Vietnam’s mediascape amid the war in Ukraine: Between method and mayhem

By Hoang Thi Ha, Senior Fellow and Co-Coordinator, Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme – ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute

The animated and polarised discourse on Vietnam’s social media on the Russia-Ukraine war is in stark contrast to the disciplined and scripted coverage in Vietnam’s mainstream media, and as Hoang Thi Ha writes, this reflects the strong appetite among Vietnamese netizens for alternative sources of information.

The information warfare between Russia and Ukraine — and by extension the West — over the ongoing war is being mirrored in Vietnam’s media landscape despite tight control of state authorities. Intriguingly, despite being geographically distant from the European theater, many Vietnamese appear intensely engaged in public debates about the Russia-Ukraine war and the conflicting narratives surrounding it.

Mainstream media outlets, especially state-run Vietnam Television, the Vietnam Communist Party daily Nhan Dan, and other established newspapers such as Thanh Nien, Lao Dong and Tuoi Tre, have been disciplined in following the government’s discourse on the war. This discourse focuses on defending Vietnam’s international stance on this issue, analysing the impact of the war on the global economy and the country, praising repatriation efforts for overseas Vietnamese in Ukraine, and humanitarian assistance for Ukrainian civilians caught in the war. Following the government’s policy not to publicly condemn Moscow, these outlets refer to the Russian act against Ukraine as a ‘special military operation’ and refrain from detailed coverage of the death and carnage associated with the war. They have also sought to provide reasonably balanced coverage when reporting statements and updates from both Russian and Ukrainian sides.

In contrast to mainstream media’s disciplined coverage, social media, especially Facebook and YouTube, provide the platforms for many Vietnamese to express their ‘wild and loud’ opinions and share information that has often been labelled by different groups as mis- and dis-information. Dozens of new Facebook groups with memberships ranging from a thousand to around 200,000 have been created to focus on the war in Ukraine while many YouTube posts covering the war by both individuals and quasi-private media outlets draw thousands to millions of views. This buzz on Vietnam’s social media platforms suggests that the disciplined approach of Vietnam’s mainstream media in their coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war has not been able to satisfy the hunger for alternative news sources and commentary among many Vietnamese.

A content analysis of the passionate debates among Vietnamese social media users indicates that the Vietnamese public opinion is divided between both pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine camps.

The pro-Ukraine camp is generally more Western-leaning and gets their news feeds on the Russia-Ukraine war from various Western media outlets and directly from Ukraine. This group has strongly condemned Russia’s act of aggression and praised Ukraine’s heroic resistance, emphasising the importance of respecting the principle of non-aggression against a sovereign nation in international law. A number of people in this group draw parallels between Russia’s invasion with China’s acts of aggression against Vietnam in the past, especially the border war in 1979, and warn of China’s possible use of force in the South China Sea.

People in this group also share a strong anti-war stance and humanitarian concerns for the plight of millions of Ukrainians caught in the jaws of war. As the scars of a war-torn Vietnam throughout much of the 20th century are still felt today, many Vietnamese have expressed deep empathy for the losses that the Ukrainian people are suffering. Besides, as the second largest republic within the Soviet Union, Ukraine hosted many Vietnamese students during the Cold War, and before Russia’s invasion, the Vietnamese overseas community in Ukraine was estimated at around 7,000 people. There is therefore a deep sense of attachment to Ukraine and compassion towards its people. Notable Facebook groups in this camp include Russia-Ukraine War Updates (almost 200,000 members) News of Ukraine and the World (19,000 members), and Supporting Vietnamese in Ukraine (10,900 members).

The pro-Russia camp subscribes to Russia’s narrative that justifies its military action as a legitimate defence against NATO’s eastward expansion and opposes the Ukrainian leadership’s decision to look West and, in so doing, harm Russia’s security. They also buy into Russia’s claim of Ukraine’s ‘genocide’ against Russians as a justification for Moscow’s invasion. This group of pro-Russia Vietnamese is not insignificant in size. For instance, Facebook groups such as Nostalgia for the Soviet Union (almost 29,000 members), CCCP-Once Upon a Time (13,500 members), the Heart of Soviet Russia – Vietnam-Russia Friendship Association of Hanoi (12,200 members) and The Soviet Union & Friends (7,800 members) have actively shared the Russian side of the story. Of note, conservative, pro-regime and ‘anti-hostile forces’ anonymous Facebook accounts such as The Calling of Fatherland (284,000 followers) and Force 47 East Laos (143,000 followers) and the individual account of Colonel Le The Mau — a famous Vietnamese analyst of international politics (24,500 followers) — also adopt a strong pro-Russia stance.

The fervent support for Russia’s foray into Ukraine among a significant segment of Vietnamese underlines a strong reservoir of goodwill towards Russia felt among many Vietnamese, especially the older generation who still hold a sentimental attachment since the Soviet era. These Vietnamese see Russia as a benevolent power and feel a mix of admiration, gratitude and nostalgia because of the Soviet Union’s valued assistance and largesse to North Vietnam during the second Indochina War. Many Vietnamese have also been indoctrinated by the government’s lauding of Soviet revolutionary heroism through multiple wars in the 20th century. Quite apart from historical nostalgia, a number of Vietnamese also resonate strongly with President Putin’s macho personality cult, which is another factor behind their support for the Russian invasion.

Managing this polarisation in Vietnamese public opinion is a big challenge for the Vietnamese authorities. Of particular concern to the Vietnamese authorities is the potential for the discourse on the Russia-Ukraine war to be conflated with Vietnam’s own domestic politics and foreign policy issues.

Public debates about the war in Ukraine provide a hotbed for anti-regime and pro-democracy narratives to thrive. These are associated with the more liberal leaning segments of society which have been described in orthodox party parlance as ‘self-transformed’ or ‘hostile’ forces. For example, parallels are drawn between Russia under Putin’s authoritarianism and Vietnam under the VCP’s rule, between corruption within Russia’s military and recent corruption cases involving officials of Vietnam’s Military Medical Academy in a COVID-19 test kit fraud and its Navy leaders over defence land management. Parallels have even been drawn between the Russian assault on Ukraine and Vietnam sending troops to Cambodia in the 1970s. There is also the concern that the parallel drawn between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s actions in the South China Sea would stoke public anxiety and hostility towards China, which would complicate Hanoi’s efforts to maintain stable and friendly ties with Beijing. In short, domestic politics are not far removed from a supposedly remote international issue. Managing such discourses will remain a challenge that the Vietnamese authorities will have to handle with caution and vigilance.

Hoang Thi Ha is Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme of ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

Banner image: Variety of Vietnamese newspapers appearing at Hanoi newsstand - March 12, 2016. Credit: Asia Images, Shutterstock.

This article originally appeared on the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute's Fulcrum on March 30, 2022.