Author Identifiers

Viet Tho Le
ORCID:0000-0003-2143-6092

Date of Award

2020

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Arts & Humanities

First Advisor

Professor Lelia Green

Second Advisor

Dr Donell Holoway

Abstract

This research interrogates Habermas’s theory of the public sphere and applies it to the specific situation of ‘state digital authoritarianism’ in the Vietnamese Facebook environment. It examines how Facebook is disrupting the situation in Vietnam, offering a new dimension to the situation and enabling greater political understanding and engagement by young Vietnamese Facebook users.

The thesis asks whether Facebook should be constructed as a new forum for the expression of public opinion, creating a quasi-public sphere, promoting the country’s democracy and fuelling dissidents’ hope? If the answer is ‘yes’, to what extent has the Vietnamese Facebook sphere expanded or deepened democracy in Vietnam? How does the online power struggle between young Facebook users and the authorities occur? These questions are central to the current study.

One strand of the study is underpinned by an online survey of 200 Facebook users in Vietnam aged between 18 and 30 years old. The results confirm a correlation between social media use in general, and Facebook use in particular, and online political participation. Even so, among the five critical dimensions of online political participation investigated, this survey-based investigation suggests that offline political participation has a more significant correlation with the likelihood of online participation, beyond all other factors. Given this, the survey indicates that participants’ political activities are more common in the social media public sphere than is the case with equivalent political activities in an offline setting. In other words, the political environment of Vietnamese social media use is itself a factor supporting online civic engagement in digital spaces, opening up opportunities for political engagement in the public sphere, and in society beyond.

A further research strand involved face-to-face interviews with thirty-one survey participants who volunteered to take part in the qualitative research phase. Using Foucauldian Discourse Analysis, the study shows how young Vietnamese ‘negotiate’ with the state to (re)form the Facebook environment into a political space. This aspect of the study suggests that, by leveraging Facebook’s affordances in a ‘battle for power’ (as Foucault might term it), young Vietnamese people have used their voices to close the space between what they are allowed to say by the older generation and the everyday politics of Facebook exchanges. In doing this, they are shaping the identity of a Facebook generation. Facebook is now being used in ways that make it resemble a public sphere, realising its potential for political expression. A Thematic Analysis-based approach, examining dimensions of the online public sphere and the virtual sphere, supports the possibility that, although Facebook in Vietnam has yet to reach the level of Habermas’ ideal of the public sphere, it meets some conditions for forming an online public sphere: – the ‘Facebook sphere.’ In other words, in Vietnam, Facebook users have (re)formed a social media platform into the Facebook sphere, beyond the confines of the ideal identified by Habermas. The nature of the Vietnamese Facebook space is defined in the thesis as a ‘reactive public sphere’; a sphere of political discussion with discursive waves that are continually shifting and ambiguous but that nonetheless help to shape public opinion, with persistent and frequent impact on public policy.

Available for download on Friday, June 30, 2023

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