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Taliban allowed on Twitter, as social media debates role in Afghanistan crisis

The login/sign up screen for a Twitter account is seen on a laptop computer Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
The login/sign up screen for a Twitter account is seen on a laptop computer Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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The Taliban's swift takeover of Afghanistan has put social media companies in a difficult position. As the Taliban consolidate control over more territory, they are leveraging social media to establish legitimacy to cement their military gains.

Leading social media platforms don't have a uniform approach to deal with the accounts or content the militants have created. Some have vowed to crack down while others permit Taliban leaders to post freely, within platform rules.

Facebook has been among the most proactive in enforcing a longstanding ban on Taliban accounts.

A spokesperson for Facebook explained the group was banned from using its services under the company's "Dangerous Organization" policies. "This means we remove accounts maintained by or on behalf of the Taliban and prohibit praise, support, and representation of them," the spokesperson told Sinclair Broadcast Group.

The ban is based on U.S. sanctions against the Taliban and applies to all the company's services including Instagram and WhatsApp, the company noted.

The statement came after reports that the Taliban was using WhatsApp to message Kabul residents during its takeover of the city. Facebook indicated that it would take action to remove those accounts as well. The Taliban have long-used encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp and Telegram, which prompted the Afghan government to threaten to block those services in the country several years ago.

TikTok has also adopted a policy that deems the Taliban a terrorist organization. The company told CNBC that it is continuing to actively remove content that praises, glorifies or provides support to the Taliban.

Google did not respond to a request for comment about banning Taliban accounts or content on YouTube. The company told other outlets that it relies on the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations to informs its enforcement against violent criminal groups. The Taliban is not on that list, but is under strict U.S. sanctions.

Twitter said it is keeping an eye on the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan and ensuring people can use the platform to seek help. At the same time, the company has done little to block leading Taliban officials from using the platform.

It has struck some as contradictory that the platform removed American politicians, including former President Donald Trump, yet continues to allow Taliban leaders to use the network. Trump was banned from Twitter, YouTube and all Facebook services for inciting violence around the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Other politicians have been suspended for spreading misinformation.

Taliban spokespeople Suhail Shaheen and Zabihullah Mujahid each have more than 300,000 followers and tweet regularly about Taliban policy. Dr. Muhammad Naeem Wardak, a Taliban spokesperson involved in U.S.-Taliban diplomatic talks, also posts regularly to his 200,000 followers.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban who is considered a likely political leader of a future Afghanistan, also maintains a Twitter presence, though he is far less active. None of these accounts are verified by Twitter.

A Twitter spokesperson said the company would "continue to proactively enforce our rules and review content that may violate Twitter Rules, specifically policies against glorification of violence, platform manipulation and spam."

Despite its forceful overthrow of the Afghan state and declaration of an Islamic Emirate, none of the Taliban's recent posts appear to have violated Twitter's policies.

Shaheen, who often tweets in English, posted a message assuring a safe environment in Kabul for foreign diplomats attempting to flee the country. He also denied widespread reports that the Taliban were seizing property from residents and Afghan government officials and forcing young Afghan girls to marry fighters.

As thousands of Afghans tried to leave the country in a panic, Mujahid tweeted that the situation in Kabul was under control and that Taliban forces were providing security for the city.

The social media messages project a distinctly different image from that of a group responsible for decades of violent suppression and cruelty against the Afghan people.

"They're using it to try to legitimize themselves," said Katie Harbath, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former Facebook public policy director.

"They are operating almost the way you would see any transition of power of an entity coming in and trying to build the legitimacy of their rule, not only with the people in the country but also the international community," she continued.

The Taliban have used social and traditional media to project a more moderate image, as they claim they want international recognition and legitimacy.

Militants have promised to respect women's rights and pledged to provide security for foreign diplomatic missions, journalists and the territory under its control. Taliban representatives have tweeted offers of "amnesty" for those who join their ranks after serving the Afghan government. They have also used platforms to deny involvement in reprisal killings or any intent to seek revenge on those who aided the Afghan government or foreign troops.

The messages are consistent but have been met with skepticism, informed by a living memory of the group's brutal rule in the 1990s and atrocities during the American-led war.

The global humanitarian organization Human Rights Watch recently condemned the Taliban for mounting revenge killings against known critics, despite its public claims that they ordered fighters to act with restraint.

"The Taliban have a long record of abusing or killing civilians they deem 'enemies,'" explained Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. The group warned that the individuals most at risk from Taliban retribution include those who have worked to promote human rights, democracy, education, people who worked with foreign governments and Afghan women.

Many of those killings occurred in provinces outside the capital. So far, the Taliban have acted with restraint in Kabul, where the eyes of the world are watching through journalists and foreign diplomats.

As the Taliban focus on establishing legitimacy and consolidating control over Afghanistan, the social media messages help the group "project international credibility and look less like violent insurgents who have taken over a state," explained Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

He noted that the Taliban have not yet started the atrocities that many feared. "But it should be noted that, should their control of Afghanistan hold, the Taliban have all the time in the world to launch mass recriminations. They do not need to do so in the first three days."

Many in the international community have signaled they don't plan to recognize the Taliban, despite the rapid disintegration of the Afghan state, culminating in President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country. After a year of playing an outsized role in politics, social media companies could potentially boost the Taliban's standing by providing an unfiltered messaging platform—even if it's not a role they seek.

In its statement to Sinclair, Facebook indicated it did not want to be in a position of legitimizing the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

"Facebook 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," the spokesman said. "Regardless of who holds power, we will take the appropriate action against accounts and content that breaks our rules."

Social media companies already look to the U.S. government for cues on how to address national security threats and international terrorism online. Facebook reportedly took action against 9 million pieces of terrorist content, according to its most recent transparency report. Twitter reportedly targeted nearly 60,000 accounts related to violations of its terrorism policies in the second half of 2020.

These agreements have led to a social media crackdown on groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. But the situation is more complicated for the Taliban, which the United States has not designated as an international terrorist group. The United States opened diplomatic ties with the Taliban during peace negotiations started under the Trump administration.

At the moment, the international community and social media platforms share the concern over Afghan civilians, specifically their ability to seek help from the outside world.

The Biden administration is struggling to secure safe passage for tens of thousands of American and Afghan nationals. Kabul remains the only way out of the country and the Taliban control all major border crossings. The Pentagon said Tuesday it aims to ramp up the evacuation effort to airlift 5,000 to 9,000 people out of the country per day.

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