How Vietnam is turning the Facebook profile picture into a political weapon

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Vietnam’s internet is profoundly political. On 4 October, General Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam’s most celebrated war hero, passed away. In tribute, hundreds and thousands of profile pictures on Vietnam’s Facebook changed to display Giap’s face.

This isn’t the first time profile pictures have lit up on Vietnam’s Facebook in a political context. In 2011 and 2012, the same thing happened when China and Vietnam’s island disputes erupted and the image you see below was plastered all over people’s Facebook walls and as profile pictures. Thus, the profile picture in Vietnam has become a statement in itself.

Only political situations like Giap’s passing and the island disputes have caused widespread profile picture refreshes of this scale.

The origin of the profile picture as a statement

But this way of using the profile picture as a statement predates political climates in Vietnam. Oftentimes, students and organizers of events or causes will oftentimes change their Facebook profile pictures or cover photos to market things they support. It’s commonplace.

Back in 2007, the inklings of this new approach to Facebook was growing. Most of the younger people (a majority of the internet population) who came onto Facebook, did not add their real names or real pictures. Oftentimes, they would use pictures of models or anime characters, and even adopted pseudonyms just for fun. Yahoo 360 is a part of this evolution. From 2005 to 2010, it was the dominant blogging platform. On Zing Me, VNG’s Facebook clone, profile pictures are also full of fake photos. In both pre-Facebook worlds, it’s common to use images as a statement. And since profile pictures are the main image you see, changing it makes sense.

Profile pictures as sanguine political statements

Back when profile pictures were being used to support the Vietnam versus China dispute, Facebook was quickly blocked to not only stem the tide of protests but also, some have speculated, to make sure users understood that the internet need be an apolitical place.

The latest spate of profile picture pandemonium with General Giap’s death highlights an unspoken distaste for the political climate in Vietnam today. He’s the hero Vietnam had in the 20th century in the absence of heroes in the 21st. Giap’s role in the war and subsequent lack of a role in modern Vietnam have been the subject of many discussions about the country’s lack of leadership in the face of a slowing economy and corruption. But the profile pictures, this time, will not be blocked. A Facebook block right now would be seen as insensitive and foolish. It also might be one of the last times Vietnam’s internet users get a free pass. Few political figures carry Giap’s prestige amongst the people and the higher ups.

This article by Anh-Minh Do originally appeared on Tech in Asia, a Burn Media publishing partner.



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