In a video, a Taliban official assured female health workers that they could keep their jobs. In another, militants told the Sikhs, a religious minority group, that they were free and protected. Still others proposed a new law in Kabul, Afghanistan, whereby Talib fighters detain looters and thieves at gunpoint.
The Taliban, who banned the internet when they first controlled Afghanistan, have turned social media into a powerful tool to tame the opposition and get their message across. Now in control of the country, they are using thousands of Twitter accounts – some official and others anonymous – to appease Afghanistan’s terrified but increasingly tech-savvy urban base.
The images of peace and stability projected by the Taliban are in sharp contrast to the scenes of the chaotic US evacuation from Kabul airport broadcast around the world or images of demonstrators being beaten and shot at. They demonstrate the digital forces that the militants have honed over the years of the uprising, and provide insight into how the Taliban could use these tools to rule Afghanistan, even if they cling to their fundamentalist religious tenets and violent leanings.
Afghan social media can be a bad indicator of public sentiment. Many critics of the Taliban and supporters of the US-backed government have gone into hiding. But already with a social media campaign over the past few weeks, which may have helped convince Afghan security forces to lay down their arms, the Taliban have shown that they can effectively sell their message.
“They realized that if you needed narratives and stories, you had to win the war,” said Thomas Johnson, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. “In urban areas, all Afghans have smartphones and I think it will be very useful. They will use social media to tell the Afghan people what to do. ”
Online, the Taliban are now being attacked by some of the same tactics used to consolidate their power, as well as movements like the Arab Spring and other social media to organize and rally. Afghanistan’s new lines of communication with the rest of the world will help opponents of the Taliban expose all atrocities and gain support for the resistance. Hashtags like #DonotChangeNationalFlag are already spreading, with a combination of internal and external support.
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The Taliban have responded to such calls – and to reports of raids and retaliatory killings by the victorious militants – with messages that underscore the desire for peace and unity. The Taliban portray Americans and other foreigners as the main cause of years of conflict – an idea they underscored with this week’s amazing pictures of Kabul airport.
As gunshots circulated from desperate refugees clinging to planes, one of the most prominent pro-Taliban influencers, Qari Saeed Khosty, assumed a tone of sad condolence.
“I cried hard when I saw your situation. You, the friends of the crew, we cried similarly for you for 20 years. We told you that Tommy Ghani will never be loyal to you, ”he wrote on a Twitter post, using slang for a person who adopts Western styles and customs to refer to Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President who made them Week fled. “We have forgiven you, I swear by Allah. We are not for this situation. Please return to your homes. ”
Still, the Taliban – a group known for public executions, sometimes by stoning – during its rule from 1996 to 2001, have kept their messages largely optimistic. Taliban citizen journalists populate the streets of newly conquered cities with blue-cap microphones and offer videos with boring assistance from residents.
“The Taliban do not need to post any content to remind the population that they are brutal,” said Benjamin Jensen, an Atlantic Council scholar. “The population knows that. What they needed were pictures that showed that they could rule and integrate the country. ”
The Taliban were able to put much of what they wanted online. Even if the bans remain on major social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, dozens of new accounts have been created. The militants’ efforts have been concentrated on Twitter, where the Taliban are not directly banned.
Some opponents of the Taliban have shouted loudly. In contrast, others have fallen silent and wiped their reports on material that might put them in danger. A soccer player this week warned her former teammates to take photos. Facebook and Twitter have announced that they are taking steps to protect accounts.
A teacher at Nangarhar University in Jalalabad, who asked for anonymity, said many of his students who participated in anti-Taliban campaigns had disabled their social media accounts. The generation born after the fall of the first Taliban regime had a lifetime of hiding digital evidence, he said.
Today’s Afghanistan is a long way from where the Internet was banned in 2001. Cell towers were erected across the country under the US-backed government. According to Statista, a market research company, cell phone users rose from just 1 million in 2005 to more than 22 million in 2019. Experts estimate that around 70% of the population have access to a mobile phone.
Today, the Taliban would struggle to block outside news, as China and Russia do without outside time and help. Instead of deletions and bans, they have flooded social media with their own messages.
The Taliban quickly viewed the Internet as a new propaganda tool, an extension of written messages, and a guerrilla radio station. They got used to restoring websites after hosting services shut them down and often experimented with techniques like SMS blasting. A report showed how they used trending hashtags in the 2019 election to intimidate voters.
In order to gain foreign acceptance, the Taliban leaders have published messages in English over the past few weeks and broadcast press events via livestream. Their official website, Al-Emarah, publishes in English, Pashto, Dari, Urdu, and Arabic.
The Taliban are building on the experience of the summer offensive that brought the group to power, said a member of the Taliban’s social media committee, who asked for anonymity because he was not allowed to speak.
Fast and clever messaging was an important part of the offensive, he said, pointing out that the Taliban trained and equipped soldiers with microphones and smartphones to report from the front lines when their troops stormed into uncharted territory. The message, a mixture of amnesty offers and intimidation designed to convey the feeling of inevitable victory, may have helped accelerate a process of coercion and persuasion that resulted in many of the best-defended cities falling without a fight.
“Smartphones have been a very successful weapon used by the Taliban,” said Abdul Sayed, an independent researcher who focuses on the group’s social media tactics. “They all now have a particular preference for smartphones.”
When the Taliban troops captured the key city of Herat last Friday, they distributed pictures and videos of militia leaders posing with Ismail Khan, a well-known local commander and Taliban opponent, and showing him unrestrained and impartial.
The message is clear, said Sayed: “If we can treat Ismail Khan, a top enemy, with such respect, no one is in danger.”