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Are the Taliban Losing Their Digital Clout?


FILE - An Afghan reporter looks at messages sent by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in the newsroom at Maiwand TV station in Kabul, Feb. 6, 2019.

Taliban chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has more than 630,000 followers of his official Twitter account. But the only web address under his profile links to a terminated page.

Mujahid and his team were once dubbed masters of online propaganda when the Taliban were fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Now, as a de facto government, the Taliban's use of digital platforms is confronted with service denials, adversarial campaigns and removal from social media platforms.

Last week Meta, Facebook’s parent company, closed the Facebook and Instagram accounts of state-run Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) and the Bakhtar News Agency.

The accounts were created by the previous U.S.-backed Afghan government and were left for the Taliban, who used them to disseminate news of their government.

“The Taliban is sanctioned as a terrorist organization under U.S. law, and they are banned from using our services under our Dangerous Organizations policies," a Meta spokesperson told VOA. “This means we remove accounts maintained by or on behalf of the Taliban and prohibit praise, support and representation of them.”

Google follows the same policy.

While VOA was seeking comments for this story, a link to a Taliban YouTube radio channel was sent to Google as a reference. In less than 24 hours, the channel was gone.

“Google is committed to compliance with applicable U.S. sanctions laws and enforces related policies under its Terms of Service. As such, if we find an account that belongs to the Taliban, we terminate it,” a Google spokesperson told VOA.

In this photo taken on Feb. 6, 2019, the Twitter page of Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid is pictured on a computer monitor in the newsroom at Maiwand TV station in Kabul.
In this photo taken on Feb. 6, 2019, the Twitter page of Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid is pictured on a computer monitor in the newsroom at Maiwand TV station in Kabul.

Twitter

Days after former Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan, Taliban acting Prime Minister Mullah Hasan Akhund occupied the presidential palace popularly known as the Arg ("fort" in the Dari language).

Despite taking control of the physical building in Kabul and all corners of the landlocked country, Akhund has been denied access to the Arg’s previously robust cyber realm. The domain “president.gov.af” is broken. The Arg’s Facebook page, which carried millions of likes, is nonexistent. And the official Twitter handle, @ARG_AFG, has been inactive since August 15, 2021 — the day Ghani fled.

There is no verified Taliban account on Twitter, but the platform has allowed numerous unverified accounts, including Mujahid’s, to promote Taliban policies and statements. Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.

The Taliban started using Twitter in 2011 primarily to target Western audiences and quickly used the service to disseminate propaganda, according to research in 2014 by the Terrorism Research Initiative.

After Meta closed RTA’s Facebook accounts, some campaigners launched the “BanTaliban” hashtag on Twitter. In response, pro-Taliban campaigners launched the “SupportTaliban” hashtag, which according to an AI tracking account generated considerable responses among some Twitter users.

FILE - This handout photo released by the Taliban Foreign Ministry shows Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, center right, meeting with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi, center left, in Kabul on March 24, 2022
FILE - This handout photo released by the Taliban Foreign Ministry shows Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, center right, meeting with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi, center left, in Kabul on March 24, 2022

De facto government

The U.S. government has designated several Taliban officials and entities linked to them as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.

As insurgents, the Taliban called for armed attacks against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. But since taking over the government, the group’s rhetoric and statements have shifted more toward governance and social service provision, according to Tamar Mitts, a faculty member at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University in New York.

“What makes the Taliban unique is that unlike many other groups, it also functions as a state, which raises questions about whether companies should allow governance-related content on their platforms when the entity that generates the content is designated as a dangerous organization,” Mitts told VOA.

The Taliban have challenged their removal from popular social networking sites as a sign of Western hypocrisy toward free speech.

“The slogan ‘freedom of expression’ is used to deceive other nations,” Mujahid tweeted on July 20.

Unlike in neighboring Iran where the Islamic government has banned Facebook, thus far, the Taliban have not banned social platforms inside Afghanistan.

Under strict international financial sanctions and not recognized as a government by any country, the Taliban are widely condemned for their suppressive policies toward media and women.

Last month, they arrested a famous Afghan YouTuber for alleged insult toward Islamic scriptures.

Some experts believe the Taliban’s propaganda should also be banned on social platforms when they stifle critics and impose censorship on Afghan media.

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