How Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are handling the Taliban and Afghanistan
As the Taliban take control of Afghanistan for the first time in more than 20 years, social media companies are in dire straits: They must figure out how to deal with what was once considered an insurgent group and affiliates. to terrorism, potentially ruling an entire country.
Today’s political leaders use social media as an essential means of communicating and mobilizing their support. It is not only the personal accounts of politicians that depend on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but also the official accounts of government agencies and infrastructure. And if the Taliban becomes an internationally recognized government, regardless of its record in supporting terrorism abroad and abusing the human rights of the Afghan people, these companies will face a difficult set of questions. Do they continue to treat the Taliban like a dangerous organization or do they give them the opportunity to lead their newly reformed government on social media?
“It’s absolutely surreal,” said Emerson Brooking, senior researcher studying social media and international security at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “We have seen revolutions in the age of social media; we have seen coups. But we haven’t seen a case where an internal insurgency successfully co-chooses a state and seeks to take over the functions of that state. “
The Taliban were previously banned from social media platforms because what they posted was largely content about violent attacks on US soldiers, Brooking says. Now that the fight with the United States is over, the Taliban are using social media to rule: providing services to citizens of WhatsApp groups (Facebook has shut down a Taliban-run hotline to report violence and looting more early this week) and use Twitter to make statements to the press in English, while assuring the Afghan public that they will not do the same harm they did to their people in the 1990s.
The Taliban, an Islamist faction of the fundamentalist militia that controlled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until the US intervention in 2001, are known to be a brutal governing force that has been harsh on the Afghan people, especially towards women and girls. The group ruled the country under strict Sharia law – stoning women accused of adultery to death, chopping off the hands of thieves and banning girls from going to school – and have consistently supported terrorism in abroad.
Last week, after the United States withdrew its two-decade military presence, the Taliban quickly regained power in the country without even a single bullet fired in some areas. Now the Taliban say they have changed and promised a more peaceful approach. As my colleague Jen Kirby recently explained, many Afghans are wary of this promise, and social media companies have good reason to be skeptical as well.
So far, Facebook and YouTube have said the Taliban are banned from their platforms, in line with US sanctions policies. Twitter does not have a ban, but told Recode that it removes individual pieces of violent content. Ultimately, however, more social media companies may start to relax their rules on the Taliban, if the group gains legitimacy within the international community, experts say.
A Taliban spokesperson once complained that Facebook is censoring free speech by deletion of certain group accounts. This is a hypocritical position for a group that regularly suppresses the speech of women and anyone under their authority who does not agree with them.
Either way, the debate over whether the Taliban should be allowed on these platforms shows the growing power of social media in global politics.
“After President Trump’s ban, this is the first test these companies have of how they will actually enforce their rules internationally,” said Katie Harbath, former head of public policy for Facebook who is now member of bipartisan politics. Center and Atlantic Council. “It’s not a perfect comparison – nothing ever will be – but I think it raises a lot of different questions about how these types of policies will be implemented in these delicate parts of the world. “
Why social media companies’ stance on the Taliban could change
As the Taliban have taken over, uncertainty remains as to the extent of their power. During this transition period, Facebook and YouTube continued to treat them like a bunch of rogue insurgents. But that could quickly change.
Already there has been some confusion about how these companies apply their policies. Facebook said it was enforcing a ban on the Taliban that has been in place “for years” as part of its “dangerous organizations” policy. Despite this ban, it appears that Facebook did not deactivate some Taliban accounts until after the New York Times questioned them, according to a tweet by Times reporter Sheera Frenkel.
“Our teams are closely monitoring this situation as it evolves. Facebook does not make decisions regarding the recognized government in a particular country, but rather respects the authority of the international community to make those decisions, ”a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.
YouTube is also removing all Taliban content in accordance with U.S. sanctions law, the company said on Tuesday, after initially declining to comment on the matter to Reuters on Monday.
“[I]If we find an account that is owned and operated by the Afghan Taliban, we terminate it. Additionally, our policies prohibit content that incites violence, ”a YouTube spokesperson told Recode in an email.
Meanwhile, Twitter is the most lenient of the other big platforms. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has an active account with over 300,000 followers.
“The situation in Afghanistan is changing rapidly and we are seeing people across the country using Twitter to ask for help and assistance,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. “Keeping people safe is Twitter’s top priority, and we remain vigilant. We will continue to proactively enforce our rules and review content that may violate Twitter’s rules, especially policies against glorification of violence, platform manipulation and spam. “
Again, this situation puts Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in a conundrum. If they take a tough stance on the Taliban, they risk silencing the online presence of an entire country’s government, not just a single politician. But if they allow the Taliban to gain more followers on social media, they could allow the rise of a regime supporting terrorism.
The different and potentially shifting stance of social media companies on the Taliban is ultimately proof that these companies are not designed to be the ones who decide when to grant legitimacy to disputed regimes.
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube will be looking to see what political recognition the Taliban is getting outside of Afghanistan, from organizations like the UN and NATO – as well as from world leaders like the United States, China and the United Kingdom, according to experts.
“Are they [the Taliban] will be recognized by anyone in the international community? said Harbath, the former Facebook executive. “China and Russia have talked about potentially doing it. But I think it’s a big open question that hasn’t really been answered yet. You can’t expect social media companies to make these decisions on their own.