Tools of Power and Peril
"Kabul Pilot Workshop-Create an Social Media Account" by Impassion Afghanistan is licensed under CC BY 2.0
In July 2021, an Al Jazeera article detailed the impact of ongoing fighting on Afghanistan’s IT infrastructure and noted that the “IT sector in Afghanistan was deemed [by many experts] one of the few success stories of the war-ravaged nation.”
And in September 2020, a headline in Foreign Policy described social media as “the only way to talk back to the Taliban.” The article noted that “a new generation of Afghans has grown up with a strong sense of social and political responsibility” and added that, “as peaceful public protest remains dangerous, they increasingly use social media to participate in political activities.” The piece quoted a Twitter user who had started a social media campaign with the hashtag “#DoNotRedeemTheTaliban”: he argued that social media “is a refuge for people” and “makes people powerful.”
But that power is limited and that refuge is fragile. After the Taliban took over Kabul, in an August 15 interview, NPR correspondent Michele Kelemen pointed out, for example, that “the U.S. Agency for International Development has been telling… its programs out in Afghanistan to erase records, social media posts so that Afghans who worked with them won't be targeted by the Taliban.”
The Taliban, too, have long been making use of the internet and social media—and not just as means of identifying their opponents. Back in 2011, Radio Free Europe published a commentary titled “The Taliban’s Internet Strategy.” It detailed how, even then, the Taliban were using Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, connecting accounts across platforms that were serving as the group’s “communication centers.”
Since then, Facebook has banned Taliban accounts and removed them from its platform. Twitter and other social media companies have not.
By July of this year, Agence France Press reported that the Taliban were even hosting rooms on Clubhouse (a social media app new enough that many U.S. internet users might not be familiar with it yet). While some Afghanis engaged with them there, others were “fearful of Taliban moderated conversations, saying the group is violating Clubhouse policies by recording conversations that can be used for future retribution.”
The direct, honest engagement doesn’t seem to have swayed the Taliban. Social media and other internet tools for collaboration and activism have made the group’s opponents in Afghanistan both powerful and deeply vulnerable. We are seeing the vulnerabilities play out now.
Of course, organizations trying to assist those most threatened by the Taliban are also using social media to organize, collect and share information about people who need help, collect donations, and apply political pressure. Among other things, they are also disseminating tools for deleting one’s online history.
Photo: "Kabul Pilot Workshop-Create an Social Media Account" by Impassion Afghanistan is licensed under CC BY 2.0