The deployment of 10,000 cyber warriors to fight online dissent in Vietnam adds a grim “new dimension” to controls on free speech in the Communist country, a rights group has said.
Vietnam routinely jails its critics and closely monitors activists on social media, which is not banned unlike in neighbouring China.
A top Vietnamese general this week said a 10,000-strong brigade dubbed “Force 47” has been tasked with fighting “wrongful views” spreading on the internet, according to state media reports.
It was not immediately clear what Force 47 is responsible for, but observers anticipate the cyber soldiers will escalate smear campaigns against activists online.
Rights groups rounded on the move.
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said the cyber scouts announcement was a “shocking new dimension to Vietnam’s crackdown on dissent”.
Others said the tactic is designed to squeeze online critics.
“This is just the latest plank in a campaign to curb internet freedoms at all costs,” Shawn Crispin, Committee to Protect Journalists’ Southeast Asia representative, told AFP Friday.
“While they can’t unplug Facebook, Instagram and the likes outright, they can apply more and more pressure on those platforms and it looks like these cyber troops are their latest attempt to do that.”
Vietnam’s internet is classified as “not free”, according to web watchdog Freedom House, which ranks it second only to China in Asia.
Around half of the country’s 93 million people have access to the internet, and the country also ranks among Facebook’s top 10 users by numbers.
Vietnamese officials did not respond to a request for comment from AFP.
Earlier this year the government asked Facebook and YouTube to remove “toxic content” from its sites.
In August, the president called for tougher internet controls, saying that groups have used the web to launch campaigns against the government that threaten the “prestige of the party’s leaders and the state”.
A conservative leadership in power since last year has waged a crackdown on dissidents, with at least 15 arrested this year, according to Amnesty International.
Several other have been handed heavy jail terms, joining scores of activists already behind bars.
Force 47 is likely to include commentators hired to publish pro-government material and counter critics, said Madeline Earp, senior research analyst with Freedom House.
“Vietnam very much follows China’s example when suppressing internet freedom, particularly when it comes to blocking websites and arresting dissidents,” she told AFP.
For some activists, the cyber troop announcement is no surprise. But activist Nguyen Chi Tuyen said the new force marked an escalation in state tactics of repression.
“The main purpose for Force 47 is to try and control news and public opinion on the internet… they want to protect the party, not protect the country,” said Tuyen, more commonly known by his online handle Anh Chi.