The Taliban embrace social media: 'We too want to change perceptions'

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Taliban forces patrol near the entrance gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport, a day after U.S troops withdrawal, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 31, 2021.Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Taliban forces patrol near Kabul airport earlier this month. The group once shunned technology but is now embracing social media.

In early May, as US and Nato forces began their final withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban stepped up their military offensive against Afghan national security forces.

But they also did something less common in the group's history of conflict in the country - they launched a comprehensive social media campaign to go with it.

A network of social media accounts highlighted the alleged failures of the Kabul government while lauding the Taliban's achievements.

Tweets boasted about the group's recent victories - sometimes prematurely - and pushed several hashtags, including #kabulregimecrimes (attached to tweets accusing the Afghan government of war crimes); #westandwithTaliban (an attempt to drive grassroots support) and #ﻧَﺼْﺮٌ_ﻣٌِﻦَ_اللهِ_ﻭَﻓَﺘْﺢٌ_ﻗَﺮِﻳﺐٌ (help from God and victory is near). The first of the hashtags at least trended in Afghanistan.

In response, Afghanistan's then-Vice President Amrullah Saleh warned his forces and the public not to fall for false claims of Taliban victories on social media, and called on people to avoid sharing details of military operations that could compromise security.

The coordination suggested the Taliban had moved on from the staunch opposition to modern information technology and media once associated with them, and built a social media apparatus to amplify their message.

When the Taliban first came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, they banned the internet and confiscated or destroyed television sets, cameras, and video tapes. In 2005, the official website of Islamic Emirates of Taliban, 'Al-Emarah', was launched and now publishes content in five languages - English, Arabic, Pashto, Dari, and Urdu. The audio, video, and written content is overseen by the cultural commission of Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan (IEA), headed by their spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid.

Zabihullah Mujahid's first Twitter account was suspended by the company, but his new account - active since 2017 - has more than 371,000 followers. Underneath him is a dedicated team of volunteers promoting the Taliban's ideology online.

The reported head of that group - effectively the social media director of the IEA - is Qari Saeed Khosty.

Mr Khosty told the BBC the team had separate groups focused on Twitter - attempting to get Taliban hashtags trending - as well as disseminating messages on WhatsApp and Facebook.

"Our enemies have television, radio, verified accounts on social media and we have none, yet we fought with them on Twitter and Facebook and defeated them," Mr Khosty said.

His job, he said, was to take people who had joined the Taliban because of its ideology and "bring them to social media platforms so they amplify our message".

Media caption,

There is anger at the Taliban in Kabul, but others in rural areas welcome the end of a deadly war

There are just 8.6 million internet users in Afghanistan, and absence of network coverage and affordable data remains a key challenge. The IEA social media team team pays 1,000 Afghanis (£8.33; $11.51) per month for data packages for team members "fighting their war online", Mr Khosty said.

He boasted that the IEA had "four fully equipped multimedia studios that are used for generating audio, video content and digital branding".

The result is high-quality propaganda videos glorifying Taliban fighters and their battles against foreign and national forces, widely available on their YouTube and Al-Emarah websites.

The group publishes freely on Twitter and YouTube, but Facebook has designated the Taliban a "dangerous organisation" and frequently removes accounts and pages associated with them. Facebook has said it will continue to ban Taliban content from its platforms.

Mr Khosty told the BBC the Taliban was finding it hard to sustain their presence on Facebook, and was focusing instead on Twitter.

Although the US State Department has designated the Haqqani Network as an international terrorist group, their leader Anas Haqqani and many members of the group have Twitter accounts with thousands of followers.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one member of the Taliban's social media team told the BBC that the team decided to use Twitter in earnest to promote a New York Times opinion article written by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban, in February 2020. Most of the active Taliban accounts on Twitter were created after that.

"Most Afghans don't understand English, but the leaders of the Kabul regime actively communicated in English on Twitter - because their audience is not Afghans but the international community," he said.

"The Taliban wanted to counter their propaganda and that's why we too focused ourselves on Twitter."

He said the team members, some of whom have tens of thousands of followers, were issued specific guidelines "not to comment on the foreign policy issues of neighbouring countries that would constrain our relations with them".

In the past, the Taliban were known for being highly secretive about the identity of their leaders and fighters. So much so that there are barely any clear pictures of group's founder, Mullah Omer.

Today, in an effort to gain international legitimacy, their leadership is not only making media appearances but promoting them heavily on social media. When the group's previously secretive spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, made a press conference appearance shortly after the fall of Kabul, the profile pictures of many Taliban Twitter accounts were changed to his image.

By contrast, many Afghan citizens who worked for international forces, organisations, media and others who were critical of the Taliban on social media are now deactivating their accounts, fearing that the information could be used to target them.

Human rights organisations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say they have already received reports of Taliban fighters searching for, and allegedly killing, people in reprisal attacks.

Facebook has launched a one-click tool for people in Afghanistan to quickly lock down their account, preventing anyone not already listed as a friend from seeing their details. The site also announced it had temporarily removed the ability to view and search the "Friends" list for accounts in Afghanistan.

The question is whether the Taliban have changed and abandoned the brutality associated with the group. Many in Afghanistan and around the world do not believe their promises of change.

But they appear to have grasped that some of the technology they once shunned can help them in their quest to shape opinion on a global stage.

"Social media is powerful tool to change public perception," said the social media team member. "We want to change the perception of the Taliban."