Tuesday, September 28

They banned the Internet and now it is their propaganda nest: the crossroads of the networks with the Taliban

“Back to school in a New Afghanistan,” says Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman for international media, in a tweet that includes a video of girls entering a school. The message is viral and thousands of accounts have replicated it. Many, adding criticism of the Western press for spreading a false image of the extremist group. 20 years later the Taliban control Afghanistan again, but they do so with a new strategy for the Internet. If in 2001 they banned the Internet for being a means of spreading “anti-Islamic” ideas, today they are very clear about its propaganda potential.

Saheen tweets in English and has amassed 440,000 Twitter followers, double the number a month ago. He is one of the Taliban leaders who have become more visible in the media and on social media after the group regained control of the country. He has experience in propaganda: before the fall of the previous Taliban regime he was a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry and editor of the Kabul Times newspaper, controlled by the Taliban. He is currently the voice of the so-called “political office”, with which the group is trying to maintain contacts with other countries and promote its new “Islamic Emirate” abroad.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the main spokesman for the Taliban, tweets mainly in Arabic and has 370,000 followers, 50% more than in early July. They are joined by Mohammad Naeem, another of their leaders who, like Shaheen and Mujahid, uses Twitter to spread the moderation speech that his group strives to transmit abroad. In his case, it has gone from 86,000 to 245,000 followers since the Taliban launched their final offensive in Afghanistan.

The numbers of followers should not be taken as a reference of the support of the group in this social network, since they may be inflated with false accounts or simply be a reflection that the international focus has repositioned itself on Afghanistan. What they do show is the Taliban’s effort to build a network of digital influence. His messages these days focus on ensuring that his new regime will be “inclusive” (many of his statements strive to communicate an image of “normalcy” for women) and that he will not violently repress the population.

Twitter is being an important leg for the Taliban to spread this new discourse, with which they want to gain international acceptance and consolidate their government in Afghanistan. As the international community ponders how to deal with them and prevent isolation from further aggravating the humanitarian emergency suffered by Afghans, social media is hitting the same crossroads.

Twitter, unlike Facebook, has not prohibited your presence on its platform. As explained by a spokeswoman for the company, the profiles of the extremist group have not violated its rules, which “prohibit the glorification of violence, abusive behavior, hateful behavior, the desire to harm others and gratuitous gore.” The same sources assure in a statement sent to elDiario.es that the company’s teams constantly monitor the situation to “act quickly” against those who do.

However, the web of influence that the Taliban are building on Twitter goes beyond moderation messages. They also use this loudspeaker to spread disinformation openly. Tariq Ghazniwal, who has served as a spokesperson for the Taliban in the past, now identifies himself on Twitter as an “investigative journalist” and a “defender of human and women’s rights”. His explanation of the Kabul airport bombings was based on the fact that the explosions occurred in a CIA warehouse where ammunition was accumulating before being transported back to the United States. He has 33,000 followers.

The approach that Facebook has made to this problem is the opposite of Twitter, but it has also been criticized. The multinational announced in mid-August that it would censor any account or content related to the Taliban on its networks, which include Instagram and WhatsApp. The latter was especially relevant to them, since they used it as a method of communication with the population. After taking Kabul they came to launch a “help line” that the inhabitants could presumably use to alert about violence or looting. Facebook’s veto took that chat and all those it detected as operated by the Taliban, which provoked the reproach of some experts and humanitarian collaborators.

“Preventing communication between the people and the Taliban does not help the Afghans,” said Ashley Jackson, a former Red Cross and Oxfam aid worker in Afghanistan and the author of a book on the Taliban and their relationship with Afghan civilians, speaking to the Financial times. “If the Taliban are suddenly unable to use WhatsApp, the only thing that is achieved is isolating Afghans, making it difficult for them to communicate in an already panicky situation.”

Mark Zuckerberg’s corporation explained the move by claiming that “the Taliban are classified as a terrorist organization under US law,” which is why Facebook places them on its blacklist of dangerous organizations. This is the same reasoning given by YouTube, which reports that it has been blocking any video related to the Taliban for months. However, this is one more echo of the tricky international context in which the country is now left, since the US State Department does not have the Taliban in your list of foreign terrorist organizations and has negotiated with them in recent weeks.

Facebook does not make decisions about the recognized government in a specific country, but respects the authority of the international community when making these decisions

A spokeswoman for Facebook

Just as the US has been the world’s police force for almost a century, digital platforms often take on the role of Internet police, deciding who can occupy virtual space and who cannot. The waiting time now set by Western governments regarding Afghanistan leaves it up to the managers of the technology multinationals to decide how to act with the Taliban who want to take advantage of their services. Officially, the yardstick they use is their rules and terms of use, but history has shown that this manual is as flexible as it suits their business model and the pressures they receive.

“Our teams are closely monitoring this situation as it evolves. Facebook does not make decisions about the recognized government in a specific country, but rather respects the authority of the international community in making these decisions,” says a company spokeswoman. to this medium. “Regardless of who holds power, we will take appropriate action against accounts and content that violate our standards.”

Erase the digital past of the enemies of the Taliban

Another problem around the platforms derived from the rapid fall of Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban has been the fingerprint of the users, which could now be used to incriminate and persecute them by the new regime. In their statements sent to this medium, both Twitter and Facebook have explained that they have provided facilities for any resident of Afghanistan as well as activists, journalists and collaborators of international forces to erase their activity on their networks and avoid Taliban repression.

The end of evacuation operations from European countries and the last hours of US soldiers in Afghan territory have closed the last escape route for many Afghans who now fear for their safety. Although the Taliban leaders on Twitter have assured that they will not veto their departure from the country (“those Afghans who intend to go abroad, will be able to do so with dignity and peace of mind by having legal documents such as passports and visas after the resumption of commercial flights in the country, “said Shaheen on behalf of the head of the Taliban” political office “), humanitarian collaborators fear that the reality will be different when the departure of international forces from the country is a definitive fact.

The NGO Access Now has published a guide on how to delete certain content or the entire account of each platform. The organization asks those who have been trapped in Afghan territory to develop a plan on what to do in case they or someone close to them is detained, which also considers the possibility that they are forced to unlock their devices. “This guide can also be useful to understand how much information about you is publicly available and to minimize the things that can put you at risk, especially for activists who are detained and questioned for their opinions,” recalls Leanna Garfield, a member of this NGO.