How Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube manage the Taliban and Afghanistan

As the Taliban seize control of Afghanistan for the very first time in more than 20 years, social media companies are in a precarious position: They need to know how to manage what was once considered a rebel, terrorist-affiliated group that could possibly run across the country.

Nowadays, political leaders use social media as a critical way to communicate and mobilize support. Not only personal accounts of politicians rely on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but also official accounts for government agencies and infrastructure. And if the Taliban is to become an internationally recognized government – no matter how poor its track record of supporting terrorism abroad and imposing human rights abuses on the Afghan people – it must fight companies fight a tough question. Do they continue to treat the Taliban as a dangerous organization, or are they given a chance to run their newly reformed government on social media?

“It’s really unpredictable,” said Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow in the study of social media and international security at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “We’ve seen revolutions in the social media era; we’ve seen coups. But we haven’t seen a case where an internal insurgency has successfully selected a state and sought to take over state activities.”

Taliban fighters surrounded a market area in Kabul on August 17.
Hoshang Hashimi / AFP / Getty Images

The Taliban was previously banned from social media platforms, because what it posted was mostly in-depth about violent attacks on U.S. soldiers, Brooking said. Now that the fight with the US is over, the Taliban is changing to use social media to manage: provide services to citizens in WhatsApp groups (Facebook close a Taliban -run aid line to report violence and looting earlier this week) and use Twitter to make English -language statements, while reassuring the Afghan public that it will not inflict the same damage it did to its people in the 1990s.

The Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamist militia faction that controlled much of Afghanistan from 1996 until U.S. intervention in 2001, is known to be a brutal ruling force that is brutal to the Afghan people, especially women and girls. . The group rules the country under strict Sharia law – stoning women accused of adultery to death, cutting off the hands of thieves, ug prohibiting girls from getting an education – and has a background in support terrorism abroad.

Last week, after the U.S. withdrew its nearly decade-long military presence, the Taliban power is quickly removed in the country without even a single shot of ammunition in some areas. Now, the Taliban say they have changed, and have promised a more peaceful approach. As my partner Jen Kirby recently explained, many Afghans are wary of that promise, and social media companies have good reason to be skeptical as well.

So far, Facebook and YouTube have said the Taliban have been banned from their platforms, per U.S. sanctions policies. Twitter has no ban but Recode says it has removed individual pieces of the violent content. Still, however, many social media companies could begin to relax their rules on the Taliban, if the group gains legitimacy in the international community, experts said.

A Taliban fighter in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province is looking for a signal on his mobile phone.
AFP / Getty Photos

A Taliban spokesman has complained that Facebook is censoring free speech by taking some group accounts. This is a hypocritical position for a group that has always suppressed the speech of women and anyone under their rule who disagrees with them.

Regardless, the debate over whether the Taliban should be allowed on these platforms reflects the growing power of social media in world politics.

“After President Trump was banned, this is the first test for companies on how they will apply their rules internationally,” said Katie Harbat, a director of public policy at Facebook who is now associated with Bipartisan Policy . Center and the Atlantic Council. “It’s not a perfect comparison – nothing happens – but I think it raises a lot of different questions about how these kinds of policies will be implemented in tricky parts of the world.”

Why the stance of Taliban social media companies could change

As the Taliban took over, there was uncertainty over the magnitude of their power. During this transitional period, Facebook and YouTube continue to treat them as a rude rebel group. But that can easily change.

Already, there is some confusion about how these companies enforce their policies. Facebook said it had enforced the Taliban ban that had been in place “for years” under the “dangerous organizations” policy. Despite its ban, it appears that Facebook only shut down some Taliban accounts after being asked by the New York Times about them, according to a tweet from Times reporter Sheera Frenkel.

“Our teams are closely monitoring this situation as it progresses. Facebook does not make decisions about the recognized government of any particular country but respects the authority of the international community in making these decisions. ”Said a Facebook spokesperson in a statement.

YouTube also removed all of the Taliban’s content per U.S. sanctions law, the company said Tuesday, after initially declining to comment on the matter to Reuters on Monday.

“[I]f we find an account believed to be owned and operated by the Afghan Taliban, we close it. In addition, our policies prohibit content that suggests violence, ”a YouTube spokesperson told Recode in an email.

Meanwhile, Twitter is much slower than other main platforms. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, has an active account with more than 300,000 followers.

A Taliban fighter walked through a beauty salon spray-painted in Kabul, on August 18.
Deputy Kohsar / AFP / Getty Images

“The situation in Afghanistan is changing rapidly, and we have witnessed people in the country using Twitter to ask for help and assistance,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. “Twitter’s top priority is to keep people safe, and we remain vigilant. We will continue to enforce our rules and review content that may violate the Twitter Guidelines, specifically the policies against glorifying violence and manipulating the platform and spam. ”

Again, this situation puts Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in a predicament. If they have a violent stance on the Taliban, they could risk silencing the online presence of an entire government in the country – not just a politician. But if they allow the Taliban to gain more of a social media following, they could potentially ascend to a regime that supports terrorism.

The varied and potential shift in the Taliban’s stance is the final evidence that these companies are not designed to be the ones to decide when to give legitimacy to opposing regimes.

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube look at how much political recognition the Taliban has gained outside of Afghanistan, from organizations like the UN and NATO – as well as from world leaders like the US, China, and the UK. , experts say.

“They are [the Taliban] known to anyone in the international community? “said Harbat, a former Facebook executive.” China and Russia are talking about the potential to do so. But I think that’s a big open question that has never been answered. You can’t expect, nor would you like, social media companies to make these decisions on their own. ”

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