When the Taliban Tweets

LOS ANGELES — As countries around the world grapple with whether to recognize the Taliban as the official authority of Afghanistan and as the militant group attempts to establish their governing legitimacy in the vacuum left by U.S. withdrawal, social media and technology firms are confronting a similar challenge.

When the Taliban gained control of Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Aug. 15, the group’s spokesman uploaded several videos to his official YouTube page. The New York Times reported that within a day, dozens of pro-Taliban accounts surfaced on Twitter, sharing the videos and amplifying the Taliban’s messaging. Together, the videos accumulated over half a million views.

The Taliban’s attempt to use social media as a megaphone for its legitimacy is not new. The group has long tried to wield social media as a tool for expanding its outreach to the world. In the late 1990s, the first time the Taliban controlled the country, the group banned the Internet. But now, they have turned to digital media as a powerful tool to quell dissent, suppress opposition and broadcast their messages.

But, by publishing on YouTube and other platforms, the group defied policies in place that, supposedly, do not allow content from terrorist organizations. Since the departure of the U.S. military and diplomatic presence from Afghanistan and the unexpectedly swift takeover from the Taliban, Silicon Valley has been forced to revisit its policies on granting controversial political actors and designated terrorist organizations the power to post.

The Taliban is technically banned from having accounts on platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and more — but its current takeover of the government means that tech firms and Internet companies must decide whether to officially grant the group access to the country’s state social media channels. Once more, these companies are under strict scrutiny for their high-stakes influence on a controversial political issue. 

Now, social media firms get to play the role of a state — and some even argue that a decision from Facebook or Twitter is more consequential than state-to-state recognition. The outsized and ever-expanding role of social media in foreign policy thwarts traditional understandings of statecraft. While the world has experienced its fair share of tense diplomatic incidents regarding recognition controversies, social media firms playing Secretary of State in critical decisions of granting a country or group legitimacy is a relatively recent concept.

But the current debate extends beyond allowing the Taliban to tweet. Social media firms also are grappling with whether to flag and censor content criticizing, or praising, the group — a decision with dangerous outcomes on either end. The fast-paced nature of the events unfolding in the country accentuates the difficulty of making policy decisions on who gets to have their voice amplified on social media during the crisis. Though firms like Facebook tout their commitment to free speech and their platforms’ unique benefit in fostering online political discourse, these companies are also constantly under fire for its censoring of some extremist groups and schools of thought and its puzzling lack of action for others. 

Previously, these companies have faced a firestorm of criticism for failing to consider the harm in lending authoritarian or violent leaders a digital microphone. But what makes Afghanistan different is the level of U.S. involvement. A crisis directly resulting from a miscalculation of U.S. intelligence, a chaotic exit plan that unraveled and decades of American occupation since the 9/11 attacks was bound to have greater implications for social media giants than crises in the past. Most experts believe that to navigate the crisis, social media firms will likely take their cues from how American leadership under President Joe Biden and how other global actors react.

Currently, though, it’s unclear whether or not the Biden administration will recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s official government. In 1999, the United Nations designated the organization a terrorist organization. And when the Taliban rose from the collapse of the Soviet Union’s failed 10-year war in Afghanistan, only three countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — formally recognized the group’s control over the country. 

Today, governments are slowly gauging the temperature on the issue, with most countries hesitant to be the first to recognize the Taliban. Voice of America reports that world capitals are debating the risks and benefits of recognizing the group — with no country the frontrunner in rushing to decide.

The U.S. Department of State earlier this week noted that there was not a formal transfer of power in the country and, as of publication, has avoided the question of Afghanistan’s governing authority. During a press briefing earlier this week, Spokesman Ned Price declined to say if Ashraf Ghani was still recognized as the president of Afghanistan. Ghani left the country as insurgent Taliban fighters entered the capital and toppled his government. 

Some foreign policy experts predict that Russia and China have their eye on the deep security vacuum left in the country and may be more inclined to recognize the Taliban in order to expand their influence and quickly establish bilateral relations with the group. But Russia’s envoy to the UN said that Moscow’s embassy in Kabul would operate as normal and that Russia would base any further action in Afghanistan on the Taliban’s actions in the coming weeks.

Though states are seemingly taking their time in deliberating recognition, social media firms may be forced to act faster than their traditional state counterparts. Traditional diplomacy can afford to be slow-moving; however, the speed at which digital communication tools can push messaging to millions of people around the world means that social media companies may have to decide sooner.

According to The Times, Facebook and Youtube removed the accounts of a Taliban spokesman this week only after the newspaper requested comment on the accounts, which were made in September. The companies declined to address why the accounts had been on the platforms, despite a policy ban on the Taliban . Though these platforms continue to discover and shut down these accounts as they pop up, they are unable to adequately keep up with the thousands of accounts that emerge each day and the evasive ways the Taliban has been avoiding being found online (by changing keywords, misspelling hashtags and more). And with the Taliban forging a revamped digital presence for itself, the concern grows. Experts have found that the group’s actions online mirror other terror groups that have tried to grow their social media presence, like Hamas and Hezbollah.

These companies have a lot to consider when determining whether the Taliban should be allowed to remain on social media, even as the organization looks to clamp down on the rights of those they govern. Despite pledging to respect women’s rights under Islamic sharia law, many are skeptical of this promise. Several outlets have already reported increased violence and a crackdown on women’s rights, press freedom, Internet access and anti-Taliban protests.

Internally, these companies have been monitoring the situation closely. Facebook, for instance, deployed an emergency response team to closely watch developments in the country, and the Taliban’s use of its platforms, including the messaging app Whatsapp.

Those critical of the the Taliban’s ability to permeate digital media point to these companies’ quick actions when it came to suspending the accounts of some Republican lawmakers in the United States, and the ease with which these decisions were made. In early August, Twitter suspended Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA) for one week after posting a slew of vaccine misinformation and receiving a fourth “strike” in accordance with the platform’s policy. 

Now, faced with scrutiny on a global scale with an issue extending beyond the chaos of American politics, these companies are confronted with making a decision on the legitimacy of the Taliban. 

Refusing to do so — or waiting too long — would allow the group to proliferate the digital space and spread its message, unfettered by porous policies. But by acting too soon, before the United States and other major powers announce their posture on the issue, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube could trigger perilous consequences. 

Either way, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is pushing the boundaries of social media companies’ influence over foreign affairs and these platforms’ commitment to ethical policies. As Silicon Valley navigates these complex policy decisions, the world is watching.

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Mia Speier

Mia Speier is a senior majoring in International Relations, minoring in Law and Public Policy and pursuing a master’s degree in Public Diplomacy. She served as editor-in-chief for Glimpse from the Globe last year, and returns as editor-in-chief for the 2021-2022 academic year. Mia is interested in foreign policy and news media. Within government, she has interned for the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the U.S. Agency for Global Media and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Mia has also been an editorial intern for REVOLVE Media in Brussels, Belgium and the Council on Foreign Relations. Her interest in First Amendment press freedom matters led her to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, where she interned this past summer. On campus, Mia is the director of the USC Global Policy Institute and is an executive board member of Delta Phi Epsilon. She previously served as the international editor of Annenberg Media and as the news editor of the Daily Trojan. Mia has been named a Warren Bennis Scholar and a Schaeffer Fellow in Government Service for her commitment to public service.

With Glimpse from the Globe, her focus is on transatlantic relations, Europe and Eurasia, and press and media freedom issues.

 

msspeier@usc.edu
https://www.linkedin.com/in/mia-speier/