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Saturday, January 22, 2022

How social media platforms responded to the Taliban’s rise to power


Tech companies have announced the banning of Taliban content on their platforms as some governments classify the group as “terrorists”.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan earlier this week created a global debate on whether or not major tech companies should ban the group from using social media.

For decades, Afghanistan’s now-ruling Taliban group has been recognised by governments around the world — including the United States — as a terrorist group.

This has caused a predicament for social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, who are now forced to respond to the insurgent’s rise to power.

So far Facebook, which owns WhatsApp and Instagram, has already outlined its stance on the group, confirming a ban on all its content from its platforms. TikTok has also adopted a similar position.

“The Taliban is sanctioned as a terrorist organisation under US law and we have banned them from our services under our Dangerous Organisation policies. This means we remove accounts maintained by or on behalf of the Taliban and prohibit praise, support, and representation of them,” Facebook said in a statement to the BBC earlier this week.

A spokesperson also said Facebook is keeping an eye on escalating events in Afghanistan and stressed that WhatsApp would clamp down on any accounts that appear to be of a “terrorist organisation”.

Despite this, a Reuters report said that members of the group have continued to use Facebook’s end-to-end encrypted messaging service WhatsApp to communicate directly with Afghans despite the company’s ban.

Over on Twitter Inc, Taliban spokesmen reportedly tweeted updates from Afghanistan during the takeover.

Read also: Afghan delegation ‘seeks temporary asylum’ in Qatar as Ghani flees to UAE

However, the company said it would review content that may violate its rules, specifically against the glorification of violence or platform manipulation, but did not answer questions on whether it has any particular restrictions on the Taliban as a group or how it classifies violent organisations,” Reuters reported.

Speaking to Doha News, Professor of Political Sociology at Qatar University and President of Qatar Academy for Security Studies (QIASS) Majed Al Ansari said this is nothing new.

“Social media companies have been always above aggregation and have utilised a lot of laws and legal loopholes in the western world and around the world to maintain their independence from legal prosecution but also independence from regulation and fair use of freedom of expression,” Al Ansari said. 

This became evident during the Trump era, when the former President of the United States was banned from Twitter or inciting violence due to his support of rioters who stormed the Capitol building in a move that left five dead.

“Regardless of how one would evaluate what Trump was saying, doing or causing, but undeniably, these companies had the power to censor him completely from American politics and international politics for that matter – and we are talking here about the president of the biggest democracies around the world,” he told Doha News.

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Since the Taliban takeover, tech companies have differed in their approach.

For YouTube Inc, the decision to ban groups on its video-sharing platform it made in accordance with the “Foreign Terrorist Organisations” (FTO) classification, which is decided by the government.

The company noted that Taliban is not on the list of the US State Department’s list of FTO’s but rather it designates it as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.”

Members of this list have their US assets frozen and Americans are barred from working with such groups..

Despite this, YouTube confirmed on Tuesday that any account that appears to be managed by Taliban members will be blocked from its site – the world’s largest video-sharing platform.

As the Taliban cements its dominance in Kabul, and with the group’s recent promises at its first press conference, some experts anticipate a shift in perception towards the group, at least on the diplomatic level.   

“The Taliban is somewhat an accepted player at an international relations level,” Mohammed Sinan Siyech, a researcher on security in South Asia told Reuters.

Read also: Qatar holds calls with world leaders as Taliban holds first presser in Kabul

“If that recognition comes in, then for a company like Twitter or Facebook to make a subjective decision that this group is bad and we will not host them poses complications,” he added.

Similar sentiments were shared by Al Ansari who said the decision to ban the Taliban is a political strategy of “picking and choosing what to censor and what not to censor”.

“Obviously Taliban is not a movement that was established yesterday. Taliban narrative has not been established in recent times and it is very clearly a reaction to a political event that happened in Afghanistan, it is not a reaction to the human rights abuses of Taliban, or any other groups,” he said.

“Other groups have been allowed to post their material on these websites for years. And they still are, it’s a matter of choosing Taliban. It’s singling out Taliban. And it has a very Western leftist attitude behind it. It is not based on human rights, on legal implications, or on a systematic opposition to jihadists.” 

After the rapid takeover on Sunday, the Taliban reportedly launched a WhatsApp helpline for residents to contact the group in case of violence, looting or other issues that needed imminent attention.

Later on Tuesday, the Financial Times reported that Facebook blocked the complaints helpline as well as other channels used by Taliban officials. On the same day, Taliban Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid held a press conference in which he accused Facebook of censorship.

“The question should be asked to those people who are claiming to be promoters of freedom of speech who do not allow publication of all information.. the Facebook company, this question should be asked to them,” he said, in response to a question on whether the group would respect free speech.

A WhatsApp spokesperson responded to his accusations saying US sanctions forced a ban on accounts that are found to represent the insurgents.

“The Taliban is sanctioned as a terrorist organisation under US law and we have banned them from our services under our Dangerous Organisation policies,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

“This means we remove accounts maintained by or on behalf of the Taliban and prohibit praise, support, and representation of them”.

While the move to ban the insurgent group has sparked questions on censorship, the fate of such decisions depends on results at talks in Doha, where warring factions and world leaders are engaging to ensure a peaceful transition of power.

Until then, the lack of Taliban content online could be seen as a sigh of relief for millions of Afghans still traumatised by the group’s years of violence.

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