One of the best testimonies to social media’s revolutionary potential in recent years has been the number of authoritarian regimes that have tried to ban it, fearing its utility for sharing information, organizing protests, and generally spreading dissent. Most recently, two fairly unpleasant governments -- in Vietnam and Zambia -- have introduced bans on social media news sharing.
Vietnam’s Communist regime has introduced a new law forbidding social media users and bloggers from sharing news stories online, covering big sites like Facebook and Twitter as well as personal blogs; in fact, the government has decreed that social media may only be used “to provide and exchange personal information,” and has specifically prohibited sharing news about current events.
That means social media users can’t even “quote general information... from newspapers, press agencies or other state-owned websites,” according to Hoang Vinh Bao, who heads the government’s Department of Radio, TV, and Electronic Information. In other words, ordinary Vietnamese people can read government propaganda online, but they aren’t allowed to share the news about the regime’s glorious achievements with their comrades (maybe because the government fears such sharing would lapse all too easily into mockery?).
The same law also prohibits internet service providers from enabling the dissemination of “information that is against Vietnam, undermining national security, social order and national unity... or information distorting, slandering and defaming the prestige of organizations, honor and dignity of individuals” -- neatly eliding criticism of the government with slander of private citizens.
Also this week, the Zambian government has put social media news sharing in the crosshairs. Although technically a multi-party democracy, Zambia has shown disturbing symptoms of authoritarian backsliding, including arresting opposition leaders, dispersing political rallies, intimidating journalists, and banning youth groups. Now President Michael Sata is -- surprise -- angry about social media users sharing news and opinion that’s critical of his administration.
In July many Zambian Facebook and Twitter users found their accounts blocked after they shared stories accusing Sata’s party, the Patriotic Front, of trying to tamper with the country’s constitution, expropriating private companies, and being too friendly with Robert Mugabe, the kleptocratic dictator of neighboring Zimbabwe. The government is also not-so-subtly intimidating an Internet-based radio talk show, Crossfire Blogtalk Radio, that streamed online and was also simulcast by three traditional radio stations. Two of the stations have dropped the show after Sata supporters expressed their displeasure.