Recent commentary following the official revelation of the “Task Force 47 cyber unit” by the Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) has sparked fierce debate and criticism of late not only internationally, but domestically as well.
The arguments advanced so far have been predictable: that the task force is Vietnam’s new weapon against online dissent, and that censorship and a less tolerant attitude toward different opinions could also have consequences to future economic growth.
However, much less attention has been paid to the actual organization of this force, and more importantly, what the ruling Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) perceives as its struggle against what is deemed as “peaceful revolution” in the age of social media. Given the attention being paid to the institution, it is worth closely examining this angle.
Task Force 47, as it is envisioned, in fact is only comprised of purely military officials and military personnel who are already part of the armed forces. They are mostly trained in propaganda and equipped with skills to counter what the regime normally dubs as elements of “peaceful revolution” on the Internet, at the time when influencers are using online channels in widespread fashion in today’s Vietnam as is the case in other countries as well.
“Peaceful revolution,” as the VCP sees it, is a strategy to infiltrate and subvert the socialist state by spreading Western political ideas and lifestyles, inciting discontent, and encouraging groups to challenge the Party’s leadership. A very important part of this theory of peaceful revolution is the idea of “self-conversion,” meaning part of the ruling elites or party officials could themselves adhere to alien ideas without being forced by any countries or organization.
This task force also has no concrete organizational or physical structure, and as conceived so far, its organization is more informal and flexible based on particular missions. The number 47 is also simply a codename rather than suggesting a particular numerical or unit designation organized with a high degree of centralized control.
Rather, depending on the scale and scope of any particular missions, members of this force (ranging from around 5,000 to 10,000 people) would engage in countering perceived “wrongful opinions” in their own manner. There is minimal or even no command and control (C2) in some cases because members of the task force are given the rights to operate independently and actively in the Internet. The VPA can still maintain order and ideological discipline of this force (and of course provide general guidelines) through its unique network of political commissars, which are deployed down to the level of company.
In other words, members of Task Force 47 would execute their daily formal tasks and missions, including training, studying, and interacting with specific audiences, according to their formal code of conduct while at the same time becoming internet polemicists when required. This type of flexible C2 mechanism enables members of the task force to be exempt from normally strict procedures within the VPA’s traditional networks.
There are several ways through which Task Force 47 would look to fulfill its objectives. The most obvious method is to make use of the most famous social media network in Vietnam: Facebook. Many Facebook pages have in fact already been created in support of the military interests or with at least some kind of sponsorship and level of management from the military or military personnel (both current and retired). Whenever certain incidents happen, these Facebook pages assertively defend government policies or fiercely attack opponents. Considering that nearly half of Vietnam’s population are currently using Facebook (and the number is still rising), and seeing that many dissidents and anti-regime forces are also using Facebook as a platform to promote their own agendas, the tactic of swarming the web is not that surprising.
For the VPA, seen from this broader perspective, the establishment of Task Force 47 can be considered beneficial in some ways. First, it saves money. Rather than hiring a number of individuals, the military can stick to its own officials and personnel and both control their general way of thinking while also allowing them autonomy when it comes to executing required tasks. Second, it constitutes an expansion on the already extensive efforts by the regime to defend the party’s ideas, as evidenced by the aforementioned Facebook pages (their followers, likes, and mentions have been on the rise) and the rise of other so-called “red” and conservative pages on Facebook and even onto Youtube.
A fair question is why the VPA has chosen this particular timing to form and then publicize the task force. But in fact, this should be understood as part of an already ongoing government campaign. In August, for instance, Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang called for tougher Internet controls in the face of “hostile forces” that “threatened not only cyber security but also undermined the prestige of the leaders of the party and the state.” In the meeting of the Vietnam Communist Party’s Central Military Commission in the middle of last month, General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong stated: “The military must pay close attention to the struggle on the ideological front, to protect the right and the truth, to protect the Party, the regime, to resolutely repudiate wrong views and distorted allegations of hostile enemy forces. The military must be a pioneer and make even more fierce actions in this area.”
It should also be understood in the context of the limited available options for the Vietnamese government relative to other countries including China. Put simply, Vietnam does not have enough money and technical expertise to build a web blocking system as overbearing and effective as China’s so-called Great Firewall.
Similarly, the government senses that it cannot just simply ban Facebook or Google or any other internet-based social networks as they are increasingly playing an important role in the economy. For small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Vietnam, social media is a key marketing channel to young and affluent consumers in an economy growing at more than six percent a year. Creating the same Great Firewall could not only be a financial and technical nightmare for the government, but it would also be a nightmare for those SMEs depending on the Internet to do business. Stricter Internet control could also dampen innovation and impact the growth of Vietnam’s digital economy and its competitiveness.
Even the use of traditional propagandists and polemicists has its shortcomings, which the regime is wary of itself. The individuals that are part of this effort may be under greater control, but they may lack the ability to create the desired influence and may actually face obstacles in doing so given the notorious reputation of some of these overtly state-sponsored groups, especially among young and increasingly westernized urbanites. Besides, as mentioned before, the state also needs to invest more money in order to maintain and support this.
Given all this, turning towards the use of professional and trained “cyber warriors” would be a better option for the regime. It may be too soon to evaluate the success of this approach adopted by the VPA and the VCP. But it has already been clear for a while now than traditional propagandists and polemicists are losing appeal among a more educated and open-minded younger generation, and that winning the cyber realm demands a different approach.
Nguyen The Phuong is an associate researcher from the Saigon Center for International Studies (SCIS), Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City.