It has been more than a year since horrifying images of the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan emerged. The story of Kabul and the Afghan people has taken a backseat with waning interest in the West exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, the rise of China, and an amalgamation of other global geopolitical flashpoints.
The Taliban continues its attempts to solidify a ‘new’ political system under its interim government to cement its future grasp on power over the country. There are three main aims of the Taliban’s strategy: the control of narratives, the creation of perception, and a strong media strategy. The Taliban’s media strategy is divided into two core components: first, thr narrative directed at the West and the international community. Second, the narrative sold to domestic audiences. In mainstream media outside of Afghanistan, we are only exposed to the former. The latter –the narrative and media strategy directed at Afghans – is largely missing from the international discourse.
The current status quo of the Taliban raises interesting conundrums both for the security establishment working to secure our digital infrastructure and the tech companies themselves. This Insight seeks to address whether or not the Taliban should be considered a state or a non-state actor by social media platforms.
The Taliban’s Digital Strategy
To engage its citizens, the Taliban has made a surprising move and turned to social media. Videos created by content creators in Afghanistan are posted to YouTube. The content of these videos lies firmly outside the demarcation of editorial oversight or standards. YouTubers hail from across Europe, India and beyond, and now comprise an integral part of the Taliban’s well-constructed social media outreach strategy.
One example, YouTuber ‘The Indo Trekker’, produces videos from Afghanistan in Hindi, giving the non-English speaking population in India access to the Taliban’s material. YouTube has become a prime destination for both news and entertainment in India. In 2023, 656 million Indian users are expected to be using the platform, compared with 122 million users in 2017. In Kandahar, the traditional ideological stronghold of the Taliban, YouTubers post videos sporting designer clothing at ‘gun markets’ in conflict zones where the Taliban is looking to reintroduce its own interpretation of Sharia law.
The Taliban: State or Terror Organisation?
This pro-Taliban content on YouTube raises questions about if social media platforms should be categorising the Taliban as a government or a terrorist group. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, they also gained control of state-run digital infrastructures, such as the social media accounts of ministries and portfolios. Meta has since suspended the official Taliban accounts on Facebook and Instagram, citing their policy to not platform terror groups. Other platforms have taken a different view, and the Taliban’s official government accounts remain live on Twitter, YouTube and others.
The larger question remains a fundamental one. What happens when the official government social media accounts are taken over by an unrecognised non-state actor like the Taliban?
The answer may lie with tech platforms for now, as the Taliban regime remains unrecognised by the international community. This poses a challenge to tech policies that are built on state legislation and (intra)governmental sanction lists that specifically designate organisations and individuals as terrorist entities. This reality of terror organisations’ use of social media platforms has only become more convoluted as an unintended but significant consequence of the 2020 deal between the US and the Taliban signed in Doha.
The debate also needs to move beyond the main Western-owned tech and social media platforms to non-western social media platforms. For example, if China allows the Taliban to take charge of the Afghan embassy in Beijing – a soft ‘recognition’ of sorts – would that mean that Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat or Weibo no longer see the group’s members as terror entities, as flagged by the UN? This hypothesis can be extended to various other states as well, with the Taliban’s opaque political status bending the usual clear lines that diplomatic decisions and international rules and regulations work around.
The lack of clarity on the international political status of the Taliban is situated in the already challenging space for tech platforms. Even Twitter, where the Taliban has had an active yet criticised presence for years, has not experienced such issues of digital and national security. When Elon Musk, the platform’s new billionaire CEO and sole board member, tweeted on April 25 that he had hoped that even his worst critics remain on Twitter in the name of free speech, pro-Taliban social media influencer accounts tweeted in support of his move to purchase the platform.
The Taliban’s digital presence is not a fluke, nor is it based on luck; it understands how new technologies work, and how best to use them in their favour. The Taliban’s internal ideological communications are much more complex in nature, and they do not rely on the internet explicitly for the same. What we see of the Taliban on the internet is meant and tailored for the international community, and presented on international platforms for maximum effect.
As far as digital strategies go, what the Taliban normalises online as the new but unrecognised Afghan state could be seen as a model for other non-state groups holding territory, such as Al Shabaab in Somalia or Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) in Syria, as an opportunity to build strong online narratives benefitting their causes and present themselves as quasi-states willing to engage with the world.