As the Taliban negotiates with senior politicians and government leaders following its lighting-fast takeover of Afghanistan, U.S. social media companies are reckoning with how to deal with a violent extremist group that is poised to rule a country of 40 million people.
Should the Taliban be allowed on social platforms if they don't break any rules, such as a ban on inciting violence, but instead use it to spread a narrative that they're newly reformed and are handing out soap and medication in the streets? If the Taliban runs Afghanistan, should they also run the country's official government accounts?
And should tech companies in Silicon Valley decide what is — and isn't — a legitimate government? They certainly don't want to. But as the situation unfolds, uncomfortable decisions lie ahead.
DOES THE TALIBAN USE SOCIAL MEDIA?
The Taliban quickly seized power in Afghanistan two weeks before the U.S. was set to complete its troop withdrawal after a two-decade war. The insurgents stormed across the country, capturing all major cities in a matter of days, as Afghan security forces trained and equipped by the U.S. and its allies melted away.
The last time the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube did not exist. Neither did MySpace, for that matter. Internet use in the country was virtually nonexistent with just 0.01% of the population online, according to the World Bank.
In recent years, that number has vastly increased. The Taliban have also increased their online presence, producing slick videos and maintaining official social media accounts. Despite bans, they have found ways to evade restrictions on YouTube, Facebook and WhatsApp. Last year, for instance, they used WhatsApp groups to share pictures of local health officials in white gowns and masks handing out protective masks and bars of soap to locals.
On Twitter, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has been posting regular updates to more than 300,000 followers, including international media. Twitter suspended another account, @AfghPresident, which has served as the nation's de facto official presidential account, pending verification of the account holder's identity.
“There’s a realization that winning the war is as much a function of a nonmilitary tool like social media as it is about the bullets," said Sarah Kreps, a law professor at Cornell University who focuses on international politics, technology and national security. “Maybe these groups, even from just an instrumental perspective, have realized that beheading people is not a way to win the hearts and minds of the country."
WAIT, THE TALIBAN WERE ALLOWED ON TWITTER?
Facebook and YouTube consider the Taliban a terrorist organization and prohibit it from operating accounts. Twitter has not explicitly banned the group, though the company said Tuesday that it will continue to enforce its rules, in particular policies than bar “glorification of violence, platform manipulation and spam."
This essentially means that until the accounts violate Twitter's rules — for instance, by inciting violence — they are allowed to operate.
While the Taliban is not on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on it. Facebook said Tuesday that the group is banned from its platform under its “dangerous organization" policies. which also bars “praise, support and representation” of the group and accounts run on its behalf. The company emphasized in a statement that it has a dedicated team of Afghanistan experts that are native speakers of Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan's official languages, to help provide local context and to alert the company of emerging issues.
Facebook has a spotty record when it comes to enforcing its rules. Doing so on WhatsApp, also owned by Facebook, could prove more difficult given that the service encrypts messages so that no one but senders and recipients can read them.
Twitter said it is seeing people in Afghanistan using its platform to seek help and that its top priority is "keeping people safe." Critics immediately questioned why the company continues to ban former President Donald Trump even as it allows Mujahid to post.
“They certainly decided to silence a former U.S. president,” said Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party in Cincinnati, Ohio, who called Twitter’s decision “preposterous.”
Twitter permanently suspended Trump following the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, saying his posts glorified and could lead to more violence. The company has long insisted that it suspends accounts based on behavior and whether they violate its rules on the service, and not on offline actions and affiliation.
While he understands that social media companies operate in a global economy, Triantafilou said, “it seems to me that supporting America and our own interest” would make more sense for a U.S. company.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
As the situation unfolds, the major companies are grappling with how to respond. It's not an entirely unique situation — they have had to deal with groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, for instance, which hold considerable political power but are also violent and have carried out acts of terrorism.
“For the past decade, Hamas has used social media to gain attention, and convey their messages to international audiences in multiple languages," wrote Devorah Margolin, senior research fellow at the Program on Extremism at The George Washington University, in a July report. For example, she wrote, both the political and military wings of Hamas operated official accounts on Twitter.
Despite attempts to use its English-language account to make its case to the international community, Margolin said the group still used Twitter to call for violence. In 2019, Twitter closed the official accounts, @HamasInfo and @HamasInfoEn, for violating its rules, saying there is “no place on Twitter for illegal terrorist organizations and violent extremist groups.”
Facebook declined to say specifically if it would hand over Afghanistan's official government accounts to the Taliban if it is recognized as the country's government. The company pointed to an earlier statement saying it “does not make decisions about the recognized government in any particular country but instead respects the authority of the international community in making these determinations."
Twitter declined to answer questions beyond its statement. YouTube, meanwhile, provided a boilerplate statement saying it complies with “all applicable sanctions and trade compliance laws" and bans the incitement of violence.
All that effectively leaves the door open for the social platforms to eventually hand over control of the official accounts, assuming the Taliban behave and U.S. sanctions are lifted. “That seems like a reasonable approach, because I think the social media platforms don’t necessarily want to be adjudicating is which groups are legitimate themselves," said Kreps, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1999 to 2003, partly in Afghanistan.
At the same time, she noted, the companies, especially Facebook, have learned a great deal — and paid a price — for the way the way social media helped incite genocidal behavior in Myanmar. And they're unlikely to want a repeat of those horrors.