Scandal-Plagued Facebook Goes on Charm Offensive in Vietnam   

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Scandal-Plagued Facebook Goes on Charm Offensive in Vietnam   


Before Facebook, Vu Kim Chi thought something was lacking in her job, which is to promote the economy in and around Vietnam’s famed Ha Long Bay. Posting updates to her department’s website, or photocopying missives to send to constituents, she said, was mostly one-sided.

But after she set up an official Facebook page for Quang Ninh province, the conversations started to flow in both directions, between Chi and the local residents or businesses. That’s why, when it comes to social media, she thinks more civil servants need to catch up with the rest of the country.

“Social media, especially the Facebook application, is really used a lot in Vietnam,” said Chi, who is deputy head of the province’s investment promotion and support office. “But for public agencies that use it as a tool to interact with people and businesses, it’s still not necessarily used a lot.”

Facebook on charm offensive

Even as governments around the world are demanding more accountability and transparency from Facebook, public officials in Vietnam are looking for more ways to use the website. And Facebook is happy to oblige.

The company is on something of a charm offensive in Vietnam, where it has roughly 42 million members, nearly half the country. Besides sending top officials to visit Vietnam last year, Facebook has been instructing small businesses on how to sell their products on the site, and now it is giving civil servants like Chi advice for engaging with the public.

The chance to win some good will in Vietnam comes at a time when pressures are piling up on Facebook both inside the country and abroad. Globally, it has been accused of complicity in plots to convince voters to vote for Brexit or for candidate Donald Trump, as well as in what the United Nations calls ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The company reportedly paid for research that could damage its critics’ and competitors’ reputations, as well as gave users’ data to dozens of other firms without consent.

New cyber law

In Vietnam, the government told advertisers to boycott Facebook and other sites in response to users’ postings that criticized the one-party state. Next month, the country will enact a cyber law requiring firms to store data domestically, which Facebook opposes.

But those troubles were not front and center at a workshop in Ho Chi Minh City this month where a company representative gave bureaucrats tips on making a Facebook page.

“We have to understand and put more attention to the social aspect of the platform,” said Noudhy Valdryno, who handles government outreach for Facebook. “That means you have to understand your followers, who are they, where do they live, what are their interests?  Then you can formulate an accurate strategy to engage with your followers.”

The workshop included suggestions for government officials, such as posting updates on Facebook at regular intervals, shooting videos vertically to retain the attention of mobile users, and encouraging conversations among followers on the page.

Tech companies welcome

The event was an example of how Vietnamese officials are open to working with the tech company. It is so ubiquitous in the Southeast Asian country that when Vietnamese people say “social media” they mean Facebook, and when asked what newspapers they read, they give the answer: Facebook. 

“What we’re talking about is effective use of technology in this day and age to achieve our goals,” said Le Quoc Cuong, vice director of the Ho Chi Minh City department of information and communications. “What we’re looking for is being effective, being engaging and enhancing cooperation between the government and the people.”

Chi says more Facebook data would help her better engage with residents around Quang Ninh, a northeastern province that hugs the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Chinese border on another. She would like regular reports, perhaps every month, with information to help analyze the province’s fan page, from key words to number of “likes.” So as many people worldwide have begun to decry tech companies for abusing and cashing in on users’ data, there are those who still continue to see untapped potential in gathering further data.