In Vietnam, a critical blog post could land the author in jail, but a satirical image of Cinderella that mocks the ruling elite? That is likely to slip past the censors, which is good news for the country’s approximately 33 million Internet users who, armed only with laptops and a sense of humor, are driving broader social change than the scores of imprisoned firebrand bloggers, experts say.
From their calls for Vietnamese Minister of Health Nguyen Thi Kim to resign — a cause so popular that a state-run newspaper briefly took up the campaign — to amusing attacks on ham-fisted censorship, Vietnam’s ever-growing ranks of Internet users are finding their voice.
“The kids creating and sharing these images don’t think of it as activism, for the most part. They’re not necessarily campaigning for anything. They’re just making jokes,” said Patrick Sharbaugh, a digital culture researcher who has worked in Vietnam. “An ersatz civil society is emerging out of this.”
Criticized over a spate of baby deaths after routine vaccinations, Nguyen was the target of hundreds of memes, including unflattering photographs of her with the words: “Without me, how would funeral services thrive?”
In a one-party communist country where public loudspeakers still broadcast official news twice daily and all media is state-run, the space the Internet creates is important.
At the forefront of the revolution is the meme — an idea or piece of content, similar to viral content, but changed or remixed as it spreads.
While still not as widely used in Vietnam as in the US or China, “there’s a lot of growth to come,” said Ben Valentine, a US writer for the Civil Beat Web site that examines memes and viral media.
Even in one-party Vietnam, it is proving difficult for the government to stop the spread of memes.
Facebook is under a partial unofficial block, but that restriction is easily circumvented by the about 22 million Vietnamese who use it and shutting the site down totally risks upsetting, and even radicalizing, otherwise content citizens.
This is an example of the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism, a term coined by academic Ethan Zuckerman in 2008 and stating that tools like Facebook used mostly to share cute cat pictures, baby photos or selfies can also be used to spread political content.
“Any tool that allows cute cat images to spread, is a tool that can allow activist messages to spread. So that is a challenge” for authoritarian regimes, US artist and writer An Xiao Mina said.
Under regimes that use keyword search algorithms to delete messages, “the activist message becomes the cute cat,” she said.
So to show support for dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未), whose name is blocked on China’s hugely popular Sina Weibo microblogging site, people use photos of sunflower seeds in reference to one of his works.
One of the top meme incubators in Vietnam is HaiVL — which means funny or hilarious in Vietnamese. HaiVL opened two years ago and now gets 1.5 million visits a day. The site censors openly political content and blocks repeat offenders, but much of the content touches on sensitive issues using humor.
“Everyone wants to be happy. I think HaiVL has helped many people to be happier by making them laugh more,” said Vo Thanh Quang, cofounder and CEO of the company that runs the site.
Also popular is the Tuyet Bitch Collective, which remixes Disney cartoons into satirical memes and has acquired 250,000 followers on Facebook in just seven months.