The social media landscape in Afghanistan has changed quite significantly since the Taliban initially took power in 1996. At the time, the Taliban were probably the only people in the country with cellphones. They found cell phones useful in organizing attacks. At the time, however, most Afghans could not afford a smartphone. In addition, the mobile network is underdeveloped. Additionally, low literacy rates limit people’s ability to use mobile devices, even if they have one. Since losing power in 2001, the Taliban have at times controlled social media in areas they still rule. At one point, they forced the network operators in the area to have only 2 hours a day ON the network. The Taliban threatens to blow up their transmission towers if ISPs don’t comply, a risk these companies can’t take, as the Taliban have not hesitated to blow up other transmission towers in the past.
In fact, until the Taliban took over Afghanistan recently, they were a little confused about how to use social media. At first, they used it to spread fear among the population. Displaying images of executions and beheadings seems like a good way to use fear to control any Afghans who want to form an opposition. This may have had a limited effect, but it did nothing to win the hearts of the Afghan people and the international community. There is no doubt that the Taliban needs the international community right now. In fiscal 2020, Afghanistan relied on foreign aid for 43% of its GDP. The Taliban may soon discover that it takes more than fear to govern a country. “We have had conversations with many countries. We want them to work for our economy. We want them to help us,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
For this reason, the Taliban need to build their credibility. So they started to portray themselves as friends of the Afghan people. It was they who liberated the Afghans from the occupiers. The argument is not unattractive. When I was in Afghanistan, about 80 percent of the Afghans I spoke with admitted that they were embarrassed by having to rely on a foreign country to survive. That is, if it keeps the Taliban from the reins of power, they will accept it. Of course, about 20 percent of Afghans want a more religiously conservative state that the Taliban has promised them. The question for the Taliban will be how to unite the two factions.
To that end, the Taliban have been using social media to show that they really are a bunch of good boys who just want to have fun. Nothing to be afraid of.
To deliver this message, they used social media. 70% of Afghans now have smartphones, and most of them use Facebook and Twitter. The main question plaguing these media giants is whether they can ban Taliban accounts that do not explicitly promote violence. Their algorithms focus on identifying violent posts and don’t pick out seemingly innocuous posts. Also, the Biden administration won’t say whether they recognize the Taliban government, and the media doesn’t know what they should do. Meanwhile, according to The New York Times, “Since August 9, more than 100 new accounts and pages have been added to Twitter and Facebook that either claim to belong to the Taliban or support their mission.” From a senior Taliban Other accounts of officials have been active for some time. There are also many fake websites that can be used to incite the Taliban. Should these sites be removed too?
It’s impossible for Facebook to control every post and every account. In fact, in the process of trying to gain control of the Taliban accounts, they accidentally deleted the anti-Taliban accounts. Some accounts were deleted the day before and replaced with similar accounts the next day. For example, Facebook claims to have banned Al-Emarah, the media arm of the Taliban; however, when I looked at it a few minutes ago, it seemed to be up.
Although the site’s promotional videos are banned on YouTube, you can still watch them on Facebook. To prove it, here is a screenshot of one of the videos.
Twitter isn’t much better either. Many Taliban accounts show up on a daily basis with seemingly no problem. In fact, this is their Al-Emarah base.
For Afghans, whose Facebook profiles may show ties to foreign entities, they have struggled to clean up their Facebook pages. However, who knows how long the Taliban has been hoarding this information. In other words, it may all come too late. In any case, Facebook offers a “death switch” that allows worried users to lock the accounts of everyone but their friends.
However, those in the cybersecurity field know that this exposes the contacts of contacts to cyberattacks that could try to take over their Facebook profiles. Since then, Taliban attackers have been able to use these cracked accounts to view “locked” Facebook pages. Because Facebook is notoriously slow at removing compromised accounts, the damage was done before those compromised accounts were blocked.
Twitter, on the other hand, did not block any Taliban accounts. This has led to criticism of Twitter’s business model because they don’t mind banning Donald Trump for life. Even users on the left find this hypocritical. Are they saying Trump is more dangerous than the Taliban? My memory is a little dull, but I can’t remember the last time Tet burned a woman to death for having a bad meal.
In fact, it was the use of social media that helped the Taliban conquer Afghanistan so quickly that, in some places, it didn’t even require a single shot. They were able to do this by putting videos online showing their successful attacks on other areas and the swift, happy surrender of their opponents. They made themselves seem like an irresistible force that was useless against them, and the propaganda clearly worked.
But they need more control over the opinions of ordinary Afghan citizens. In order to advertise that they are a new and improved breed of the Taliban, they actually need Afghan citizens to have internet access and even a smartphone. Of course, they still don’t want someone filming their bad behavior, but unlike in the past, there’s no reason to ruin a disobedient user’s phone now. More practically, pick up your phone and look at all the people associated with this misbehaving person. Don’t be surprised if the Taliban learn how to install spyware, or ask people to install certain apps that allow them to monitor personal behavior, after all, that’s what the Chinese did, and the Chinese are now the Taliban’s new friends.
The Taliban are understood to use WhatsApp, Messenger and Telegram apps for internal communications they deem safe. The problem, however, is that none of these are as safe as the Taliban thought. One might ask how U.S. intelligence agencies knew that ISIS in Afghanistan (aka ISIS-K) was planning a suicide bombing attack at Kabul airport. I guess they are part of the Taliban network in these apps. Those planning to rebel against Taliban rule may face the same problem. The Taliban may be smart enough to infiltrate their networks. Demonstrations against the Taliban were quickly interrupted.
The Taliban’s biggest challenge may actually come from anti-Taliban fighters in Panjshir, north of Kabul.
The Taliban allegedly learned of the resistance quickly and sent hundreds of people into the Panjshir valley. They used YouTube videos to try to intimidate the militants there, as they have done in the past. Video shows passionate Taliban fighters lining up in long queues heading to the valley to win. Reports say the videos are ready-made and have nothing to do with the Taliban’s march on Panjshir. In any case, the attack did not go as the Taliban had hoped, as they were said to be ambushed as they entered the valley, losing dozens of people. Anti-Taliban militant leader Ahmad Masood claimed he only wanted to negotiate a peace treaty that would allow the resistance forces to work with the Taliban to govern Afghanistan.
In fact, the Taliban may have no choice. They face strong resistance from Islamic extremists. Both ISIS-K and Al Qaeda believe the Taliban are too friendly to foreign powers (i.e. infidels) in Afghanistan. Another extremist group, the Haqqani Network, is currently working with the Taliban and is mainly responsible for security at Kabul airport. If their negligence or coercion is found to have caused ISIS-K’s recent airport bombing, the Taliban may also have no choice but to break with them. So within this increasingly complex framework, the last thing the Taliban needs is another, more moderate resistance movement.
In short, the Taliban will have a hard time uniting rival factions inside and outside Afghanistan, let alone quelling distrust among young people who grew up in a secular society. The Taliban need social media more than they need it for the Taliban. They appear to be in a lose-lose situation. The truth is, there is only one way left for them, even though they may not want to go. They need to form a coalition government, allow democratic elections, and work with foreign governments. However, even if they do all of this, which I think is highly unlikely, they still face the danger that parts of the country will be controlled by extremist groups that may, at least in part, be controlled by Pakistan, India and Chechnya etc. foreign funding. These groups will do everything in their power to disrupt social order, and no matter how benign the Taliban, civil war is inevitable. Also, if they don’t strike a deal with Panjshir’s anti-Taliban fighters, other opposition groups could emerge elsewhere, leading to widespread chaos across the country. We are now on the verge of falling into chaos, a situation that few countries have ever experienced.
Advisor to InZero Technologies LLC, a Washington, DC-based cybersecurity firm. InZero Technologies specializes in embedded and hardware-level security for endpoints and IoT devices. The company holds numerous patents in these areas. The author has worked in Poland, Japan, Korea, China and Afghanistan. Worked as a writer, technical editor and educator.