According to the principle of realism described by Noam Chomsky in his book Propaganda and the Public Mind, those who control the media essentially have control of the public mind. In the age of globalisation with information technology ruling the post-modern society, interest groups have already realised the significance of providing relevant information to the target group for security, popular support and votes. Social media provides popular spaces where the desired interpretations of symbols and narratives are constructed for public outreach. Propaganda, as Lippmann describes it, is “a regular organ of popular rule,” not exclusively limited to the use of the state. Hence, the Taliban, one of the major militant groups in Afghanistan, have effectively been using Twitter to spread their voice to the world and build popular support. During their first rule from 1996-2001, the Taliban had not adapted to using new digital technologies. However, in the post-9/11 era, they have increasingly used technology and social media to spread propaganda worldwide, particularly concentrated in Afghanistan. The Taliban started using Twitter in 2011 when an exchange of words was reported between International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) officials and Taliban representative Abdul Qahar Balkhi, who now serves as the Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
The Fall of Kabul
In May 2021, US and NATO forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan, which allowed the Taliban to intensify their military operations against the Afghan National Security Forces. Albeit in addition to military campaign, the Taliban did something unusual in the conflict history of the Civil War in Afghanistan – they initiated a massive campaign on social media to extend their outreach. Networks of Twitter accounts outlined the Afghanistan government’s failures and weaknesses and lauded the Taliban’s successes. The tweets also highlighted the Taliban’s most recent achievements and advances that caused fear among the Afghan forces. Following the fall of Kabul, the Taliban used sophisticated social media tactics to prove that they were capable of leading the country. One of their first announcements, the offer of amnesty to all their opponents and former government officials, was meant to build a softer image. They also operationalised hashtags such as #kabulregimecrimes (for accusing the government of Afghanistan for war crimes); #westandwithTaliban (to build a general perception of public support for the Taliban), and # #ﻧَﺼْﺮٌ_ﻣٌﻦَ_اللهِ_ (Victory is from God and God’s help is near) for garnering support in the name of religion (Jihad) in Afghanistan.
Taliban’s Use of Twitter to Build Political Momentum
The Taliban were ahead of the previous Afghan government in using social media to counter the opposition and spread their narrative. Their use of Twitter is a projection of the soft influence that the Taliban have opted for to concentrate and strengthen their popular base. After the start of successful insurgency, the Taliban put a premium on the use of media to accumulate popular support. This indicates a significant shift in the Taliban’s shift from hard to soft power. In the 1990s under their first rule in Afghanistan, they denied civilians access to the internet, and banned television and music. During their advances before Kabul fell on August 15 2021, the Taliban identified themselves as mujahideen and jihadists who were to liberate their country from US occupation, and utilised Twitter to illustrate successful governance under their rule.
Earlier, the Taliban had focused on their narrative to build a soft image and support base. Thomas Johnson wrote in Taliban Narratives that the Taliban knew the most effective way to win the conflict in Afghanistan was through presenting messages that resonated with the Afghan population in order to gain public support. Following the takeover, Facebook and YouTube banned Taliban content while Twitter took no action against them.
Smartphone use is common among Afghanistan’s urban population; Statista states that the number of mobile phone users in 2019 exceeded twenty-two million, up from one million in 2005. The internet provides the Taliban with an advanced propaganda tool, and Twitter’s extended network acts as a mode of hybrid warfare. The Taliban used trending Twitter hashtags as a tactic to intimidate Afghan voters during the 2019 presidential elections. This being said, the value of the Taliban’s social media activity is limited because only 15% of the Afghan population has access to the internet, and out of that, only 9% use social media.
Since the crackdown on Taliban accounts began in 2014 as part of the operation against the Islamic State, their ban from YouTube and Facebook made them resort to alternative and more active accounts on Twitter. In the final phase of the Afghan War, beginning in 2017, Twitter-led information warfare evolved to be more secretive and aided in facilitating Taliban victory against the Afghan government. In 2019, Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted the first hint of the Afghan-Taliban peace talks in an informal capacity, followed by regular amplification via spam accounts networked to expand his outreach.
The New York Times reported that the Taliban’s tweets were effective due to their fast-paced outreach and accuracy. In an interview with the BBC, the social media director of the Taliban, Qari Saeed Khosty, states that the Taliban has been operating via targeted groups on Twitter and WhatsApp by promoting Taliban hashtags. Khosty’s job involves encouraging people to join the Taliban via social media campaigns. Defending the Taliban’s case of using Twitter, Khosty states, “Our enemies have television, radio, verified accounts on social media, and we have none, yet we fought with them on Twitter and Facebook; and defeated them.”
Due to the inaccessibility of information about the ongoing conflict before and after the fall of Kabul, the Taliban availed this opportunity by filling the gap with propaganda to construct their public image as a benevolent political force which prioritises the wellbeing of the previously occupied Afghan population.
The Role of Twitter in Recognising the Taliban’s Populist Regime
Shortly after the Taliban took over Kabul, the Twitter account of an official Taliban spokesman with more than 50,000 followers presented their account of the US withdrawal which held the West accountable for the decades-long Afghan conflict. Images of the chaotic Kabul airport depicting a humanitarian crisis were tweeted to illustrate the human rights violations caused by the foreign occupation of Afghanistan. Officially establishing the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, Qari Saeed Khosty called on reconciliation while posting the airport images of refugees who clung to the planes. He tweeted, “I cried hard to see your situation. You, the friends of the occupation, we have similarly cried for you for 20 years…We have forgiven you, I swear to Allah. We are not for this situation. Please come back to your homes.”
The Taliban also operationalise Twitter with the hope of facilitating its international recognition as a legal government entity. When addressing international state actors, they moderate their tone on social media. For instance, following the Christchurch attack in 2019, the Taliban made a formal call for an investigation on behalf of the Muslim community. The statement on the record said, “We call on the New Zealand government to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents [and] from conducting a thorough investigation to find the root causes of this terrorism.” Analysing the Taliban’s use of Twitter to re-construct their image as a non-violent ruling political party, a research fellow at the US-based Atlantic Council, Benjamin Jensen, states, “The Taliban don’t need to post content to remind the population they are brutal. The population knows that. What they needed were images that showed they could govern and integrate the country.”
Taliban’s Twitter Proclamations: Narratives versus Reality
The Taliban resorted to Twitter to expand their ideology through digital means; they were able to adhere to their radical religious principles and continue their violent tendencies while also demonstrating their digital strength to rule the state of Afghanistan in a recognised capacity. According to a New York Times report, tweets from the Taliban assured that female medical personnel would be able to continue with their services, and ensured freedom and security to non-Muslim minorities in Afghanistan, “irrespective of their beliefs”.
These reconciliatory tactics on social media may be analysed as consistent with a broader populist offensive; for instance, in August 2021, thousands of people rushed to the Kabul airport to flee the country. In response, the Taliban appealed and offered amnesty to those fleeing as they were needed to rebuild the war-torn country and resist opposition forces.
However, the international community remains unconvinced of the Taliban’s apparent change in attitude and purported abandonment of their violent propensities which occurred in their shift to a legitimate ruling party. As Brookings Institution emphasised, “Recriminations will come later.”
The Taliban have already been showing reluctance to tolerate progressive cultural and political tenets that conflict with the Taliban’s ideological beliefs. The Wall Street Journal reported shortly after the takeover that they had banned girls’ secondary education, restricted women’s movement outside their homes without a male relative, and banned co-education at the university level, raising significant doubts about the future of women’s education in Afghanistan. The US Institute of Peace, in its report ‘One Year Later’, discusses the Taliban’s crackdown on free speech and organised political activism cautiously and discriminately, not through force. Afghan women led the first protests against their oppressive policies, marching for “bread, jobs, freedom”. Following that, Taliban intelligence services censored and detained many of the rights activists who were critical of the conservative policies being revived Taliban.
Since the rise of the neo-Taliban, their use of technology has evolved from radio to modern digital sources like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp and Telegram groups. Their ban from Facebook and YouTube accelerated the Taliban’s use of Twitter, which became instrumental for them to spread their message, impact and reach, as well as to recruit and radicalise. While their tactics are likely to evolve, their political objectives remain consistent and unchanged – establishing unchallenged, unquestioned, and authoritative rule over the state of Afghanistan, its government, and the Afghan population. The group that was once inept at digital technology has become experts in wielding communication technologies like Twitter for their narrative dissemination.
Zafar Iqbal Yousafzai is an Islamabad-based columnist and author of ‘The Troubled Triangle: US-Pakistan Relations under the Taliban’s Shadow’ (Routledge, 2021).