YouTube content creators, including from India, have started to land in Afghanistan, a year after a botched US-withdrawal and overnight collapse of the government of Ashraf Ghani gave the keys to Kabul back to the Taliban. The videos shot by Youtubers, watched by millions, show the Taliban in an opaque light, now controlling over 40 million people once again since their first reign in the 1990s. In this era of social media and hyper-information, it is much easier, and cheaper, for non-state militant groups to make themselves known in living rooms across the world, and piggyback on this democratisation of information for their own agendas. And they have got great success so far.
Media has always been an integral part of propaganda for militant groups. From the 1990s, visuals of western press interviewing Osama bin Laden in the backdrop of caves in rural Afghanistan are re-played even today. That was the era of cable news, a sure shot way of getting your message across not just in the West, but the entire world. The Taliban, much like others, used a variety of strategies to get their opinions across, from ‘night letters’ or shabnamah, which were on-paper diktats physically delivered to individuals or villages in the dead of night, to running its website Alemara in the 2000s and finally taking on social media in the 2010s.
Twitter and Taliban
In October this year, the Taliban ran a hashtag promotion on Twitter called #UnitedAfghanistan. At one point, Twitter showed that over 1,25,000 tweets on the platform were using the hashtag with many pro-Taliban social media accounts also participating in making sure the message finds its legs online. The hashtag in all probability was magnified further by using bots. The idea behind this campaign by the Taliban was to promote the message, largely to the global audience, that the Pashtun-led Taliban now in power sought a ‘united’ Afghanistan, made up of all ethnicities. It showed Taliban leaders with other ethnic leaders in the country. And to dispel rumours of internal strife between the prevailing power blocks of the Kandaharis and the Haqqanis, it showed photos of Mullah Yaqoob, Taliban founder Mullah Omar’s son and acting defence minister along with Sirajuddin Haqqani, of the notorious Haqqani Network who is also the acting interior minister. Twitter has been a boon for the Taliban, which as of today, has a very well devised, understood, and designed media strategy. The Taliban know what kind of narrative the West wants to hear, and approaches its interactions with foreign media with that in mind.
The rise of so-called Islamic State (ISIS, or Daesh in Arabic) in Syria and Iraq between 2014 and 2017, in a way revolutionised how non-state actors use social media and the internet for well-imagined and executed propaganda. That propaganda can also be used to influence newspaper and television news programmes despite their editorial scrutiny.
The ISIS ecosystem, fuelled by young and tech-savvy recruits, specifically from Europe, developed robust information creation and distribution ecosystems that prevail and are replicated even today. Many pro-ISIS cases in India during this period were also radicalisation by the online materials and propaganda released by ISIS and its affiliates. These included well-produced and high-definition videos shot in Hollywood style action movies, online magazines with infographics and data visualisation, and even podcasts. A lot of these publications, at the peak of the Islamist group’s reign over territories that at the time were as large in geography as the United Kingdom, continue to be released despite the territorial defeat of the caliphate. Today, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) has its own propaganda outlets targeting India, Pakistan, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Maldives, and South Asia in general. It is imperative to remember here that two of the most destructive attacks attributed to Islamic State took place in South Asia in Bangladesh in 2016 and Sri Lanka in 2019.
Pro-IS Sawt al Hind (or ‘Voice of Hind’ in English) magazine was first released in February 2020 in the backdrop of communal riots in India’s capital New Delhi. It sought to piggy-back on societal tensions to get its ideological message across, targeting the Muslim population of the country at a time when the Indian government is powered by the Hindu-nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). However, over the past three months, Sawt al Hind abruptly stopped publishing, raising questions on how IS’ central leadership, ISKP and return of the Taliban are having an impact in South Asia operations of these groups. Their propaganda strategies now overwhelmingly rely on digital ecosystems, and they reach over a billion people across the region through smartphones.
Content at a cost
While social media platforms and online services alike went after ISIS related content, with mixed results, the Taliban has largely been able to maintain its presence on services such as Twitter. In the run up to the fall of Kabul, the Taliban, then in negotiations with the US, used Twitter to maximise its online reach that arguably helped it soften its positioning within some quarters of power. Even from the perspective of diplomacy, months into the talks some Western diplomats had started to conform with some of the Taliban’s positions and ‘grievances.’ While this cannot be attributed by any means solely to public posturing, but the group’s dramatic increase in its online activities, aping those done by any other state, have taken place in a planned manner. The Taliban’s main spokesperson, who remained faceless up until August 2021, Zabihullah Mujahid, had nearly 300,000 followers on Twitter then. Today, the number tops over 700,000 followers.
The question of whether tech platforms should take a decision to ban certain groups or not has gained prominence over the years. Many platforms, including Twitter and Telegram, have come under flack for serving as a site for groups such as the Taliban and IS. These groups have co-opted smaller platforms with limited resources when bigger platforms ban their content. The Taliban had already found acceptance from Twitter when they were banned by Facebook. In August last year, the group, including many of its members on terrorism lists of both the US and UN, took over official social media handles of the erstwhile government of Afghanistan. This was another conundrum for tech companies. Are the Taliban seen as an extremist group, or as the de-facto state now operating official government’s social media accounts? No official recognition was conferred by the international community or the UN alike.
The publishing of YouTube vlogs from Afghanistan is ultimately used by Taliban as one more medium to get their narrative across, that of peace in the country. Even if digital creators are trying to maintain a balance of narrative, they need to be cognizant of the fact that groups such as the Taliban have always used legacy and traditional media for their own merit. The YouTubers, are no different or less susceptible to playing the same role. The shock and awe of ‘click, comment and subscribe for the Taliban’ content may get eyeballs—perhaps the only goal for such a creator economy—but at immense and often deadly costs.
Kabir Taneja is Fellow, Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation. He is
the author of ‘The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia’.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)