On the surface it all appears to be just harmless fun and therefore inoffensive to both government officials and, crucially, to other citizens. The medium of the message allows indirect social and political commentary to sneak in disguised as lulz. And it also assures that the content is shared much more widely and viewed much more widely than direct critique would be. In between the two poles of the starry-eyed techno-utopians and the skeptics there are thinkers who’ve suggested that the real potential of online tools for social change in places like Vietnam is not necessarily in coordinating massive street protests and mobilizing activist movements but rather in how they enable citizens to articulate and debate a welter of conflicting ideas throughout society. In other words, social media may matter most not in the streets and the squares but in the myriad spaces of the social commons that Jürgen Habermas called the public sphere. These images and the worldviews behind them are becoming part of the national discourse in Vietnam. And in the process they are quietly, incrementally shifting the zeitgeist.
It’s often said by way of criticism that these images are amateurish and juvenile and short-lived, and that’s true. But they seem to be achieving what all the finger-wagging from the dissident bloggers in Western democracies has not. They’re changing minds. And they’re doing it so precisely because they are juvenile and short-lived and ephemeral and yes, often silly. That’s the whole point.
Patrick Sharbaugh (2015) How meme culture is empowering civic engagement in the socialist republic of Vietnam?