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.
Shaheen isn’t just calling Western journalists live on air. He is 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 days, Shaheen has used Twitter to say that Taliban soldiers have been ordered not to enter people’s homes, and described 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 both with news reports from 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 don’t know how to react.
As far as it’s possible to tell, Twitter doesn’t appear to have a policy against allowing members of the Taliban to use its platform. 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 didn’t respond to a request for comment about its policy on allowing the Taliban on its platform.
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 using this framework to allow 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 for them, 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, said Martine van Bijlert, co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, 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.
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.”
But 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,” said Teneja, who is based in Delhi, India, 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 they 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 its 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.
Multiple people who spoke with CNET for this piece 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, a lot of it on the surface seems quite organic,” said Teneja.
For the moment, locals report that the streets of Kabul are quiet. But the reports of violent atrocities committed by Taliban soldiers throughout Afghanistan, and its 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 it 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.