How the Taliban are using social media to spread their ideology … and hunt down their opponents

Taliban all smiles filming themselves on bumper cars, eating ice cream or wearing an Apple Watch or the latest smartphone on their wrist … For their comeback on the international scene, a few weeks ago, the Taliban wanted to show a more modern image on social networks, in order to prove to the whole world that they had changed, and thus reassure Western countries. A 2.0 communication strategy that began a few years ago, but has intensified since the capture of Kabul on August 15.

“When the first photos of the Taliban inside the presidential palace were released, there were almost as many Taliban armed with smartphones and video cameras as there were fighters wielding guns,” he said. 20 minutes Karim Pakzad, Afghanistan specialist and researcher at Iris (Institute for International and Strategic Research). “The Taliban today are not those of 20 years ago. They grew up with the Internet, and have integrated the codes of social networks in order to modernize their image, and above all to increase their influence ”.

Selfie and videos “to modernize their image internationally”

The Taliban’s digital shift is not new. “It was done gradually. After their fall in 2001, they gradually realized that they, as an insurgent movement, had to use the Internet for propaganda, recruiting, and fundraising. In 2005, they created the Al-Emara site, available in Pashto, Dari (local languages), but also in Arabic and English. And then in the 2010s, they completely modernized their communication by investing in social networks, in particular Twitter ”, explains to 20 minutes Laurence Bindner, specialist in online extremism and co-founder of the Jos Project, who observes the online activities of jihadist groups. “They were influenced by the practices of other jihadist groups, including the Islamic State, which very early on used the virality of social networks to disseminate its ideology,” notes Karim Pakzad for his part.

In the beginning, their first publications were mainly focused on war propaganda. Then from 2014, when they set up their political office in Doha (Qatar), the Taliban decided to use social networks as a tool to carry out diplomacy at the international level, and to soften their image. “When they take a selfie enjoying ice cream or going on merry-go-rounds, the message is clear:“ demonize ”the movement and show that they are cool, modern,” says Laurence Bindner. “The Taliban are now very careful with their image, it is a central element in their communication. They want to reassure, to show themselves credible because they need international recognition, and economic and financial support in order to recover the assets of the Afghan central bank which are blocked in the United States, ”adds researcher Karim Pakzad.

Official accounts on Twitter “to relay their propaganda”

If the Taliban have today succeeded in establishing their influence online, it is thanks to a strong presence on Twitter. The spokespersons of the movement all have an official account. “Today, Suhail Shaheen (spokesperson for international media) has more than 375,000 followers on Twitter, Zabihullah Mujahid has nearly 350,000 followers, and Dr. M. Naeem, around 250,000, or between them an audience nearly a million people. It’s huge ! », Notes the researcher at Iris. “There are also all the unofficial accounts, very numerous, which have emerged on Facebook and encrypted messaging services such as Telegram and WhatsApp, which they use in a very pragmatic and opportunistic manner,” notes Laurence Bindner.

The Taliban today seem to handle social networks and their online presence with great dexterity and efficiency. Their reconquest of Afghanistan in recent months has not been played out only on the ground. The DFR Lab, an American organization specializing in the fight against disinformation, observed how each city capture coincided with an explosion of tweets from Taliban leaders. “From the start of their offensive, we noticed an intensification of their online presence. From one to two tweets per day, we have grown to ten daily posts on their main official accounts. Images of the capture of an administrative building, of surrender, speeches of victory, scenes of jubilation…. So many messages which coincided with their progress on the ground, and which probably influenced and convinced the Afghan regular army – which gave up fighting – that their victory was inevitable, ”explains the co-founder of the Jos Project.

“A tool to track down their opponents”

But the Taliban’s 2.0 strategy is not limited to improving their communication and intensifying their propaganda. Their increased presence on social networks also aims to collect information on their opponents, and thus track them down. The American defense group Human Rights First called on Afghans to delete their online history on different platforms (music, photos, CV on LinkedIn…) by posting advice in Dari and Pashto. Facebook has also implemented features that allow Afghan users to quickly lock their accounts.

“The Internet can obviously be a repressive tool and serve to track down opponents. For the Taliban, it is a source of information, intelligence, which allows them to identify and locate militants, some of whom have a whole digital life to erase, ”recognizes Laurence Bindner. A “priority list” would have even been drawn up by the Taliban, say sources on the spot in Kabul. According to an NGO, Afghan homosexual activist allegedly trapped by the Taliban, who posing on social networks as members of the LGBT + community, allegedly promised to get him out of the country.

Several major platforms have already indicated that they have banned the accounts of Taliban officials. Facebook, which has considered the movement a “terrorist organization” for years, systematically blocks all accounts on its platform, as well as on Instagram, and on WhatsApp. Likewise, YouTube assured that it would continue to “permanently close” all accounts managed by the Taliban. Only Twitter continues today to host the accounts of spokespersons for the Islamist organization, on the grounds that they are not entered in the register of terrorist organizations by the United States Department of State. “The question we can ask ourselves today is what approach will the Taliban now have with respect to social networks? Now that they are in power again, will they ban their use to silence their opponents, and therefore cut themselves off from a potential audience? “Asks Laurence Bindner. We will find out in the coming weeks …

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