The social media landscape in Afghanistan has transformed quite remarkably since the Taliban originally seized power in 1996. Back then, the Taliban were about the only people in the country using mobile phones. They found them useful in organizing attacks. Most Afghans, however, were in no position to afford a smartphone. Besides, mobile networks were not well developed. In addition, a low literacy rate limited what people could do with a mobile device even if they had one. From time to time, since their loss of power, the Taliban have exerted their control over social media in the areas they still ruled. In one case, they forced network operators in the region to turn on their network for only 2 hours a day. Had the internet service providers not complied, the Taliban threatened to blow up their transmission towers and the companies couldn’t run this risk, since the Taliban had not hesitated to blow up other towers in the past.
In fact, until the recent takeover, the Taliban have been somewhat confused about what to do with social media. Initially, they used it to spread fear among the populace. Showing executions and beheadings seemed a good way to use fear to control any Afghans thinking of mounting an opposition. This may have worked in a limited way, but it did nothing to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people or the international community, and make no mistake about it, the Taliban need the international community. For the 2020 fiscal year, 43% of Afghanistan’s GDP depended on foreign aid. The Taliban may soon find that governing a country takes more than fear. “We have spoken to many countries. We want them to work on our economy. We want them to help us,” said Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.
For this reason, the Taliban need to build their credibility. They have, thus, begun to portray themselves as friends of the Afghan people. They are the ones who have freed them from the occupying infidels. It’s an argument that’s not without some appeal. When I was in Afghanistan, about 80% of the Afghans I spoke with admitted they were embarrassed about having to depend on foreign countries for their survival. That said, they would accept this if it meant it would keep the Taliban away from the reins of power. There were, of course, about 20% of Afghans who wanted the more religiously conservative country that the Taliban promised to give them. The problem the Taliban will have is in uniting these two factions.
To this end, the Taliban have been using social media to show that they are really a bunch of good ol’ boys who just want to have fun. Nothing to fear, here.
To spread this message, they have taken to social media. 70% of Afghans now have smartphones and most of them use Facebook and Twitter. The main question haunting these media giants is whether or not they can ban Taliban accounts that do not explicitly promote violence. Their algorithms, which focus on identifying violent posts, will not pick up posts that seem innocuous. Add to this the fact that the Biden administration will not say whether they will recognize the Taliban government or not, and you have these media outlets uncertain of what they should do. In the meantime, “more than 100 new accounts and pages, either claiming to belong to the Taliban or supporting their mission, have been introduced since Aug. 9 on Twitter and Facebook” , according to The New York Times. Other accounts from top Taliban officials have been active for a while. Many fake sites also exist which could be used to troll the Taliban. Should these sites also be removed?
There is no way Facebook can control every post and every account. In fact, in the process of trying to control Taliban posts, they have accidentally taken down anti-Taliban posts. Some accounts are taken down one day only to be replaced by similar accounts the next day. In one instance, Facebook claimed to have banned the Taliban’s media arm, Al-Emarah; however, it seemed to be up when I looked at it minutes ago.
And though the propaganda videos from the site are banned on YouTube, you can still watch them here on Facebook. To prove this, here is a screen capture from one of those videos.
Twitter is no better. Many Taliban accounts appear daily and seem to operate with little problem. Here, in fact, is their Al-Emarah site.
For their part, Afghan citizens with Facebook profiles that may show connections with foreign entities have been trying to clean up their Facebook pages. However, who knows how long the Taliban have been stockpiling this information. In other words, all of this may be coming too late. In any event, Facebook has offered a sort of ‘kill switch’ to allow worried users to lock their accounts from everyone but there friends.
However, as anyone in cybersecurity knows, this leaves contacts and contacts of contacts exposed to cyber attacks which may attempt to take over their Facebook profiles. From then on, the Taliban attackers can use these compromised accounts to look through ‘locked’ Facebook pages. Because Facebook is notoriously slow on removing compromised accounts, damage will be done long before these stolen accounts will be blocked.
Twitter, on the other hand has blocked no Taliban accounts. This has lead to a criticism of Twitter’s business model, as they had no problem banning Donald Trump for life. Even users on the left find this hypocritical. Are they saying that Trump is more dangerous than the Taliban? My memory is a bit rusty but I don’t recall the last time Trump set a woman on fire for cooking a bad meal.
In fact, it was the use of social media that helped the Taliban conquer Afghanistan so quickly, in some places, without even firing a shot. They were able to do this by putting videos online showing their successful attacks on other regions along with the quick, pleasant surrender of their adversaries. They made themselves appear as if they were an irresistible force that was useless to fight against, and this propaganda clearly worked.
But they need more than this to control the opinions of average Afghan citizens. To spread the claim that they are a new and improved breed of Taliban, they actually need Afghan citizens to have access to the internet and even own smartphones. Of course, they still don’t want someone making a video of them behaving badly, but, unlike the old days, there would be no reason to destroy a disobedient user’s phone. It would be far more practical to seize the phone and look at all the people connected to the misbehaving individual. Don’t be surprised if the Taliban learn how to install spyware or require the population to install certain apps that allow them to monitor individual behavior, after all, the Chinese did this to the Uyghurs and the Chinese are now the Taliban’s new friends.
The Taliban have been known to use the WhatsApp, Messenger, and Telegram apps for what they believe would be safe communications among themselves. However, the problem is that none of these are as safe as the Taliban may think they are. People may wonder how U.S. intelligence agencies knew that ISIS Afghanistan (also know as, ISIS-K) was planning a suicide bombing at Kabul Airport. My guess is that they were part of the Taliban network on all of these apps. Those planning to fight against Taliban rule may have the same problem. The Taliban may have been clever enough to have infiltrated their networks. Demonstrations against the Taliban have been quickly disrupted.
The Taliban’s greatest challenge may actually come from anti-Taliban fighters located just north of Kabul in Panjshir.
The Taliban quickly learned of this resistance and, purportedly, sent hundreds of their men into the Panjshir Valley. They used YouTube videos as an attempt to intimidate the fighters there, just as they did in the past. The videos showed long lines of vehicles filled with enthusiastic Taliban fighters heading to the valley and victory. There are some reports that these are stock videos that have nothing to do with Taliban movements towards Panjshir. In any event, the attack didn’t work out the way the Taliban hoped it would as they are said to have lost dozens of men in an ambush when they entered the valley. Ahamad Massoud, the leader of the anti-Taliban fighters, claims to only want to negotiate a peace treaty which will allow the resistance to work with the Taliban in governing Afghanistan.
In truth, the Taliban may have little choice. They face strong resistance from the more fundamentalist extremes of the Islamic spectrum. Both ISIS-K and Al Qaeda, two of the most extreme of the extreme, think the Taliban have been too friendly with the foreign forces (aka, infidels) in the country. The Haqqani Network, another extremist group, is currently working with the Taliban on, of all things, Kabul Airport security. If it is found that their negligence or coercion allowed the recent airport bombing by ISIS-K to take place, the Taliban may have no choice but to break with them as well. So, within this increasingly complex framework, the last thing the Taliban need is another resistance movement rising up on the more moderate end of the spectrum.
In short, the Taliban will have a difficult time trying to unite the vying factions within and without Afghanistan, not to mention attempting to quell the distrust among the young people who grew up in a more secular society. The Taliban now need social media more than social media needs them. They seem to be in a lose-lose situation. The truth is that they are left with one path, even though they may not want to take it. They will need to form a coalition government, allow democratic elections, and work with foreign governments. However, even if they do all this, which I would find highly unlikely, they will still be in danger of having parts of the country controlled by extremist groups who may, at least in part, be funded by foreign nations such as Pakistan, India, and Chechnya. These groups will do everything they can to disrupt social order and it may be that no matter how moderate the Taliban try to be, civil war may be inevitable. In addition, if they don’t make a deal with the anti-Taliban forces in Panjshir, other opposition groups may arise in other regions leading to widespread chaos across the country. We are now on the verge of a plunge into pandemonium such as few countries have ever had to experience.