Taliban attempts to soften its poor image with social media
The Taliban hardly has a strong track record when it comes to winning hearts and minds. The militants often attempted to exploit the notorious corruption and incompetence of Afghanistan’s now-defunct central government in a sometimes successful bid to boost their own popularity.
Nonetheless, many Afghans remember all too well the brutality and cruelty with which the Taliban governed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in the 1990s, a reputation embodied by the militants’ religious police, the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
Unlike three decades ago, the Taliban today can use a versatile tool to soften its poor image in the eyes of Afghans and the international community alike: social media.
During the conflict with the American-backed Afghan military, the militants employed platforms such as Telegram and WhatsApp to solicit donations, promote their in-house news agency, and share statements from the Taliban leadership. Prolific posts came in Arabic, Dari, English, Pashto, Turkish, and Urdu.
"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has returned to power, and the Taliban is seeking to present its regime as a respectable, responsible sovereign state to Afghans, Afghanistan’s neighbours, and world powers"
After the Taliban seized total control of Afghanistan on August 15, the militants tasked their social media influencers with a more complicated assignment. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has returned to power, and the Taliban is seeking to present its regime as a respectable, responsible sovereign state to Afghans, Afghanistan’s neighbours, and world powers.
While the Taliban will have to overcome the scepticism of its claims to have moderated since the 1990s, the militants’ grasp of public relations has improved without question.
The Taliban has launched dozens of accounts on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The militants rely on their presence on the social networking services to extol the virtues of their new regime; the pages mimic each other’s posts to disseminate the Taliban’s narrative far and wide.
The Taliban accounts have also taken care to avoid violating the companies’ restrictions on hate speech, incitement, and violence lest the platforms ban the militants’ activities altogether.
The resurrection of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan presents Facebook and other social sites with ethical and political dilemmas. On the one hand, continuing to host the Taliban’s accounts exposes the platforms to charges of abetting an operation to downplay or white-wash the militants’ atrocities. On the other, the Taliban now runs a country, which gives the group greater credibility.
If social networking services de-platform the Taliban, they will be making enemies of Afghanistan’s new government as well as its allies in the international community.
"The existence of a Taliban strategy for social media provides the best example of this seeming shift: in the 1990s, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan outlawed the internet"
For the time being, the most prominent social networking sites have taken steps to prevent the Taliban from turning them into megaphones for its worldview.
Facebook and YouTube have blacklisted the Taliban even if the militants are managing to circumvent these bans. Facebook and Instagram, a Facebook-owned platform, have also unveiled new ways for vulnerable Afghans to limit who can see their posts to prevent the Taliban from scouring accounts.
Even as mounting reports indicate a Taliban campaign to detain former opponents and muzzle potential critics, the militants seem more interested in social media as a venue for brand management than as a weapon to target perceived enemies.
“For months, on social media, the Taliban have sought to project an image of strength and moderation, an aura of inevitability within Afghanistan and an air of legitimacy to the outside world,” concluded Richard Stengel, a former official at the US State Department who specialised in combating disinformation.
"In a curious interpretation of impression management, the Taliban took pictures and filmed videos of its fighters going to the gym, eating ice cream, and playing bumper cars"
In an August 23 op-ed for The New York Times, Stenger observed that the militants “have attempted to assure the international community that the Taliban of today are more enlightened than the Taliban that once staged grisly public amputations and executions in a Kabul soccer stadium.” The existence of a Taliban strategy for social media provides the best example of this seeming shift: in the 1990s, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan outlawed the internet.
For all the apparent sophistication of the Taliban’s approach to social media in the twenty-first century, the militants’ understanding of public relations can still seem limited at times. In a curious interpretation of impression management, the Taliban took pictures and filmed videos of its fighters going to the gym, eating ice cream, and playing bumper cars. This eyebrow-raising attempt to appear fun and relatable echoed the Taliban’s 2017 announcement on environmental protection when the militants told Afghans to grow more trees “for the beautification of Earth.”
Even if the Taliban’s presence on social media sometimes looks less than serious, the militants’ pursuit of legitimacy guides their use of social networking services. Still, the Taliban may be fighting an uphill battle. The militants remain reliant on platforms headquartered in the United States, their longtime adversary, and images and videos of abuses belie the Taliban’s lip service to human rights. Several of the militants’ websites have also gone offline without explanation.
However much the Taliban refines its online tactics, little suggests that social media alone can assuage the international community’s concerns about the Taliban’s commitment to women’s rights and inclusiveness.
If the militants want to repair their reputation at home and abroad, they will have to demonstrate that they have changed through actions, not Facebook posts.
Austin Bodetti is a writer specialising in the Arab world. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired. Any opinion or analysis expressed in his work is by him alone and is not associated with any other entity with the exception of appropriate source attribution