As the Taliban seize control of Afghanistan for the first time in over 20 years, social media companies are in a precarious situation: They have to figure out how to handle what was once considered an insurgent, terrorist-affiliated group potentially governing an entire country.
These days, political leaders use social media as a critical means to communicate and mobilize support. It’s not just personal accounts of politicians that depend on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but also the official accounts for government agencies and infrastructure. And if the Taliban become an internationally recognized government — no matter how awful its track record on supporting terrorism abroad and inflicting human rights abuses on the Afghan people — these companies must grapple with a difficult set of questions. Do they continue treating the Taliban as a dangerous organization, or give them the chance to run their newly reformed government on social media?
“It is absolutely surreal,” said Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow studying social media and international security at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “We’ve seen revolutions in the age of social media; we’ve seen coups. But we haven’t seen a case where an internal insurgency successfully co-opts a state and seeks to take over that state’s functions.”
The Taliban were previously banned from social media platforms, because what it posted was largely content about violent attacks on US soldiers, says Brooking. Now that the fight with the US is over, the Taliban are shifting to use social media to govern: providing services to citizens in WhatsApp groups (Facebook shut down one Taliban-run help line to report violence and looting earlier this week) and using Twitter to make English-language press statements, while assuring the Afghan public that it won’t inflict the same harm it did on its people back in the 1990s.
The Taliban, a fundamentalist militia Islamist faction that controlled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until US intervention in 2001, are known for being a brutal governing force that’s been harsh on the Afghan people, particularly toward women and girls. The group ruled the country under strict Sharia law — stoning women accused of adultery to death, chopping off the hands of thieves, and banning girls from getting an education — and has a history of supporting terrorism abroad.
In the past week, after the US withdrew its two-decades-long military presence, the Taliban quickly took back power in the country without so much as a single bullet shot in some areas. Now, the Taliban say they’ve changed, and have promised a more peaceful approach. As my colleague Jen Kirby recently explained, many Afghans are wary of that promise, and social media companies have good reason to be skeptical, too.
So far, Facebook and YouTube have said that the Taliban are banned from their platforms, per US sanctions policies. Twitter does not have a ban but told Recode that it takes down individual pieces of violent content. Eventually, though, more social media companies could start relaxing their rules on the Taliban, if the group gains legitimacy in the international community, experts say.
A Taliban spokesperson has already complained that Facebook is censoring free speech by taking down some of the group’s accounts. It’s a hypocritical position for a group that regularly suppresses the speech of women and anyone under their rule who disagrees with them.
Regardless, the debate over whether the Taliban should be allowed on these platforms is showcasing social media’s growing power in global politics.
“After banning President Trump, it’s these companies’ first test in terms of how they’re actually going to be applying their rules internationally,” said Katie Harbath, a former director of public policy at Facebook who is now a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Atlantic Council. “It’s not a perfect comparison — nothing ever is going to be — but I think it raises a lot of different questions of how these types of policies will be implemented in these tricky parts of the world.”
While the Taliban have taken over, there’s still uncertainty about the extent of their power. During this transitional period, Facebook and YouTube have continued treating them as a rogue insurgent group. But that could quickly change.
Already, there’s been some confusion about how these companies are enforcing their policies. Facebook has said that it’s enforcing a ban on Taliban that’s been in place “for years” under its “dangerous organizations” policy. Despite this ban, it appears that Facebook has only deactivated certain Taliban accounts after the New York Times asked about them, according to a tweet from Times reporter Sheera Frenkel.
“Our teams are closely monitoring this situation as it evolves. Facebook does not make decisions about the recognized government in any particular country but instead respects the authority of the international community in making these determinations,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.
YouTube similarly takes down all Taliban content per US sanctions law, the company said on Tuesday, after initially declining to comment on the matter to Reuters on Monday.
“[I]f we find an account believed to be owned and operated by the Afghan Taliban, we terminate it. Further, our policies prohibit content that incites violence,” a YouTube spokesperson told Recode in an email.
Meanwhile, Twitter is the most lenient of the other major platforms. The Taliban’s spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, has an active account with over 300,000 followers.
“The situation in Afghanistan is rapidly evolving, and we’re witnessing people in the country using Twitter to seek help and assistance,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. “Twitter’s top priority is keeping people safe, and we remain vigilant. We will continue to proactively enforce our rules and review content that may violate Twitter Rules, specifically policies against glorification of violence and platform manipulation and spam.”
Again, this situation puts Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in a conundrum. If they take a harsh stance on the Taliban, they may risk silencing the online presence of an entire country’s government — not just a single politician. But if they allow the Taliban to gain more of a social media following, they could be enabling the ascension of a terrorism-supporting regime.
Social media companies’ differing and potentially shifting stance on the Taliban is ultimately evidence that these companies aren’t designed to be the ones deciding when to grant legitimacy to contentious regimes.
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube will be looking to see how much political recognition the Taliban gets outside of Afghanistan, from organizations like the UN and NATO — as well as from world leaders like the US, China, and the UK, experts say.
“Are they [the Taliban] going to be recognized by anybody in the international community?” said Harbath, the former Facebook executive. “China and Russia have been the ones talking about potentially doing it. But I think that’s a big open question that hasn’t really been answered yet. You can’t expect, nor do you want, social media companies making these decisions all on their own.”