Huy Dao, an entrepreneur in Ho Chi Minh City, thought he had nailed the perfect TikTok: informative, playful, and ultimately harmless. Instead, he wound up fueling TikTok’s escalating clash with the Vietnamese government.

In March last year, the 29-year-old had posted a lighthearted video criticizing “useless” college degrees like business administration. “You can only work in sales or marketing, and any major is good enough for these jobs,” he said with a grimace.

The video went viral, then died away. It took off again this March ahead of college application season, spawning an online trend where creators listed unwise degree choices. 

This time around, Vietnamese state media loudly denounced the content. The head of state broadcasting, Le Quang Tu Do, condemned the trend publicly as “giving nonsense advice.” Huy’s video was seen to be critical of the value of degrees offered by universities, many of which are state-run; one university official worried the trend would discourage young people from studying and working.

What had changed between the two viral incidents was the government’s stance on TikTok. Since February, state-controlled media had begun to shower blame on the company for promoting content that was anti-government, offensive, and inappropriate for children. Headlines like “The Chinese government is treating TikTok addiction for the young” began to appear, pointing out official steps taken to rein in the app’s influence.

On May 22, Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications was scheduled to launch a probe into TikTok. It spans eight government departments — from finance to trade — and targets “toxic” content deemed “to pose a threat to the country’s youth, culture and tradition.” The investigation will cover key areas like censorship processes, user authentication, how the algorithm distributes content, and the rowdy behavior of “idols” or influencers.

The Vietnamese government is putting pressure on TikTok to police its content more stringently, and to remove videos that fall short of the state’s standards “as instructed.” Much like the U.S., it has also dangled the threat of a total ban. The government has further suggested it may cut off TikTok from local advertisers, banks, and e-commerce revenue.

A screenshot of a man wearing a black shirt and talking to a the camera on TikTok.

“[TikTok] was generally non-political,” Nguyen Khac Giang, an expert on Vietnamese politics and a visiting fellow at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, told Rest of World. “However, as it has attracted more users, and as Facebook and YouTube have come under heavy censorship, there has been a surge in political content. That has created unease among the censors.” The country’s state media, which functions as a political tool of the government, has been preparing the public for the crackdown, he added. 

In a statement to Rest of World, TikTok described the investigation as a “planned visit by an interdisciplinary delegation.” They added that the company “welcome[d] the opportunity to listen [to] and address any concerns, as well as share the progress we’ve made in Vietnam in the past four years.”

TikTok has come under fire globally for a raft of allegations related to data access, censorship, and Chinese political influence. Last week, the U.S. state of Montana was the first in the country to ban downloads of TikTok, with legislation due to come into force from January 1, 2024. (TikTok has filed a lawsuit against the state.) India banned the platform in 2020. Western countries, from France to Australia, have prohibited civil servants from installing the app on their phones for security reasons.

It puts TikTok in a tricky position. While the ByteDance-owned app’s struggles in the U.S. and Europe reflect wider anxieties about security and Chinese influence, in Vietnam, it finds itself caught in a different battle over online speech. 

“In the Southeast Asian region, regulations attempting to crack down on online expression have been numerous and ongoing,” Dhevy Sivaprakasam, senior policy counsel at digital rights organization Access Now, told Rest of World. “Many of [these regulations] suggest governments are watching and feeding off each others’ efforts.”

TikTok’s user base in Vietnam more than doubled to 50 million between 2021 and 2022, according to consultancy DataReportal. With that growth came a surge in content that violated the platform’s own community guidelines, as well as Vietnamese laws. According to TikTok’s transparency report, it proactively removed 5 million videos by Vietnamese creators during the first half of 2022 for content containing nudity, bullying, and harassment.

50 million The number of TikTok users in Vietnam, according to DataReportal.

The rate at which TikTok removes videos at the Vietnamese government’s request is fairly high, compared to international standards — the platform took down or blocked over 180 such videos during the same period. For comparison, in the U.S., TikTok took down one video and nine accounts upon government request. 

Content that displeases the Vietnamese government comes in many forms. High-profile TikTokers under fire include No O No, who was fined 7.5 million dong ($303) by the government for violating “civil customs,” or speaking to the elderly poor in a derogatory way while gifting them their favorite meal. (Though TikTok banned him from the platform late last year, he continues to crop up with new accounts.) Another TikTok user was fined 5 million dong ($212) for dancing “provocatively” with a group at a local pagoda — something that authorities deemed “not in line with local customs and traditions.”

The Vietnam government says its proprietary monitoring software, developed to screen social media content, is struggling to handle short-video platforms. Apps like TikTok are especially difficult because their algorithms feed users highly personalized content, said Do of the state broadcasting authority, without giving further details about the software.

The government is intervening in a top-down way that is easier for them, said Viet Tho Le, vice dean of communications at Van Lang University in Ho Chi Minh City. Instead, it should be educating its young user base, “as opposed to doing what’s convenient from the government’s perspective, or the older generation’s perspective,” he said.

“Many of [these regulations] suggest governments are watching and feeding off each others’ efforts.”

In an email to Rest of World, TikTok pointed out that on April 21, the company revised its global community guidelines. For the first time, it shared “community principles” including “balance,” “dignity,” and “fair[ness],” which it said are based on the company’s “commitment to uphold human rights and aligned with international legal frameworks.”

TikTok is the only global social media company to have an office in Vietnam — the factor that has opened it up to a probe. Others, like Meta and Google, have resisted putting employees on the ground due to so-called hostage-taking laws, meaning that the government could intimidate, threaten, or detain local staff if the company refuses to take orders. Vietnam’s cybersecurity law requires social media platforms to open local offices and store data of Vietnamese users within the country.

TikTok would ultimately be more likely to comply with the government’s demands than Meta or Google, according to Jufang Wang, who studies digital technologies as deputy director of think tank Oxford Global Society. Its physical office is evidence that it values the Vietnam market, and its content moderation is already more localized than that of other social media platforms, according to Wang’s own research.

Despite the Vietnamese government’s threats, TikTok may yet escape a ban. Digital media experts told Rest of World that regulating the platform would make more sense in the long run.

“You don’t know where the next popular platform to replace TikTok will come from, so it’s better to have regulations in place to control whatever platform that would come next,” Nguyen Quang Dong, director of the Hanoi-based Institute for Policy Studies and Media Development, told Rest of World.

As for Huy, he doesn’t intend to stop expressing his personal opinions online, even if it has cost him thousands of followers. He awaits the conclusion of the probe, originally expected to take two weeks. 

“But I think, going forward, I’ll refrain from using strong words like ‘useless,’” he said. His view count nearly halved after the incident, though he’s not sure if that’s due to a shadow ban or simply because his content has become more muted. He’s not too concerned about a TikTok ban. But just in case, Huy said, he’s remained active on other platforms, too.