Asia Pacific

Exclusive: Facebook unblocks '#saltbae' after Vietnamese minister's golden steak

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Nusret Gokce, known as Salt Bae, poses at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. Screening of the "The Traitor"(Il traditore) in competition - Red Carpet Arrivals - Cannes, France, May 23, 2019. Nusret Gokce known as Salt Bae poses. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

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  • Powerful security minister filmed eating gold-encrusted steak in London
  • #saltbae hashtag blocked on Facebook in days after video emerged
  • Facebook says investigating blocking of hashtag

HANOI, Nov 9 (Reuters) - Facebook's parent company said on Tuesday it had unblocked the hashtag for celebrity chef Nusret Gokce's nickname '#saltbae', having found the tag had been blocked globally days after a video was posted online of Gokce feeding a gold-encrusted steak to a senior Vietnamese Communist Party official in London.

"We've unblocked this hashtag on Facebook and we're investigating why this happened," a spokesperson for Facebook operator Meta (FB.O) told Reuters, confirming the tag had been blocked for all Facebook users around the world, not just in Vietnam.

It wasn't immediately clear why the tag had been blocked, and the spokesperson declined to comment on potential reasons. While it was blocked, a search for the hashtag generated a message saying community standards had been violated.

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In a U.S. Congress hearing earlier this year, Meta (FB.O) Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said artificial intelligence plays a major role in "content moderation", responsible for taking down more than 90% of content deemed to be against Facebook guidelines.

The video, originally posted on Gokce's official TikTok account, showed Vietnam's Minister of Public Security, To Lam, filmed last week being fed a gold leaf encrusted steak by the Instagram-famous chef - often pictured theatrically seasoning and slicing cuts of meat - at his London restaurant, where a steak sells for up to 1,450 pounds ($1,960).

Lam, 64, was in Britain during a visit by senior Vietnamese officials to the U.N. climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow. But images of him chewing on the gilded beef caused a stir both on and offline in Vietnam, with many questioning how such a high-ranking Party official allowed himself to be caught on camera indulging in food carrying such a high price tag amid a state crackdown on corruption.

In one Facebook post, user Nguyen Lan Thang, with nearly 150,000 followers, changed his profile picture to a screenshot of the video, and pointed out that local media had been staying quiet over the incident.

"Security officers following this account, have you seen the video of minister To Lam eating salt-sprayed beef? Do you know how many months salary you'd have to spend for just one piece of that steak?" Thang wrote in one post.

It was not clear who paid for the meal. To Lam did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Vietnam's foreign ministry, which handles foreign media enquiries.

The original video was removed from Gokce's TikTok account shortly after it was uploaded, and further copies have been removed from the app for violating "community standards", Vietnamese TikTok users told Reuters.

TikTok and Gokce declined to comment.

"It's not unusual that a government official is super-rich in Vietnam, but a minister seen widely opening his mouth to bite a golden steak is shameful," said a customer at one cafe in northern Vietnam who declined to be named, citing safety concerns.

Vietnam is defined as a lower middle income country by the World Bank. A minister in the country is paid an official monthly salary of around 16 million dong ($705.47).

SHUTDOWN THREAT

Vietnam routinely asks social media companies to censor content it deems to be "anti-state". Last year, Vietnam threatened to shut down Facebook in the country if it did not remove more local political content from its platform.

Facebook declined to comment on whether the Vietnamese government had requested that the video be removed.

Vietnam operates one of the largest and most sophisticated online influence networks in Southeast Asia.

Earlier this year, Facebook said it had removed some groups identified by Reuters as being part of a government influence operation for "coordinating attempts to mass-report content".

To Lam is one of the most powerful officials in Vietnam, his ministry containing both Vietnam's police and the agencies tasked with suppressing dissent and investigating corruption.

He had been touted as a potential candidate for state president in January's leadership reshuffle, and has in his capacity as security minister worked to arrest Vietnamese officials accused of corruption and overt displays of opulence.

Earlier last week, To Lam had led a delegation of officials to the grave of Karl Marx to "remember the source of the water we drink", the Communist-ruled country's state media reported, citing a Vietnamese proverb about paying respects,

"General To Lam's visit to Karl Marx's grave affirms the Vietnamese people's tradition of 'remembering the source of the water we drink' for the figures who contributed to the direction of a dominated and suppressed nation," the security ministry's official mouthpiece said.

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Reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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