The Future of Afghanistan: Social Media Companies and the Taliban

The Future of Afghanistan: Social Media Companies and the Taliban

Many political figures and analysts have made statements regarding their skeptical eye towards the progressive sentiments being shared on social media platforms by the Taliban. Yet, the terrorist group is still able to post freely facing barely any difficulties. The mass amounts of Taliban propaganda being spread online may increase the group’s political popularity, expand their member-base as well as international support, and ultimately, solidify their control in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s utilization of media platforms could potentially ignite a revitalized global Islamist militant movement and must be taken more seriously by social media companies.

The Taliban’s Cunning Social Media Activity

The last time the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube did not exist and a mere 0.01% of the population had access to the internet. Today, there are about 4.40 million social media users in the country presenting the Taliban with a new, threatening opportunity to manipulate media platforms to their advantage. The Taliban have commenced an extensive social media campaign as they have taken over Afghanistan. 

During their unrelenting insurrection over the past two months, the group has used media platforms to exert a message of normalcy within Afghanistan and depict themselves as a new and improved governing body compared to the violent Taliban administration in power two decades ago. Like other operators of sophisticated media campaigns, the Taliban and its supporters have a multitude of accounts linked across numerous platforms to keep its marketing from being easily suppressed by the actions of one or two tech companies. The group has been intent on drawing attention to their discussions with governments around the world, for example, in Beijing and Moscow, attempting to portray themselves as a valid leadership entity to Afghans and a global audience. Although the Taliban’s new outreach opens up the floor for international criticism, they have been responding with messages emphasizing a desire for peace and unity. 

The Taliban designates America and other foreigners as the root cause of conflict in Afghanistan and have employed the disturbing images from Kabul airport to support this designation. Qari Saeed Khosty, a well-known Taliban influencer, posted on Twitter: “I cried hard to see your situation. You, the friends of the occupation, we have similarly cried for you for 20 years. We told you that Tommy Ghani will never be loyal to you,” using slang for a person who adopts Western styles and customs to refer to former President Ashraf Ghani. “We have forgiven you, I swear to Allah. We are not for this situation. Please come back to your homes.” This is just one instance of the Taliban’s many messages of sympathy and unity targeting Afghans. 

Response from Social Media Companies or Lack Thereof 

The terrorist group has been able to post consistently throughout this insurrection on a variety of different platforms reaching both Afghan nationals and the rest of the world. Even as blocks on major social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube persist, dozens of new accounts have been created by the group that enable them to continue to spread their upbeat messages.

The Taliban’s media campaign is mainly based on Twitter, where they are not directly banned. Twitter representatives have stated that the company will continue to enforce its policies relating to the “glorification of violence, platform manipulation and spam,” however, these policies don’t necessarily target the Taliban’s marketing content containing promises of peace and equality.

Facebook has banned the Taliban under its “dangerous organizations” policies and emphasized in a statement that it has dedicated a team of Afghanistan experts who are native speakers of Dari and Pashto to help provide cultural context and alert the company of emerging issues. While Facebook’s course of action is a little more resolute compared to Twitter’s, their subsidiary WhatsApp, which the Taliban heavily relies on for messaging, is a stickier situation considering the service encrypts messages so that only senders and recipients can read them. 

A WhatsApp spokesperson stated that the company relies on machine learning and user reports to identify Taliban-linked accounts, however, when asked if evidence of the Taliban’s continued use of the messaging service indicates that such measures are ineffective, the WhatsApp spokesperson did not respond.  

nyt taliban and social media

“The Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, center, at the group’s first news conference after taking control of Kabul”, by Jim Huylebroek, The New York Times | Source:

Potential Ramifications of Letting the Taliban Post Without Constraint on Media Platforms  

Through the dissemination of misleading information, the Taliban will likely gain more political popularity, significantly expand their member-base as well as international support, and ultimately, solidify their control in Afghanistan. If social media companies do not take immediate and explicit action to identify accounts associated with the Taliban and ban them, it is highly likely the terrorist group will form a legitimate government and generate a global Islamist militant movement. Afghanistan would then potentially descend into a state of political unrest, violence, isolation, and war, especially considering the possibility of the Taliban housing other militant groups within the country. 

The Taliban have encouraged women to join their government, said that women’s rights will be respected, pledged to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for attacks on other nations, condemned Islamic State(IS) attacks on the Shiite minority group within the country, and made other similar statements portraying themselves as more progressive. However, much like they did just before their 1996 takeover, the Taliban has implemented their own style of local government based on their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law wherever they have captured territory. They have conducted summary executions, beat women, shut down schools, and blown up clinics as well as infrastructure. It has also been reported that the Taliban have handed out leaflets in some areas they control, ordering locals to follow many of the strict rules imposed under the previous Taliban regime.

The longer the Taliban is able to advertise and campaign their misleading promises on social media freely, the less likely the chances of peace talks, negotiations, humanitarian aid, or future stability in Afghanistan occuring are. The Taliban may eventually have grounds to justify their removal from special designation lists for dangerous organizations, attributing their status as a legitimate governing body. This would make it much more difficult for social media companies to ban the Taliban from their platforms because they will not be able to cite their dangerous organization list company policies to provide rationale for outlawing the group’s media activity.

Although many political figures and analysts around the world have expressed their doubts towards the Taliban’s progressive messages, no meaningful action has been taken thus far against this spread of misinformation. The messages the Taliban has been spreading through social media platforms has the potential to fuel a revitalized global Islamist militant movement and must be treated more seriously by social media companies. 

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