A typical VIetnamese meme, widely circulated after officials banned distribution of a locally produced film: “New changing Cho Lon Youth! We’ve changed! How about you, Censorship Committee?”

Make Lulz, Not War

Will meme culture help transform Asia’s authoritarian states on human rights from within?

If you were among the multitudes last week who, upon hearing that China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Cuba had been elected to the United Nation’s Human Rights Council, believed it either a typo or a Twitter hoax, don’t worry, you were not alone. Surely millions took one look at the headline and assumed The Onion was having another go at gullible China, always good for a few laughs.

It may have sounded like a joke, but this time China, and the rest, were on the delivering end. Reactions in the U.S. and Europe were not those of people who were amused. “This is a black day for human rights,” lamented Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, the Geneva-based non-governmental human rights group. “A travesty,” others bemoaned.

What has many wringing their hands about the decision is not that these nations, several of them systematic perpetrators of terrible human rights abuses on their citizens, will now have a hand in crafting the U.N.’s policies on the very rights they most disdain, although that’s a legitimate concern. The bigger worry for many observers is that whatever pressure the Rights Council might have brought to bear on these nations to improve their own records has now been made moot. Without strong diplomatic pressure from the international community on these societies to become more accommodating of individual freedoms and liberties, one argument goes, there’s little incentive for them to do so. Having China on the U.N. Human Rights Council is “like picking the fox to guard the henhouse — while it’s still wiping feathers off its mouth,” is how former Chinese political prisoner Yang Jianli put it earlier this month.

The trouble with that argument is that it assumes, wrongly, that external pressure — whether diplomatic or economic — is what pushes repressive societies to adopt greater freedoms and protections for their citizens. This is directly counter to the way that social and political change has so often occurred throughout history: not as a result of external forces like threats from foreign governments but because of gradual, more populist transformations that well up from within. Just such a change is currently underway here in Vietnam, where I’ve researched and taught Asian Internet culture for five years. Here and elsewhere in the authoritarian nations of the world, that basal quickening will be what, ultimately, brings about the transition the rest of the world longs to see, not international finger-wagging nor any combination of diplomatic sticks and carrots.

In Vietnam, much as in China, the Communist Party controls every aspect of the state. The media is state-owned and tightly controlled by government minders. For nearly their entire millennium-long history, the Vietnamese have been denied access to unfiltered information, news, and views because of barriers both economic and political (today’s government merely continues censorship policies set in place by the French and, later, the U.S.-supported Diem regime).

Yet the Vietnamese government, to their great credit, invested early in Internet infrastructure in this developing nation, and as a result some 34% of Vietnam’s 90 million citizens now have access to the World Wide Web and its bounty — about the same proportion as China. Few external websites are blocked, and citizens have mostly unfettered access to popular social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and Facebook (upon which a modest, unofficial block has been in place since 2009, easily circumvented). Smartphones and tablets have proliferated here like beards in Brooklyn. Mobile chat apps such as Viber, Line, and KakaoTalk are immensely popular, as are discussion forums and blogging platforms like Wordpress. The Vietnamese have taken to both individual self-expression and social networking with a newbie’s enthusiasm in this highly collectivist society.

A rage meme that emerged from image forum hai.VL in August in response to Vietnam’s new Decree 72, restricting social media posts to “personal” information.

Much, of course, has been made recently of Vietnam’s growing community of political bloggers, many of whom are openly critical of the government and its policies and often advocate for political, even democratic, reform. As in China and other authoritarian states, however, that’s a dangerous business. Vietnam regularly arrests and imprisons citizens it deems guilty of “abusing democratic freedoms,” a charge that has been used to jail dozens of bloggers this year alone, and there are many additional levels of unofficial persecution and harassment that can be brought to bear on dissenters and their families before arrest.

Yet despite the fawning international attention they have received, Vietnam’s strident bloggers are not behind the groundswell of public sentiment toward greater democratic freedoms in this country. In making their points, they tend to be shrill, indignant, and angry (not that anyone can blame them). They call attention to themselves. They wave Vietnam’s dirty laundry about for everyone to see. Anyone familiar with traditional Asian and Confucian values understands that such actions may get attention, yes, but it’s not necessarily respectful attention in these parts. For most Vietnamese, such behavior is antithetical to polite society and traditional values. It’s un-Vietnamese.

But the nation’s netizens are quickly discovering a new way of voicing the same ideas in a different, more palatable package. Last June, for example, when the nation’s Film Inspection Board censored distribution of a locally produced movie on the grounds that it was too violent, Vietnam’s youthful online community jumped into action to denounce the decision. The most powerful reactions weren’t, however, on blogs, written in all caps with exclamation points tossed about like knives. They were visual memes that emerged from image-based social media websites like hai.VL, Epic.vn, Doremon.che, Ubox and others, then shared in viral fashion across social media. Some users took the film’s promotional poster and modified it in clever parodies of the original; others updated vintage wartime propaganda posters with exhortations to the censorship committee to stop treating citizens like children. All required razor-sharp pop-culture sensibilities and a finely honed sense of irony to understand, for which Vietnamese youth are well-prepared.

A parody of the Bui Doi Cho Lon poster mashed it up with Harry Potter: “The Wizards of Cho Lon: There Are Times You Need to Cast a Spell on the Censorship Committee.”

Later in the summer, when a governmental health official bungled her ministry’s response to a spate of infant deaths that appeared to result from faulty Hepatitis B vaccinations, Vietnam’s online community went ballistic. Again, one of the most visible and effective ways that citizens expressed their frustration with the deeply unpopular minister was the tsunami of remixed images that poured across the Vietnamese Web — created using simple, now-ubiquitous software tools and easily shared and re-shared in classic meme fashion via myriad social media platforms. Some were quite sophisticated: images of a faux new national stamp created to honor the Minister of Health for her service, which for some reason wouldn’t stick; thousands of netizens delighted in explaining that’s because people insisted on spitting on the front of the stamp instead of the back. Others were of humbler provenance: unflattering photographs of the Minister featuring mock captions, quotations imagined or real, and even hand-illustrated comics, cartoons and repurposed manga panels. These images careered across the Vietnamese Internet: shared on Facebook pages, on discussion forums, popping up everywhere in a flurry of reiterations and garnering hundreds of comments everywhere they appeared, from the serious to the juvenile.

These memes and their proliferation are significant in Vietnam not because they are amateurish, or often puerile, or short-lived, though they are all those things. It’s because they are achieving what all the finger-wagging from the bloggers and Western democracies have not: they are changing minds. Gradually, Vietnamese citizens are whittling away at the wall that has for so long separated the “top” of the hierarchy — the elite party and government officials, who’ve long operated free of accountability or oversight — from the “bottom.” And the memes Internet users are creating and sharing are achieving this precisely because they are amateurish and ephemeral and, yes, often silly. They’re not shrill. They’re not stern. They may be angry, but it’s an anger leavened by humor and irony.

This is a textbook example of what Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society calls the “cute cat theory of digital activism.” By using the seemingly innocuous tools of remix culture and massively open sharing platforms, citizens are able to create and participate in an active public sphere of indirect political commentary and debate that appears on the surface, and at the level of the individual post, to be just about having fun — and therefore not threatening, to either citizens or senior party members. But taken as a whole, this new, creative, participatory online visual culture is generating a level of civic engagement that is unprecedented for a nation in which traditional civil society has long been proscribed.

Social media platforms, of course, have earned a great deal of attention in recent years for their putative role in dramatic social and political upheavals around the world. Starry-eyed cyber-utopians abound. So do skeptics who claim, as author Evgeny Morozov does, that the Internet and social media are just as empowering of dictatorial regimes as they are of the man on the street. Yet between the two poles, scholars like Clay Shirky suggest that the real potential of such tools for change is not in their usefulness for coordinating massive street protests or focusing global attention on short-lived anti-state turmoil. Rather, he says, it’s to be seen in the way they enable citizens and civil society organizations to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views throughout society. Without a rudimentary civil society, he says, any kind of social transformation is unlikely. According to this view, social media matters most not in the streets and squares but in the myriad spaces of the social commons that German sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas termed the public sphere.

Vietnamese delighted in sharing images of a faux new national stamp created to honor some government officials for their service, which for some reason wouldn’t stick; thousands of netizens delighted in explaining that’s because people insisted on spitting on the front of the stamps instead of the back.

Vietnam is hardly the only place where this is happening. Designer and Internet commentator An Xiao Mina, who calls meme culture “the street art of the Internet,” has pointed out that the hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens using that nation’s Twitter-like clone, Weibo, have long used Internet memes to undertake a sort of winking activism, often employing them to circumvent the state’s sophisticated content censorship tools. There, as elsewhere, such memes can even jump the rails of the Internet and burst out into the real world, where their impact is still stronger.

Within this perspective, panic over the fact that some of Asia’s least tractable representatives are now sitting on a historically toothless and ineffective U.N. body is beside the point. If anyone ought to be worried, it’s those officials. Vietnam, China, Russia: they are all caught in an exquisite modern pickle for authoritarian states. Their leaders fully grasp the critical importance of Internet access for economic and social development, but they also know the openness of the Internet threatens their traditional monopoly on communication, a situation media historian Asa Briggs has called the ‘conservative dilemma.’ An open Internet means a more engaged citizenry, an active civil society, greater transparency and accountability, and it opens up the leadership to unwelcome criticism — all things these states would prefer to avoid. But more and more of their populations are now plugged in, and there’s no going back; shutting down or limiting access at this point risks radicalizing otherwise satisfied citizens and also doing great damage to their economies.

As Shirky notes, linking the idea of Internet freedom to hurry-up-and-change expectations for authoritarian regimes is a mistake, as it fundamentally misunderstands the longer-term power of a many-to-many platform that fosters communicative freedom, civic participation, and individual agency. Human rights improvements in any authoritarian society, including pro-democratic regime change, nearly always follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere. In Vietnam, as in China and elsewhere, the state no longer has complete control of the narrative; theirs is just one in an increasingly crowded field of competing perspectives on the current state of Vietnam and events on the ground. The only possible outcome of that fact is one in which citizens awaken to their own power — and to the rights that attend it.

A young Vietnamese friend said to me the other day, “The change everyone has been waiting for is beginning here. But it will happen in a Vietnamese way, not a Western way.”

Maybe they’re not quite yet ready for The Onion. But lulz will find a way.