As the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Sunday, a spokesperson for the group uploaded five videos to its official YouTube page. Lasting two to three minutes each, the videos showed leaders of the fundamentalist movement congratulating the fighters on their victories.
“Now is the time to serve the nation and bring it peace and security,” said Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, 53, co-founder of the Taliban, in Pashtun – one of Afghanistan’s official languages – in one of the videos, sitting in front of senior officials in a curtained cabinet.
Dozens of new pro-Taliban accounts that have popped up on Twitter in recent days have shared the five videos, which have reached more than 500,000 views in those posts combined.
According to the researchers, the videos are part of an effort by the Taliban to establish their authority and legitimize their control over Afghanistan through the use of social media. But by posting to Facebook and YouTube, the Taliban challenged the platform’s bans, which had been in place for some time.
In accordance with government guidelines, most social media companies have identified the Taliban as a terrorist organization and do not allow its content to be posted on their websites.
The group’s renewed presence puts Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in a difficult position. As governments around the world grapple with whether they should formally recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s new rulers, companies have no easy answers as to whether they should continue to ban the group online.
The situation has criticized them because, in recent months, tech companies have suspended the accounts of some Republican lawmakers and other prominent figures, apparently more easily. Facebook and YouTube deleted the accounts of Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem on Tuesday (17) only after The New York Times requested statements from online platforms on the matter. The companies did not explain why those accounts, created in September, were still available, despite the group’s ban.
“The approach taken by tech companies has not been very effective so far,” said independent researcher Ayman Aziz, who has studied Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than a decade. “With its new regime, the Taliban are creating a new online presence.”
Representatives of YouTube and Facebook said they banned Taliban accounts and deleted them whenever they found them. Twitter, which this week announced a ban on glorifying violence on its platform, did not respond to a request for statements.
The question of what to allow online regarding the Taliban is only expected to gain traction among social media companies. According to a New York Times analysis, since August 9, more than 100 new accounts and pages have been opened on Twitter and Facebook claiming to belong to the Taliban or support the organization’s mission. The newspaper also identified dozens of pro-Taliban accounts, including some senior representatives of the group, which had existed at the sites for months or years and were dormant, only becoming active last week.
Many accounts are now acting in concert to post videos, images and slogans about the fundamentalist regime. They often copy each other’s messages, propagating discussions about the administration of local municipalities and multiplying claims that the Taliban brought peace to the Afghans. The common thread running through all activities is to praise the religious movement as the rightful ruler of Afghanistan.
“The Taliban’s use of social media is intentional,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory, which studies the online dissemination of information. “The group knows it needs to present a responsible public facade to gain more legitimacy.”
The Taliban’s social media tactics increasingly resemble those of other terrorist organizations that have sought to reform their reputations, researchers said. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Hezbollah, in Lebanon, are using social media to show their softer side, with videos that show them celebrating popular holidays or donating to the poor.
The Taliban’s messages soon find a growing audience. Followers of its official Facebook pages increased by more than 120%, reaching more than 49,000 users on Wednesday (18). The group’s YouTube videos started reaching tens of thousands of views, with an average of less than a thousand.
Brookie said the impression Facebook, YouTube and Twitter make will likely be questionable no matter what they do, given the Taliban’s reputation for their extremist ideology. “There is a very real discussion to be had about the value of allowing the Taliban to remain on social media as the entity moves towards cracking down on the rights of the groups it governs.”
Within companies, Facebook has activated an emergency response team in recent days to monitor the situation in Afghanistan and assess the Taliban’s use of its products, including its WhatsApp messaging app, as reported by employees. of the social network.
Twitter and YouTube, meanwhile, have sought to read between the diplomatic cable lines of world leaders to determine whether the US government would create a “de facto” relationship with the Taliban, officials said who are participating in internal company talks.
But even in cases where companies have removed accounts linked to the fundamentalist regime, the bans have been porous. When Facebook this week blocked the WhatsApp account of Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesperson for the Taliban, it handed reporters a new, still-active WhatsApp account from another leader of the fundamentalist group.
The Taliban also easily avoid the possibility of their accounts being localized by changing the spelling of their hashtags or active terms and using encrypted apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp to broadcast their messages and ask volunteers to translate their posts to them. social networks in many languages, according to Aziz.
In addition to the difficulties the platforms face, many new pro-Taliban accounts have been careful to post content that does not openly defend violence or hate speech, which would violate company rules.
A new account named after the unrecognized Taliban state, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, surfaced on Twitter on August 8. She has more than 400 followers and has already posted two videos showing the military maneuvers of the fundamentalist movement. But neither does it include violent or explicit imagery, nor does it directly advocate the use of violence.
Likewise, a Facebook page created six days ago that categorized itself as a grocery store but published exclusively Taliban content was largely limited to praising Mujahid. At a press conference in Kabul on Tuesday (17), Mujahid was asked about freedom of expression. He accused Facebook of hypocrisy for promoting free speech while censoring the group by suppressing Taliban accounts.
“This question should be asked of those who claim to be promoters of free speech but who do not allow the disclosure of information that is foreign to them,” Mujahid said.