How the Taliban turned social media into a weapon

A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint in Shar-e-Naw in Kabul on August 18, 2021. (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP) (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)
6 min read
08 September, 2021
In-depth: In the late 1990s, the Taliban banned the internet. Now the militant group has embraced social media as a propaganda tool to amplify their message and gain legitimacy both domestically and abroad.

As Taliban fighters took over Kabul "without firing a single bullet" and entered the presidential palace and government offices, activists across the world voiced their concerns about women's rights in Afghanistan.

Days later, on 24 August, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen shared a video on Twitter in which girls could be seen flocking to a school with the caption: "Back to School in a New Afghanistan."

The Taliban, who banned women from going to work, shut down schools for girls, and imposed punishments including stoning, lashing, and amputation during their rule from 1996 - 2001, have pledged that this time will be different.

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They have stated multiple times that women will be allowed to work and everyone, including girls, are free to go to schools and colleges.

Shaheen's Twitter post was part of the Taliban's embrace of social media, a campaign that has been highly effective and surprising - just like the capture of the Afghan capital.

There are now dozens of Twitter handles - along with Facebook accounts and Youtube channels - belonging to Taliban officials that post content regularly and were providing live updates as city after city fell to fighters last month.

"The Taliban have been using a sophisticated social-media strategy to communicate both internally to Afghanistan, and externally, to the world"

During its previous period of rule, the Taliban not only banned the internet and television but also photography.

However, since 2001, the reality on the ground has changed. A 2018 study found that around 90% of households in Afghanistan have access to cellphones and around 40% to the internet.

The Taliban has therefore harnessed the internet as an effective public relations tool. Through social media, the Taliban, which shrouded itself in secrecy as much as possible while fighting US-led NATO forces, has opened a new window to the world.

"The Taliban have been using a sophisticated social-media strategy to communicate both internally to Afghanistan, and externally, to the world community from whom they will need aid and possible recognition as the legitimate government," Jane Hall, an associate professor in journalism and media studies in the School of Communication at the American University, told The New Arab.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman for nearly two decades who worked in the shadows, makes his first-ever public appearance on 17 August 2021. [Getty]

Hall says the Taliban "have been using propaganda videos and social media to try to communicate and persuade that they're the legitimate government in charge, a peace-seeking ally of the Afghan people".

This embrace of digital technologies represents a distinctive new phase for the insurgent group, which in the past was highly secretive about its leaders and fighters.

Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, who has been issuing statements and talking to journalists for years, appeared for the first time in front of the media after the capture of Kabul.

In an interview, Mujahid said that in the past he couldn't switch on his phone even "for an hour", fearing that the US could track the cellular network and capture or kill him.

"With many journalists and human rights activists and others going underground or leaving the country, it becomes more difficult to counter their narrative with video and commentary"

In the past, the Taliban have also, at times, forced cell network providers to shut down signal towers in areas of fighting so that government officials wouldn't be able to communicate. 

"We don't touch their towers, but we tell them to stop the signals of certain towers close to the battlefield," Mujahid said in an interview with the New York Times in 2016. 

He said they had appointed media officers on the front lines because "we want to fill the vacuum ourselves".

Mujahid's Twitter account now has more than 390,000 followers, with that number rising by the day. According to a 2020 study, his account tweeted fifteen times more per day than the rival Afghan Ministry of Defense account.

Zabihullah's Twitter Account. [Twitter]
Zabihullah's Twitter Account. [Twitter]

"The Taliban's Information Operations presenting their narratives and associated stories have always been a central focus," said Thomas Johnson, author of the book Taliban Narratives.

"They have used such information operations to win the trust and confidence of the Afghan people, especially the rural community - the true centre of gravity in military terms, that the US and NATO never understood."  

While the Taliban's digital public relations strategy has received global attention and surprised many experts, especially in the West, those who have been following them know that effective communication has always been a priority.  

"This was part and parcel of their strategy very early on," Hassan Abbas, author of 'The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier', said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

"While the Taliban's digital public relations strategy has received global attention, effective communication has always been a priority for the group"

Shabnama, "night letters" (secretly distributed pamphlets), according to Abbas, were one of the tactics the Taliban used to reach people before taking to the internet.

"Other than these night letters, they had poets and motivational songs. So, early on, it was the cassette revolution. They would stop trucks and buses in late 1990. Even after 2001, they would allow those busses to pass by even in the Taliban dominated areas if pro-Taliban poetry was being listened to," said Hassan.

He observed that the Taliban "always knew how to reach out to people through electronic media and they have converted this expertise interest from electronic outreach to activism on social media".

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The Taliban have announced that, under their rule, social media will work normally and media will operate independently. However, many fear that the Taliban's social media presence may make it difficult in the future to highlight rights violations inside Afghanistan.

"It's difficult to measure how successful they have been at persuading - and intimidating - through social media. But with many journalists and human rights activists and others going underground or leaving the country, it becomes more difficult to counter their narrative with video and commentary," Hall observes.

Thomas Johnson believes that the Taliban will use social media to spread propaganda to target audiences. "They will present information differently to the urban population versus rural population where they relatively have more support," he said.

"The Taliban is framing itself as the true allies of the people, not the Afghan government and not the occupying US forces"

He points out that the Taliban are not only extremely proficient in social media, but they also send mass messages to people via cell phones. 

"There are only two major cell phone networks in the country and they have learned how to use/manipulate them in their favour," Hall added. 

With a firm grip on social media, many believe that the Taliban will also try to whitewash past atrocities.

"They're also framing themselves as the true allies of the people, not the Afghan government and not the occupying US forces," Hall says. 

"They've also been posting videos - and having press conferences - to try to counter their brutal history of oppression, reprisals, and treatment of women and children when they ruled before."

Now, with uncertainty around the future of a free and independent press and the withdrawal of all international military personnel, Taliban social media accounts will increasingly be the main source of information about what is happening in Afghanistan.

Aakash Hassan is a Kashmiri journalist. Formerly a correspondent with CNN-News18, his work has appeared in The Caravan, TRT World, and PEN/Opp. 

Follow him on Twitter: @AakashHassan