But the Taleban also took another initiative, this one most unusual in the group’s history: its members launched a broad social media campaign.
A network of social media accounts highlighted alleged failures of the then pro-Western government in Kabul, while extolling Taleban achievements.
Tweets reported the group’s most recent victories – sometimes prematurely – and promoted different hashtags, such as (in Portuguese) #crimesdoregimedeCabul (associated with tweets accusing the Afghan government of war crimes, and which was among the “trends” in time it was used); #estamoscomTaleba (in an attempt to garner support) and another that said “God help victory is at hand”.
In response, then-Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh warned his troops and the public not to be taken in by the false claims of Taliban victory described on social media. He also urged people not to share such content, which would supposedly compromise military actions.
The Taleban’s posting coordination suggests that the group is moving away from staunch opposition to information dissemination technology and is building a social media apparatus to amplify its message.
When the Taliban first seized power in 1996, they banned the internet and confiscated (or destroyed) TV sets, cameras and video recordings. In 2005, the official website of the Islamic Emirate of the Taleban, “Al-Emarah”, was launched and today it publishes content in five languages - English, Arabic, Pashto, Dari and Urdu. The audio, video and text content is overseen by the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (EIA) cultural commission, headed by its spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.
Zabihullah Mujahid’s first Twitter account has been suspended by the company, but his new account – active since 2017 – has more than 371,000 followers. Underneath it works a dedicated team of volunteers willing to promote the Taleban ideology online.
Qari Saeed Khosty is assigned the role, which in practice consists of managing social media.
Khosty told the BBC that the team is divided between those who focus on Twitter – trying to make the group’s hashtags among the most shared -, WhatsApp and Facebook.
“Our enemies have TV, radio, verified social media accounts and we have nothing, and yet we fight them on Twitter and Facebook and defeat them,” Khosty said.
His job, he says, is to bring Taleban affiliates – who have joined the group because they believe in their ideology – “to social media to amplify our message.”
There are only 8.6 million internet users in Afghanistan, and the lack of affordable telephone coverage and mobile data provision remains a crucial challenge. The EIA’s social media team, in turn, pays the equivalent of about $11 (about R$60 at the current rate) for data packets to its teams that “fight the war online,” according to Khosty.
He extolled that the EIA has “four fully equipped multimedia studios used to generate audio, digital and digital branding content”.
The result is high-quality propaganda pieces, glorifying Taleban fighters and their battles against domestic and foreign forces – now available on the group’s YouTube channels and on the Al-Emarah website.
The group posts freely on Twitter and YouTube, but Facebook classifies the Taliban as a “dangerous organization” and frequently removes accounts and pages associated with the group. Facebook has said it will continue to ban the group’s content from its platforms.
Khosty told the BBC that, given the difficulties of maintaining its presence on Facebook, the radical group is focusing on Twitter.
Although the State Department has designated the Haqqani Network – an insurgent militant group allied with the Taliban – as an international terrorist group, its leader, Anas Haqqani, and many members of the group have Twitter accounts with thousands of followers.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a member of the Taleban’s social networking team told the BBC that he and his colleagues had decided to take Twitter seriously from February 2020, initially to promote an opinion piece by Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taleban, published by The New York Times. Most of the group’s accounts on this social network were created from there.
“Most Afghans do not speak English, but the leaders of the Kabul regime actively communicated in English on Twitter – because their audience was not Afghans but the interactional community,” he said. “The Taleban wanted to counterbalance these leaders’ propaganda and that’s why we also focused on Twitter.”
He added that the team – which has members with a few tens of thousands of Twitter followers – received specific guidance from the Taleban, such as “Do not comment on foreign policy of neighboring countries so as not to restrict our relations with them”.
In the past, the Taleban were known for keeping the identity of many of their leaders and fighters secret, so much so that few photos are available of the group’s founder, Mullah Omar.
Today, however, in an effort to gain international legitimacy, the current leadership not only makes media appearances but promotes them widely on social media. When spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid (rarely seen before) gave a press conference shortly after the fall of the Kabul regime, the profile of many Taleban accounts was illustrated with his image.
By contrast, many Afghan citizens who worked for international troops, organizations and press, as well as citizens who criticized the Taliban on social media, are now deactivating their accounts, fearing that information posted online will make them targets.
Human rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say they have already received reports of Taliban fighters who are said to be chasing – and killing – people in retaliation.
Facebook has launched a one-click tool for people in Afghanistan to quickly lock their accounts, preventing unconnected people from seeing their information. The social network also announced that it has temporarily removed the friend search tool from contacts in Afghan accounts.
The question is whether the Taleban have changed and abandoned brutal practices. Many Afghans around the world do not believe in his promises of change. But the radical group seems to have realized that technology it once despised can help it in its quest to shape opinions in the global environment.
“Social media is powerful in changing public perception,” says the social media team member. “We want to change the perception of the Taliban.”
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