Going Memeless – Do civil rights abuses have to be hip to get attention?

I guess it comes down to the obvious answer that “sex sells,” but with the recent arrest of two Vietnamese songwriters, I can’t help but notice the overwhelming silence on social media in stark contrast to the outpouring of support for Pussy Riot.  Okay, I get it.  Mini-dresses on leggy, Russian girls wearing brightly colored balaclavas are hard to beat in the  attention-deficit theater of Facebook and Twitter, but surely the social justice issue is no different in this case.

Last week, the song writers Vo Minh Tri and Tran Vu Anh Binh were sentenced to four and six years in prison, respectively.  Uploading their songs to a website hosted by politically active Vietnamese outside the country, the two were charged with spreading propaganda against the state and faced possible sentences of up to 20 years.

Vo Min Tri, 34, wrote the song “Where is My Vietnam?” featured in the video above. The lyrics criticize the Chinese imperialist influence in his country, and according to some sources, the song was played over 700,000 times on YouTube.

Human Rights Watch has called for the songwriters’ immediate release, and their arrest comes in the wake of the Vietnamese government cracking down on political dissent in other forms. As quoted by AP, Phil Robertson of the  Asia division of Human Rights Watch stated, “First critics, then bloggers, then poets, and now musicians!” The international community can no longer stand by quietly as these free speech activists are picked off one by one by Vietnam’s security apparatus.”

If social media in America is any indication, it seems the international community is more than content to stand by quietly.  But why?  Almost every day, I encounter some proclamation that democratic governments are trying to stifle free speech, and the claim usually comes from some middle-class American or European whose rights are more than intact.  But it really does seem that when we have clear evidence of exactly this kind of oppression, there has to be a hook before it can get much attention.  Admittedly, it’s pretty tough to turn this case into a catchy tweet. #Freevominhtriandtranvuanhbinh doesn’t exactly pop off the stream, and there isn’t any available artwork that’s much better.  So, what’s a political prisoner to do these days, if he can’t be memed?

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