Social networks strengthen Taliban’s return, experts assess | Applications and Software

Last Sunday (15), Taliban forces occupied the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, ending an operation to regain control of the country that lasted less than two weeks. Now, experts point out that the extremist movement will try to change its image for the best tool at its disposal: social media. The Taliban remains active on Twitter profiles, where the Techblog found at least 5 accounts of the organization’s spokespersons that add more than 1 million followers.

Taliban members parade through the streets of Kabul in a war vehicle; group grew on networks and on messaging apps like WhatsApp (Image: Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons)

Taliban grows on social media and makes “peaceful” posts

Green fields and trees bear witness to a bulldozer, making its way down the dirt road, while five men watch it. On the roof of the machine, white flags. The photo is accompanied by a caption that communicates the construction of a 10-kilometer road between the provinces of Logar and Qasim Kel, in Afghanistan.

The work is the responsibility of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — it is how the Taliban himself defines the new government it installed after taking control of the country’s 34 provinces, after too much of 20 years of war. Publications of works, women going to schools, announcements of meetings with ambassadors and even press conferences: all of this is part of the new digital daily life of Taliban spokespersons on Twitter.

One of them is Suhail Shaheen, who defines herself as “a member of the Negotiations and Policy Office team”. He writes posts in two languages: Pashto, Afghanistan’s predominant language next to Persian, and in English. In this one, Shaheen writes fluently and even pointed to a publication that “does a lot of interviews with journalists every day.”

A survey of the New York Times points out that more than 100 pro-Taliban accounts have been created on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter since 9 August. Followers on the radical organization’s official website increased by 120%. As they gain engagement on the networks, extremists moderate the content: they don’t broadcast scenes that instigate violence or hatred, for example. In this way, they do not violate social media guidelines.

Pro-Taliban groups on WhatsApp are “full”

O Techblog found that many of these spokespersons’ accounts are not necessarily old: they were created in 2019, or 2020. But smaller accounts that send messages praising the Taliban regime are proliferating on other platforms.

The report found at least three WhatsApp groups and one Telegram group created by Taliban-friendly accounts outside Brazil. In one of them, the application warns that it is not possible to enter because the group is “full”. Another was near the limit of the platform for participants: 255.

On Twitter, Taliban spokespeople post photos of diplomatic meetings to convey a positive image (Image: Suhail Shaheen/Twitter)

The professor of International Relations at ESPM Porto Alegre, Roberto Uebel, points out that Taliban posts actually have peace hashtags and avoid conflicting with the terms of use of social networks:

“We call it cyber geopolitics: when the Taliban use social media to gain power, gain supporters. He is a political organization, above all, and he is able to infiltrate schools, the armed forces. And now, on social media.”

The expert points out that the Taliban learned from the behavior of another radical organization on social networks: the Islamic State. But unlike IS, the extremist faction that now dominates Afghanistan doesn’t ooze hatred into the networks and evades the banning of companies like Facebook or Twitter. The Taliban avoid posts with violent language, unlike EI.

However, content on Taliban social media is very similar to Islamic State when it comes to engaging supporters. This is the view of Magno Paganeli, professor at FAESP and researcher in the Working Group on the Middle East and the Muslim World at USP. For him, who studied IS communication on networks, the Taliban follows a Western propaganda model:

“First, the Taliban, like the Islamic State, creates the representation of an ideal world on the networks. A place of peace where everyone wants to live. Second, the group now reinforces political ideals and values ​​through more up-to-date formats such as videos or montages. Ultimately, the Taliban use the platforms to recruit and garner followers — it remains to be seen what the effect will be on people in the West.”

According to the researcher, at its peak, the Islamic State had, on average, 70 thousand accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Telegram. As much as platforms erased some of these profiles, they were reinstated by terrorists. “The number of accounts was stable,” says Paganeli.

“In all processes of political disruption, one of the first effects we always observe is the disruption of access to social networks. This happened, for example, in Cuba. But since taking power, the Taliban has not stopped access to platforms like Facebook. This means that there is an interest in keeping them in the air”, completes Uebel.

In fact, keeping popular Afghan social media and messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram seems better than the opposite alternative. In an interview with Bloomberg, Atlantic Council researcher Emerson Brooking points out that many Afghans were introduced over the decade to the internet and cell phone. Now, 9 out of 10 use a personal access device, while 40% are able to surf the internet.

Social networks try to contain Taliban growth

The challenge for Western technology companies is far greater than it was years ago. They sometimes depend on government definitions to apply some moderation rules, especially the “dangerous organizations” that belongs to the Taliban.

The US State Department defines a “terrorist organization” as only the Pakistani wing of the Taliban, not the Afghan division of the extremist organization. The Taliban in Afghanistan, however, is cited in the US Office of Control over Foreign Resources’ sanctions list as a “dangerous organization.”

It is based on this list that Facebook started banning Taliban-related accounts on both its social network and WhatsApp, popular in Afghanistan. The company framed the extremist group as a “dangerous organization” and even brought down an emergency hotline set up by the Taliban on WhatsApp for Afghans to report incidents of violence.

YouTube told the Washington Post which also recognizes US sanctions imposed on the Taliban, and has been taking down videos and channels related to the radical faction.

Taliban created a profile to publicize the construction of infrastructure on social networks (Image: Disclosure)

Twitter, despite keeping the profiles of Taliban spokespersons online, told the Business Insider who remains vigilant to the situation in Afghanistan, and commented that “thousands of people are using the network to call for help and help.”

Experts interviewed by Tecnoblog believe that the Taliban should not confiscate cell phones from the population, as it is using mobile media to publicize an image that clashes with the radical principles used as the basis for the group’s doctrine.

“I don’t believe in this new image that the Taliban builds on the networks, not least because it compromises political support for the group, in addition to tarnishing its tradition: it’s a totally different posture from what we’ve seen in the past,” says professor Roberto Uebel.

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