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Facebook and Twitter weigh giving a social-media megaphone to the Taliban

August 21, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC

Facebook, Twitter and Google, already under fire for wielding outsized influence on political discourse around the world, are on the brink of another high-stakes decision — whether to give the Taliban a social-media megaphone. 

Their actions will have lasting impacts on the diplomatic stage and on the lives of everyday people in Afghanistan.

The militant group’s rise to power is forcing Silicon Valley’s biggest internet companies to revisit their policies on how to treat controversial political actors. While the Taliban is banned from holding accounts or spreading propaganda on most big online networks, its takeover of the government means the tech giants will soon have to decide whether to expand its access or grant it the ability to manage Afghanistan’s official state social media channels. 

They may also have to make decisions about whether to keep up or flag content that both praises and criticizes the group, with potentially perilous consequences for those posting it.

The events unfolding in Afghanistan underscore how difficult it is to make quick judgments on who deserves to have a voice on social networks during dangerous and fast-moving international crises. Facebook and other platforms tout their mission of fostering a robust and free-flowing political debate while only lightly moderating content, and have been accused of censorship for blocking posts expressing some extreme views.

Still, they also face a deluge of criticism for failing to adequately take into consideration the potential for imminent or even long-term harm by giving controversial, authoritarian or violent leaders a digital megaphone. As tech platforms evaluate their options, people around the world are watching and waiting for the outcome.

Unique situation

“This is a very unique situation, but it’s not the first time that takeovers like this have happened in other countries,” said Katie Harbath, a former policy director at Facebook. “The difference here is how involved the United States is, and how much attention it is starting to get.”

Tech companies are likely to take their cues from how civil society groups and global leaders, including President Joe Biden’s administration, treat the Taliban — it remains uncertain whether the U.S. will recognize the group as Afghanistan’s government. The Biden administration could opt to negotiate relief from economic sanctions if the Taliban agrees to sever ties with international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and protect the rights of women and minorities. During the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001, women were banned from school, work, speaking in public and even from leaving their homes unless escorted by a man.

Biden said Thursday that the Taliban are in the midst of an “existential crisis” about their role in the world, and that he didn’t believe the group had fundamentally changed.

So far, social media platforms have diverged in their treatment of content from the Taliban and its supporters. Facebook said the Taliban falls into its dangerous individuals and organizations list because U.S. authorities deem the group to be a terrorist organization. That means the Taliban is barred from operating Facebook accounts, and posts that explicitly praise or support the group are removed.

YouTube, the video-sharing site owned by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, prohibits the Taliban from operating accounts. Other users’ content promoting the Taliban could be flagged under the company’s rules that block posts that incite violence or spread hate speech. 

Twitter, meanwhile, said it has policies against glorifying violence and manipulating the platform with spam or fake accounts, but didn’t outline a specific policy regarding the Taliban. The microblogging service has historically given world leaders more leeway to post controversial or even false material, under the assumption that it could be in the public interest to keep such tweets visible, though it does have limits — the platform permanently banned former President Donald Trump in January for his role in stoking the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol. 

If tech platforms decide to hand the Taliban greater access, the group will try to use social media to gain legitimacy by portraying the organization as kinder and gentler than in years past, experts say. It will also seek to push back against Western media reports about potentially dire and violent conditions on the ground in Afghanistan as the group reassembles its power in the capital, Kabul. 

Awkward balance

“The Taliban are also now coming into power with the intent of essentially Taliban 2.0 being a softer, gentler Taliban,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, the dean of global business at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “They are likely to want to project that propaganda.” 

Earlier this week, the Taliban pledged to build an inclusive government that protects the rights of women “within the bounds of Sharia law.” During the Taliban’s prior reign in Afghanistan, the group supported an extremely conservative interpretation of Sharia laws that saw women face stoning or execution for non-compliance.

Another open question is whether the Taliban will follow in the footsteps of other repressive governments, such as Pakistan and China, and choose to restrict or censor Afghanistan residents’ access to the internet, said James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Mobile phones have become far more ubiquitous since the Taliban first rose to power in the 1990s, which could give residents an outlet to publicly push back against the narratives espoused by the Taliban. 

“There’s sort of an awkward balance that you see in these countries where the governments want to use [social media] but they also don’t want it to be used against them,” Lewis said. “The Taliban will need to figure out how to do that, but they’ll probably look at Pakistan as a role model.”

Another more immediate area of concern is that the Taliban will use Afghanis’ social media histories to identify supporters of the U.S. or the former Afghan government and retaliate against them. Tech platforms might want to consider measures to make it easier for Afghanistan’s residents to delete their accounts and digital footprints, said Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. On Thursday, Facebook announced it was allowing Afghanistan users to block people who aren’t their friends from sharing or downloading their profile photo, among other measures.

Some analysts said that if social media platforms end up more aggressively policing Taliban-related content, they could restrict open conversation about global politics in the region. For instance, Facebook’s policy of barring any content that supports the Taliban could result in stifling legitimate arguments about the militant group online, said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security program. 

“How does that constrain political discourse on Facebook if you literally cannot talk about the Taliban except to criticize them?” Patel asked. “I know most of us are probably going to be criticizing the Taliban, but there are obvious objective conversations that you can have about what it means” for the country and global politics.

Weighing options

While the companies weigh their options, the Taliban doesn’t need social media to consolidate support within Afghanistan’s borders. During the war of the past 20 years, the Taliban didn’t rely on social networks to lure recruits because it already had a network of organic support long before the rise of social media, Brooking said. By contrast, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria heavily used social media to recruit followers, raise money and disseminate propaganda in the wake of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. 

“The Taliban owe very little to their existence to social media,” said Brooking, co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.” Social media “messaging was not often targeted to the people of Afghanistan,” but to the international community. 

Instead, the Taliban first used blogs and WordPress sites to counter the public narrative on the Afghanistan War espoused by Western media coverage and the U.S. and its allies, Brooking said. In 2011, the group joined Twitter, where it posted a steady stream of propaganda claiming to be victorious in certain battles — sometimes drawing direct rebuttals from the U.S.-led coalition.  

Reports of pro-Taliban content on social media platforms continue to surface. As recently as Monday, a purported Taliban spokesman posted on Twitter that the new Afghanistan government would provide a “secure environment” for all “diplomats, embassies, consulates, and charitable workers.”

The situation is evolving rapidly, “and with it I’m sure the risk will evolve as well,” Adam Mosseri, head of Facebook’s photo-sharing app Instagram, told Bloomberg Television earlier this week. “We are going to have to modify what we do and how we do it to respond to those changing risks as they happen.”

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