There are calls to limit the social media reach and content of the Taliban. But the same platforms are also key accountability and service tools, which could help the general Afghan population.
Afghanistan today is not what it was two decades ago; the Taliban today (according to them) is not what it was two decades ago; and neither is the medium through which the world perceives these changes. If the medium is considered to be the message, the Taliban have come a long way in shaping it: from issuing declarations through videotapes to making policy statements on Twitter.
This evolution is part of a larger global transformation signified by the rise of the internet, social media, and smartphones, which, like many other countries, has shaped Afghanistan’s social and political landscape over the past twenty years.
Between the years 2000 and 2021, Afghanistan’s overall internet users increased from 0 percent to 22 percent of its population. Experts estimate that around 70 percent of Afghans have access to mobile phones today, and that 11.2 percent have some form of social media presence.
As with other countries, this internet penetration has encouraged Afghanistan’s connectivity with the world. Youth in urban centres reflect elements of a global culture. Digital spaces have been used by female activists to champion women’s rights. Others have benefited from the economic opportunities afforded by the internet.
During its previous regime, the Taliban had shunned technology as a part of its overall rejection of Western influences. It banned the use of TV sets and VCRs, deeming them a distraction from the practice of Islam. However, the technological changes that penetrated Afghanistan over the past two decades have also influenced the Taliban.
One of the earliest examples of the Taliban’s embrace of digital technology is the creation of the Al-Emarah website in the 2005-06 period. A Pashto-language app with the same name was also launched on the Google play store in 2016. The Taliban have started using social media platforms like Whatsapp to help govern areas under its control. This embrace of technology has resulted in an integrated approach through which online tools are used to promote a different, more peaceful, image of the Taliban.
The events of the past week, following the regime change in Kabul, have demonstrated the extent of the Taliban’s tech-savviness. Taliban spokespersons like Zabihullah Mujahid, Suhail Shaheen and Dr Muhammad Naeem have been actively posting on Twitter to quell any uncertainties associated with the new regime – Zabiullah Mujahid alone posted over 50 tweets on August 15.
In the last few days, a number of videos produced by citizen journalists have made the rounds on social media. Such figures report on the group in a positive light, interviewing civilians in the streets and endorsing the Taliban’s claims regarding domestic stability.
In response to the deteriorating law and order situation in the wake of regime change, the Taliban had also set up Whatsapp helplines to address civilian complaints regarding violence and vandalism.
While the Taliban were introduced to the world as a violent group, it is now trying to take charge of shaping the narrative around them. Dormant social media accounts of Taliban leaders are now being reactivated. Tweets posted by Taliban spokespersons are shared by thousands of profiles. Instead of relying on coercion, the Taliban now seem to be on a mission to attract domestic and foreign consent, replacing the insurgency's hard power with the emirate's soft power.
The response of social media platforms to the Taliban’s digital vigour has been inconsistent. On the one hand, Facebook and YouTube are removing pro-Taliban content from their platforms based on the group’s presence on the US Treasury’s specially designated nationals list, which prohibits US companies from dealing with designated groups.
On the other hand, Twitter has not taken any action against Taliban-affiliated accounts, citing that it has not violated any Twitter rules – the Taliban’s improved tech-literacy might be at play here.
Social media’s importance has greatly increased in the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul.
First, it has enabled the international community to access developments happening on the ground. The numerous videos depicting tragic scenes from the Kabul airport would not have surfaced had civilians not been sharing them on their social media accounts. Picked up by international media, such videos play a central role in shaping public opinion against the Taliban. This opinion formation has also been aided by diaspora Afghans who have taken to social media and serve as vital informants on the discourse – albeit from a predominantly anti-Taliban perspective.
In contrast, the Taliban have used Twitter to dispel rumours surrounding its expected policies. The previously mentioned interviews conducted by citizen journalists are frequently shared by Taliban spokespersons as their response to the international narrative.
Second, social media is likely to play an important role in the Taliban’s quest for legitimacy. A number of official Afghan government social media accounts have gone dormant after Kabul fell to the Taliban. If the Taliban are provided access to them, such accounts would bolster the Taliban’s public perception, adding a layer of legitimacy between them and the Afghan public; a tweet posted by the Presidential Palace or the Ministry of Defence will have more weight than one coming from a Taliban spokesperson’s personal account. In this regard, the future stance of social media companies – which is ambiguous at present – could prove to be decisive.
Third, like during the ‘Arab Spring’, social media platforms have the potential to aid the accountability of the Taliban regime. This will depend on two conditions: the group’s inability to censor internet content; and its desire to establish a positive image globally. Social media has played a key role in internationalising domestic events and issues. In the Taliban’s case, a negative headline would result in increased international pressure and further sanctions on the regime. This dynamic, coupled with the group’s promise to hold themselves accountable, will enable local voices on social media platforms to shape the regime’s future behaviour.
Fourth, the success of the Taliban’s tech-savviness and updated messaging is likely to inspire regional militant outfits to follow a similar path. While ISIS (Daesh) pioneered the use of online mediums of communication among militant groups, its message was predominantly based on fearmongering and soon came under the label of online terrorism. On the other hand, the Taliban’s soft power approach has been reaping dividends so far.
When it comes to updated messaging, the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan has already started rebranding itself as an ethnicity-based separatist group rather than one inspired by religion. Such rebranding enables militant outfits to spread online propaganda with greater convenience; violence-based content elicits stricter scrutiny than political content.
In the online contest between the Taliban and US-based social media companies, it is the civilian population of Afghanistan that will eventually suffer. A byproduct of the crackdown on Taliban-used Whatsapp accounts has resulted in the closure of helplines established to ostensibly ensure law and order, leaving civilians without that avenue for redress.
Furthermore, the ban on Taliban-related content has also led to the restriction of posts highlighting the Taliban’s misconduct in some parts of the country, diminishing the chances of reporting and accountability.
The only way forward is one that benefits the Afghan population. The Taliban is now the de facto government of Afghanistan, responsible for the safety and wellbeing of its citizens. Any hurdle to the Taliban’s service delivery will only exacerbate the plight of Afghan civilians so the removal of presently applied social media restrictions could be for the betterment of the people of Afghanistan.
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