Social Media, Technology and Peacebuilding By Iria Puyosa | 17 October, 2021
The Taliban's Social Media Warfare Operation Toward Seizing Kabul
In their advance towards Kabul, the Taliban were anticipating their military victory through WhatsApp's voice notes, tweets, and Facebook posts. The Taliban insurgency crafted transmedia storytelling on how Afghan army soldiers were surrendering without much fighting. On the eve of the seizure of Kabul, images shot by mobile phones and drones were transmitted to the world, showing scenes of the Taliban's march toward victory. There were several political and military factors that led to the swift Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. Among these factors, social media-based war propaganda content played a role in the fall of the Afghan government. The Taliban’s social media communication strategy was instrumental for fostering the emerging narrative of their supremacy challenging the United States' image as a great power.
The Taliban were early adopters of social media. They set up a YouTube channel in 2009. They have been on Facebook and Twitter since 2011 and on WhatsApp and Telegram since 2015. These days, they are running Clubhouse chatrooms and holding Twitter Spaces. Their digital communication is multilingual, encompassing English, Arabic, Pashto, Dari, and Urdu. And, of course, they have coordinated amplification by a network of both authentic and inauthentic accounts.
Much has been said about the weaponization of social media in recent years, referring to the criminalization of political opponents and harassment indirectly leading to physical attacks. In this article, however, I am interested in pointing out social media usage to support the deployment of armed operations. What the Taliban orchestrated through their social media channels during the first weeks of August was more like a military information support operation. As the scholar in war strategy, Benjamin Jensen recently wrote, the 80,000 Taliban fighters are even more skilled at using social media than at using their AK-47s. Evidently, the Taliban built operational strength during their occupation of rural areas, and the Afghan soldiers knew that their government was weak. Still, the power of information warfare cannot be underestimated in this case.
The Taliban weaponized social media by sharing videos, audios, and social media posts published from insurgents' personal accounts that may have directly affected an underprepared Afghan army and may have contributed to the abandonment of combat positions. The Taliban's messaging effectively undermined Afghan soldiers' will to fight. Before the Taliban arrived at their outposts, army soldiers were already defeated by their fears and unwilling to engage in combat. They surrendered and fled ahead of battles after seeing the images of those previously overpowered by the victorious Taliban march toward Kabul.
Notoriously, the Taliban is banned from Facebook after being designated as a dangerous organisation. YouTube's policy on violent criminal organisations prohibits content produced by, praising, justifying, or recruiting for violent organisations. However, the official banning from these platforms has proved insufficient to stop the Taliban from spreading content on social media and WhatsApp. The United States' Office of Foreign Assets Control lists 15 entities linked to the Taliban in the Global Terrorism Sanctions Regulations. However, individuals who are part of the Taliban are not listed, and therefore cannot be automatically banned from social media platforms under the presumption of terrorism. Indeed, social media platforms should not ban everyone who shares content from Afghanistan. Such a widespread practice will harm the whole population trying to conduct their legitimate business on the internet, including those organising to defend their civil and political rights.
Banning and content moderation may not be enough to prevent information warfare. Twitter indicated that, reacting to Taliban social media operations, they were proactively reviewing content that may violate their rules against the glorification of violence and platform manipulation and spam. Nonetheless, Twitter did not suspend the Taliban's spokesperson account, which reaches more than 502K followers at the date.
During August, Facebook set up a special operations centre (SOC) to closely monitor content related to Afghanistan's Taliban operations. Facebook had previously set up a similar SOC during the more recent wave of clashes between Israel and Palestine earlier this year. These special operations centres may be promising directions to address information warfare in conflict-affected areas. However, to be effective, the SOCs must go beyond monitoring and content moderation. The job must encompass in-depth conflict analysis shaped by an ethics of doing good rather than just preventing harm.
The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) offers a database where social media platforms can collaborate, sharing content already identified as extremist or terrorist. This sort of technological solution may help to prevent further spread and viralization of harmful content. However, these approaches also raise issues associated with corporate censorship and restrictions in access to information about public affairs.
The usage of social media warfare along this Taliban military campaign marks an emerging and disturbing trend. We already have witnessed other armed actors using social media warfare along with military operations, although in smaller-scale conflicts. Today is the moment to start a conversation about how to counter social media warfare in the context of armed conflicts and fragile states in which the UN Charter on the responsibility to protect may be invoked. Addressing this problem requires collaboration among experts in various fields, such as social media and information warfare, armed conflicts, peacebuilding, and global governance. International organisations, civil society organisations, and social media corporations may partner crisis response taskforces. Counteracting social media warfare may require undertaking systemic analysis of complex conflicts, evaluating impacts, assessing tradeoffs, and envisioning ways to contribute to sustainable stability and fostering peace.
Iria Puyosa is a political communication scholar, specializing in information warfare and political conflict, Policy Advisor for Social Media and Peacebuilding at the Toda Peace Institute and Associate Researcher at the Communication Research Institute (ININCO-Universidad Central de Venezuela). She has worked as a faculty in universities in Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and the United States. Puyosa holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Current research interests: Networked social movements, civil resistance under authoritarian regimes, information warfare, and erosion of democracy. Most recent publication: Asymmetrical Information Warfare in the Venezuelan Contested Media Spaces.