promising nor safe.

The veteran writer told delegates at a session, titled “The Truth in the AI Era,” that his opinions were based on facts and data.

He said: “We can use technology to serve humanity, but we need to note that humanity also has a good and bad side.”

Reiterating the views of many speakers at the annual media industry gathering, Adib pointed out how AI could have major technological benefits for businesses, saving time and money. But he noted how tech had infiltrated the lives of most people.

“All those walking with smart phones in their pockets must be aware that they are being supervised, their privacies invaded, and there is no program or software you can get to defend or fight against this supervision.

“We now live in a fake news era; times have changed, so did copyright laws. You can now hear (Egyptian singer) Umm Kulthum singing a carnival song,” he added.

Adib highlighted an example of a deepfake video sent to him by friends that falsely claimed former US President Donald Trump had been given a new heart belonging to a Muslim man and had converted to Islam.

Addressing the session, Dr. Maitha Buhumaid, director of the Dubai Press Club, said: “There will be coordination and relationship between robots; given each serves a purpose they will be exchanging data to complete their missions. We need a ceiling on this.

“Imagine the disastrous outcome if let’s say mobsters or ISIS (Daesh) got their hands on robots. Imagine the infiltration of trade, numbers on the stock market, and economic well-being of countries. That’ll have disastrous implications. These are all possible scenarios for the future.”

Dubai Media launches new corporate identity at 21st Arab Media Forum

Updated 27 September 2023

Dubai Media launches new corporate identity at 21st Arab Media Forum

  • DMI aims to become the No. 1 media destination in the Middle East, says CEO Al-Mulla

LONDON: Dubai Media Inc. announced on Tuesday from Dubai the launch of its new corporate identity and strategy.

The announcement came on the sidelines of the 21st Arab Media Forum, during a dinner party held by DMI at Mina A’Salam Hotel to celebrate the strategy’s approval by Ahmed bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, second deputy ruler of Dubai and chairman of the Dubai Media Council.

DMI CEO Mohammed Al-Mulla said his company aimed to become the No. 1 media destination in the Middle East in the next few years, stressing the importance of the media economy.

DMI’s new vision aims to revolutionize the press sector, enhance Dubai’s role as a global economic hub and major gateway to world trade, promote Emirati culture, focus on local affairs, and cover developments in all sectors.

The new strategy includes the launch of several initiatives that will improve DMI’s position as a prominent Arab media brand and contribute to the development of Arab media.

These initiatives include the launch of the Dubai Media Academy; the Dubai Media Studios, a modern production company operating on a commercial basis; the Media Services Initiative, which will service other production companies; and the Arts Events Company.

DMI, the government of Dubai’s official media organization, signed on Monday an agreement with the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority to collaborate ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference, COP28, in accelerating sustainable development and contributing to achieving net zero.

Saudi data chiefs launch new training initiative in latest AI push

Updated 27 September 2023

Saudi data chiefs launch new training initiative in latest AI push

  • Program will offer 32 training camps to 800 specialized tech graduates

LONDON: Saudi data chiefs have launched a series of technology training camps aimed at educating 800 graduates on the latest developments in the field of artificial intelligence.

Under the initiative, the Saudi Data and AI Authority will run 32 camps focused on large language model technology, a type of AI that can mimic human intelligence, Asharq Al-Awsat reported on Tuesday.

The training program — to be offered to recent graduates in technical specializations — has been designed to bolster the Kingdom’s efforts to nurture a new generation of LLM experts.

LLMs are AI systems with vast amounts of data that can generate human-like text, translate languages, write different kinds of creative content, and answer questions in an informative way.

The first camp will get underway on Oct. 8 and will be held virtually over four weeks, covering topics such as generative AI, neural networks, deep learning, and text data analysis.

At the end of each camp, trainees will be awarded certificates of completion and will be eligible to take professional certification exams related to LLMs.

Separately, the authority has also launched an Open Datathon competition for which registration closes on Sept. 30. Aimed at students, alumni, and entrepreneurs, it has been designed to develop skills in data science and stimulate innovation.

The datathon will be held over two days, and participants will be supervised by experts in the field of data science. On day three, competitors will present their solutions to a panel of judges.

Saudi-Iran rapprochement right move but still long way to go: Experts tell Arab Media Forum

Updated 27 September 2023

Saudi-Iran rapprochement right move but still long way to go: Experts tell Arab Media Forum

DUBAI: The recent Chinese-brokered rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran was the right move, but there is still a long way to go, experts told the Arab Media Forum on Tuesday. 

“Iran continues to support armed groups that Saudi opposes,” Afshin Molavi senior fellow at Foreign Policy Institute in John Hopkins University, pointed out. 

Molavi’s comments came during session titled “The Middle East – A Region of Opportunities or Conflicts” alongside Faisal Abbas, editor-in-chief of Arab News.

Wondering if whether or not the deal will succeed, Abbas pointed out that the Kingdom, due to its continuous leadership, has over 40 years of experience in dealing with Iran.

“The best case scenario will be both countries putting in the leverage and work to cooperate and try to solve conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon, of course with involvement of the local players. 

The worst case scenario will be a missed opportunity to make that happen and relations remain the same.”  Abbas said.

Abbas also explained why China was a better suited broker for the rapprochement deal detailing how it has leverage over Iran by investing billions of dollars in projects and there is no risk of the negotiations restarting under a different ideology every 4 years due to elections as could be the case in America. 

In his view, Molavi said China brokering the deal “comes with a grain of salt” as Washington believes China is its enemy but he believes the rapprochement is the right move for the region.  

The Arab view on China differs from the west, however. 

A recent YouGov study done by Arab News on Palestine shows how Palestinians see China as a more honest broker to handle their issue rather than the US.

Abbas said colonial powers such as France, the UK and the wars US were involved in are viewed negatively in comparison to China where its political and economical involvement in the region has been mostly positive “the Chinese do not come with that baggage.” 

On the issue of America, Molavi notes there is a shift in power and while Washington remains a powerful country, the world is witnessing a rise in other powers such as China and India.  

“Today, countries are proving that we now live in the world of multi strategic alignment, and I think Washington is beginning to understand that; it is no longer you’re either with us or against us.” 

Molavi continues: “this can also be seen in the Abraham Accords where on one hand the UAE has this historical relationship and alliance with Israel but then joins BRICS.  

Abbas described how exciting the dynamics are and spoke of the Saudi position on the matter where he mentions how the Saudi hand has been extended for 20 years provided that there will be a solution for Palestinians.  

“Biden needs a foreign policy legacy and this will be a winning ticket for him for the upcoming election.”  



Both speakers also discussed and highlighted the positive changes that Saudi and UAE have been making.   

Abbas noted Saudi Arabia’s remarkable achievements and how these stories should be celebrated and shared such as the launching of the female Saudi astronaut among other things. 

“Actions speak louder than words, Facts are stubborn things. No amount of negative stories can take those achievements away, Saudi is the fastest growing G20 economy in the world.”