After recapturing the capital of Afghanistan for the first time in 20 years, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen assured British media publisher BBC that the Islamic group will not seek revenge on the people after it was ousted by the US military.
This was made known during a BBC news broadcast on Monday morning when journalist Yalda Hakim was interrupted by a phone call from the Taliban spokesman.
Shaheen seems to be the media representative for the Islamist group even on Twitter where he makes announcements to his hundreds of thousands of followers about the intentions of the organization which was able to topple the Afghan government after the US military withdrew from the country.
Shaheen further made it known on Twitter that Taliban soldiers have been ordered not to enter people’s homes and described reports that soldiers were forcing young girls into marriage as “poisonous propaganda”.
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However, Shaheen’s report contradicts news from the country where millions of Afghan citizens are scared and fleeing the country over the past few days.
Shaheen’s Twitter presence — and the disconnect between what he says and what’s being reported — is a surprising twist in an ongoing battle fought by Twitter and other social media companies against extremist and terrorist organizations to ensure their platforms aren’t used to radicalize potential recruits or spread disinformation. But now it seems the Taliban are using social media to speak openly to a mainstream, global audience in a bid to establish legitimacy — and it’s clear some companies don’t know how to react.
Twitter on the other hand doesn’t seem to have any community policy against members of the Taliban. There have been a lot of critics who feel the presence of certain groups of people on the platform is derogatory to modern society. It’s also facing a backlash as to why it’s allowing Taliban representatives on its platform giving them a mouthpiece to pass wrong information and probably recruit new soldiers.
The controversial ban of the Former US President Donald Trump over what the company deemed as inciting violence has steered a lot of criticism over the policing of speech by the platform.
Twitter didn’t respond to a request for comment about its policy on allowing the Taliban on its platform.
For world leaders, Twitter employs a public interest framework intended to allow the public to hold those with power to account out in the open. Taliban spokespeople don’t fall into this category — and aren’t “elected officials.” But it’s possible that as long as they don’t use Twitter to incite violence (the reason Trump’s account was banned), the company may be using this framework to allow the Taliban to keep communicating with Afghan citizens and the outside world.
The Taliban’s ‘smiley mask’
Social media didn’t exist when the Taliban last held power in Afghanistan, in 2001, but propaganda did, and the group’s members were experts when it came to deploying it. Twenty years later, the organization has updated its tactics for the digital age.
There is now a number of curated pro-Taliban media content appearing on social media as cities and provinces have fallen under the control of the organization over the past couple of months according to Martine van Bijlert who is the co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
The social media posts point to an “intentional media engagement strategy” that seeks to “convey a message of law and order and seems intended to reassure and intimidate in equal measure,” said van Bijlert.
Facebook on the other hand has a longstanding policy against allowing the Taliban to make use of its platform to communicate. “The Taliban is sanctioned as a terrorist organization under US law and we have banned them from our services under our Dangerous Organization policies,” said a spokesman for the company. “This means we remove accounts maintained by or on behalf of the Taliban and prohibit praise, support, and representation of them.”
But on Twitter, the Taliban’s channels push a message of reassurance. In a blog post for the Global Network on Extremism and Technology, Kabir Teneja, author of The ISIS Peril, pointed out the three main voices of the Taliban on Twitter: Zabiullah Mujahid (spokesman for the “Islamic Emirate”), Muhammad Naeem (spokesman for the political office in Doha) and Shaheen, whose responsibility it is to communicate with the English-speaking media. At the time of this writing, the three have a collective following on Twitter of more than 845,000 followers.
CNET reached out to Shaheen, but wasn’t able to independently verify the identities of the account holders. However the accounts appear to match up with the television appearances and press conference announcements made by the figures in real life, and seem to be publishing official statements on behalf of the Taliban in Kabul.
These three Twitter accounts together show “that the Taliban is an accessible group, willing to talk, answer, showcase themselves for the world which is mostly apprehensive to approach them,” said Teneja, who is based in Delhi, India, over email. “It’s the Taliban trying to create legitimacy on all possible avenues.”
But for many women living in Afghanistan, what the Taliban say on Twitter doesn’t align with what they know of the group and does little to allay their fears. “They are very soft on Twitter but in the real world they are harsh,” Aisha Ahmad, a 22-year-old student in Kabul, said in an email. “They lied more than a million times on Twitter. You can say that Twitter is just a smiley mask for Talibans.”
Teacher and activist Pashtana Durrani also doesn’t believe what the Taliban are saying on Twitter, and accuses the organization of “trying to fish for legitimacy.” “You have to understand with the Taliban, what they say and what they do, they’re two different things and we have to push for something so that they won’t go back on their terms,” she said in a WhatsApp voice note.
Conducting a readily-available propaganda on Twitter
The Taliban organization is trying to present itself in a hood light to the world according to Teneja and van Bijlert. The fact that the organization has started engaging with foreign press and giving interviews might further skew the original narrative in the country.
That’s not to say the Taliban’s Twitter presence is purely for the benefit of the outside world. An Afghan scholar who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being profiled pointed out that the majority of the organization’s tweets are in the local languages Pashto and Dari, with only the most important announcements made in English. “The Taliban have smartly utilized Twitter to disseminate their political information for both Afghans firstly and foreigners secondly,” he said.
Multiple people who spoke with CNET for this piece pointed out that tweets coming from official Taliban accounts are being boosted by support from multiple small accounts based in Pakistan, where the Taliban have most of their councils. “I am not sure whether there are underlying propaganda networks designed for support, a lot of it on the surface seems quite organic,” said Teneja.
For the moment, locals report that the streets of Kabul are quiet. But the reports of violent atrocities committed by Taliban soldiers throughout Afghanistan, and its intention to impose Shariah law in the country as it governs without holding elections, are no secret. For Twitter, the question remains as to how long it will continue to tolerate spokesmen for the group using its platform — and what, if anything, will be the tipping point that makes it draw a line.