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The Taliban are spinning social media to their advantage, despite sites' bans

Social media didn't exist when the Taliban last held power in Afghanistan. Now the group knows how to weaponize it a number of ways.

Taliban fighter with a vehicle-mounted machine gun

Taliban fighters are seen near Hamid Karzai International Airport as thousands of Afghans rush to flee the Afghan capital of Kabul on Aug. 16.

Haroon Sabawoon/Getty Images

On Monday morning, during a live BBC news broadcast, journalist Yalda Hakim was interrupted by a phone call from a Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen. Shaheen sought to reassure Hakim and British viewers watching at home that the people of Kabul were safe and that the Taliban wouldn't seek revenge after recapturing the Afghan capital for the first time in 20 years. The call was just one incident that shows how, unlike in years past, the Taliban are attempting to spin the story of their takeover to conjure an illusion of legitimacy for the benefit of the watching world.

Shaheen isn't just calling Western journalists live on air. He's also one of a handful of Taliban representatives on Twitter, making announcements to hundreds of thousands of followers about the intentions of the organization, which in recent weeks and months has once again found a stronghold in Afghanistan with the withdrawal of US troops.

In the past two weeks, Shaheen has used Twitter to say that Taliban soldiers have been ordered not to enter people's homes, and to describe reports that soldiers were forcing young girls into marriage as "poisonous propaganda." The story Shaheen is telling on Twitter about the Taliban's actions and intentions is at odds with reports of beatings and massacres in the country and with the panic and fear expressed by Afghan citizens, many of whom have been trying to flee the country over the past few days. 

Shaheen's Twitter presence -- and the disconnect between what he says and what's being reported -- is a surprising twist in an ongoing battle fought by Twitter and other social media companies against extremist and terrorist organizations to ensure their platforms aren't used to radicalize potential recruits or spread disinformation. But now it seems the Taliban are using social media to speak openly to a mainstream, global audience in a bid to establish legitimacy -- and it's clear some companies are still working out how to react.

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The Taliban's English language spokesman Suhail Shaheen on Twitter.

Screenshot by CNET

Twitter, in particular, doesn't appear to have a policy against allowing members of the Taliban to use its platform. In a statement, a spokeswoman emphasized Twitter's rules about not allowing the glorification of violence and its labeling of tweets that may include misleading or deceptive content. "The situation in Afghanistan is rapidly evolving," she said. "We're also witnessing people in the country using Twitter to seek help and assistance. Twitter's top priority is keeping people safe, and we remain vigilant."

The company is no stranger to navigating arguments about whether high-profile, divisive figures should be allowed a voice on Twitter, but it's facing questions over why it's giving Taliban representatives a mouthpiece -- especially after it banned US president Donald Trump late last year. Twitter said its enforcement approach will "remain agile," so things could swiftly change, but for now the Taliban are still tweeting.

For world leaders, Twitter employs a public interest framework intended to allow the public to hold those with power to account out in the open. Taliban spokespeople don't fall into this category and aren't "elected officials." But it's possible that as long as they don't use Twitter to incite violence (the reason Trump's account was banned), the company may be looking to this framework as it allows the Taliban to keep communicating with Afghan citizens and the outside world.

The Taliban's 'smiley mask'

Social media didn't exist when the Taliban last held power in Afghanistan, in 2001, but propaganda did, and the group's members were experts when it came to deploying it. Twenty years later, the organization has updated its tactics for the digital age.

For those who know where to look, there's been a deluge of "carefully curated" pro-Taliban media content appearing on social media as cities and provinces have fallen under Taliban control in recent months, Martine van Bijlert, co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said in a blog post. The social media posts point to an "intentional media engagement strategy" that seeks to "convey a message of law and order and seems intended to reassure and intimidate in equal measure," said van Bijlert.

In the wake of the Taliban capturing the Afghan capital of Kabul, dozens of pro-Taliban accounts sprang up on Twitter, sharing five videos showing Taliban leaders congratulating fighters on their victories, according to The New York Times. Those videos racked up more than a half million views within the first 24 hours.

A Times analysis found that since Aug. 9, more than 100 new accounts and pages linked to the Taliban have appeared on Twitter and Facebook. Dozens of pro-Taliban accounts, including from senior Taliban officials, were discovered lying dormant for months or years on the sites before becoming more active in the past week, the Times found.

Facebook has a longstanding policy against allowing the Taliban a platform on its services. "The Taliban is sanctioned as a terrorist organization under US law, and we have banned them from our services under our Dangerous Organization policies," said a spokesman for the company. "This means we remove accounts maintained by or on behalf of the Taliban and prohibit praise, support, and representation of them."

The weaponization of technology is another thing that online platforms have to contend with. There's widespread fear among Afghan citizens that the Taliban are using social media posts to identify and target people. On Friday, Facebook announced it was introducing tools to help people lock down their profiles to disguise their digital footprints. The company's head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, also encouraged those with Facebook friends inside Afghanistan to lock down their own profiles.

For women, and particularly those in the public eye, the situation in Afghanistan is thought to be especially precarious, though some members of the country's high-profile all-girls robotics team have reportedly been able to leave the country. Others who fear retaliation from the Taliban include those who assisted the US military over the past 20 years -- especially given that the Taliban reportedly seized biometric devices that could help identify them.

But in press briefings and on Twitter, the Taliban's channels push a message of reassurance. In a blog post for the Global Network on Extremism and Technology, Kabir Teneja, author of The ISIS Peril, pointed out the three main voices of the Taliban on Twitter: Zabiullah Mujahid (spokesman for the "Islamic Emirate"), Muhammad Naeem (spokesman for the political office in Doha) and Shaheen, whose responsibility it is to communicate with the English-speaking media. At the time of this writing, the three have a collective following on Twitter of more than 845,000 followers.

CNET reached out to Shaheen but wasn't able to independently verify the identities of the account holders. However, the accounts appear to match up with the television appearances and press conference announcements made by the figures in real life, and seem to be publishing official statements on behalf of the Taliban in Kabul.

These three Twitter accounts together show "that the Taliban is an accessible group, willing to talk, answer, showcase themselves for the world which is mostly apprehensive to approach them," Teneja, who's based in Delhi, India, said over email. "It's the Taliban trying to create legitimacy on all possible avenues."

But for many women living in Afghanistan, what the Taliban say on Twitter doesn't align with what the women know of the group and does little to allay their fears. "They are very soft on Twitter but in the real world they are harsh," Aisha Ahmad, a 22-year-old student in Kabul, said in an email. "They lied more than a million times on Twitter. You can say that Twitter is just a smiley mask for Talibans."

Teacher and activist Pashtana Durrani also doesn't believe what the Taliban are saying on Twitter, and accuses the organization of "trying to fish for legitimacy." "You have to understand with the Taliban, what they say and what they do, they're two different things and we have to push for something so that they won't go back on their terms," she said in a WhatsApp voice note. 

Until the Taliban uphold women's rights, Durrani doesn't think the PR strategy playing out on Twitter will work. But there's still a danger that the Taliban's official line on Twitter could be reported on uncritically, especially as it's hard to prove or disprove what the group is saying.

'The Taliban have smartly utilized Twitter'  

As the Western media grapples with how best and most accurately to cover the quickly evolving events in Afghanistan, Shaheen's tweets in English in particular have the potential to skew the narrative. The fact that the Taliban are engaging so readily with the foreign press -- calling up BBC correspondents and giving interviews to Christiane Amanpour -- shows evidence of what Teneja and van Bijlert suspect is a coordinated strategy to manage the Taliban's image on the international stage.

That's not to say the Taliban's Twitter presence is purely for the benefit of the outside world. An Afghan scholar, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being profiled, pointed out that the majority of the organization's tweets are in the local languages Pashto and Dari, with only the most important announcements made in English. "The Taliban have smartly utilized Twitter to disseminate their political information for both Afghans firstly and foreigners secondly," he said. The Taliban have also been using WhatsApp and other social and messaging channels to communicate with Afghan people during the past few months.

Multiple people who spoke with CNET for this article pointed out that tweets coming from official Taliban accounts are being boosted by support from multiple small accounts based in Pakistan, where the Taliban have most of their councils. "I am not sure whether there are underlying propaganda networks designed for support," said Teneja. "A lot of it on the surface seems quite organic."

In spite of the Taliban's reassurances, the reports of violent atrocities committed by the group's soldiers throughout Afghanistan, and the Taliban's intention to impose Shariah law in the country as it governs without holding elections, are no secret. For Twitter, the question remains as to how long the company will continue to tolerate spokesmen for the group using its platform -- and what, if anything, will be the tipping point that makes it draw a line.