Sami BURGAZ, Editor-at-Large
How does the Taliban Movement –designated as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations and a plethora of states, exploit the invention of the century i.e., social media for their means? More importantly, how will social media platforms deal with Taliban who have shifted from an armed organisation to becoming the potential new rulers of Afghanistan.
Even though the rapid developments in Afghanistan preoccupied the global political agenda in every aspect throughout August 2021, the use of technology and social media by the Taliban did not get the attention it deserved.
Thus, as the editor-at-large of The Asia Today I present to you a critique that interpolates politics, media, and technology with one another.
We will be looking at Taliban’s attitude towards the use of internet and its change over time, the role of social media in the resurgence of the Taliban and how social media platforms are reacting to the Taliban –who have transformed from an armed terrorist organisation to a structure that has the potential of being the latest addition to international diplomacy, as well as the measures put in place by these platforms in order to avert potential risk and protect their users.
The Taliban, which banned the use of internet when it took over Kabul and the administration back in 2001, has recently been aware of the fact that it can spread its messages far easier by means of smartphones, the use of which has tremendously heightened in Afghanistan in the last ten years.
In fact, a study conducted by Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab deduced that tweets posted by more than 60 Taliban-linked Twitter accounts have been used to increase the influence of the Taliban and intimidate voters during the 2019 Afghan Elections.
Furthermore, an academic article penned by Hazrat M. Bahar underlines the fact that the Taliban are employing Twitter as a propaganda tool.
How does the Taliban exploit social media today?
The messages conveyed by the Taliban since their takeover of the capital, Kabul, are interpreted as “moderate” by a myriad of actors. These connotations are also reflected in Taliban’s digital presence. Interview videos shot by Taliban members in the streets of Kabul are shared to create the impression that peace is prevailing in the country.
Benjamin Jensen, a fellow at the Atlantic Council argues that “The Taliban don’t need to post content to remind the population they are brutal. The population knows that. What they need are images that showcase that they could govern and integrate the country.”
On the other hand, Taliban’s spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid is an avid Twitter user who constantly takes advantage of the platform to convey his messages to a follower base of more than 350 thousand.
To some extent, analysts also believe that at least one public relations firm is advising the Taliban on how to push key themes, amplify messages across platforms and create potentially viral images and video snippets — much like corporate and political campaigns do across the world.
Measures and reactions
The rapid progress of the Taliban, which wields an egregious human rights record and is known to have exhibited numerous atrocities following the takeover of Kabul necessitates the need of social media platforms to decide whether to moderate Taliban’s content or not.
Furthermore, signals from various international and regional actors that the Taliban could be recognised on the pretext that they establish an “inclusive” government –though no country is willing to be the first in the pack, indicates that social media platforms are going to be engrossed with the issue for quite a bit of time.
Defining the rise of the Taliban as “surreal” Emerson Brooking, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council states that the organisation was constantly banned on social media platforms but never completely eradicated. In response;
- Facebook and TikTok told CNBC that they would not lift the ban on content promoting the Taliban. Citing that local content is being reviewed by a team that speaks Dari and Pashto, Facebook’s spokesperson stated that the social media giant will follow the stance of the “international community” against the Taliban.
- On August 17, WhatsApp, which cannot interfere much with who uses the application due to its end-to-end encryption feature, suspended a complaint-helpline that belonged to the Taliban. In retaliation, Taliban’s spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid accused Facebook of restricting freedom of expression.
- YouTube recalled that the company has long followed a policy of denying accounts managed by the Taliban.
- Twitter, on the other hand, emphasised that its top priority is to “keep people safe” and stipulated that they are constantly reviewing content that violated Twitter’s rules.
The end user’s perspective
Khalida Popal, former captain of the Afghanistan women’s football team, told Reuters that athletes deleted their social media accounts for security reasons. In addition, human rights groups pointed out activists, journalists, and academicians are under threat since the Taliban is resorting to social media to uncover people’s connections and history.
Such culminating concerns have promoted social media conglomerates to act. Facebook has stopped the ability to view or search friend lists in Afghanistan while LinkedIn has hidden the connections of their users. In contrast, Clubhouse has suppressed the bios and photos of its inactive users.
Social media platforms have become key communication tools for politicians, state officials, government institutions and international organisations both locally and globally.
For instance, following the incursion of the US Congress by Trump supporters, Twitter in an ambitious attempt permanently blocked the account of the former president, citing that he “glorified violence”. Facebook also suspended Trump from its platform for two years disclosing that the former president violated numerous policies.
These examples demonstrate that social media platforms have a strong initiative whether or not to allow a certain content spreading via their apparatus.
Finally, yet importantly social media mediums might have precedents and community guidelines that they very much rely on. However, “what is considered as freedom of expression and what is not” is a question that remains to be answered.
Nonetheless, the fundamental response to the aforementioned question will be given by those states that will ultimately determine the legitimacy of the government formed by the Taliban.