The news about how social media companies might handle the resurgence of the Taliban is fragmented and conflicting. According to early reporting, Twitter and Facebook intended to let Taliban representatives use official Afghanistan government accounts on those platforms. But Facebook is also banning the Taliban, calling it a terrorist organization; among its prohibitions are posts supporting the group, which it has a dedicated team monitoring. WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, may follow suit, but the messaging app has also been used by the Taliban to distribute announcements to residents of Kabul. Other reporting indicates that Taliban content is still allowed on YouTube, but the Alphabet-owned company may seek guidance from state authorities.
The Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan is an extreme, though not entirely unique, test case for both the power and the peril of these platforms: to coordinate violence, to push propaganda, and to consolidate state power as governments gain new abilities to spy on their populations. As it is, some nondemocratic countries, like Saudi Arabia, use social media platforms to harass and monitor critics, some of whom have even been abducted and killed. Yet Saudi Arabia remains largely a social media citizen in good standing. Its notorious army of paid Twitter trolls continues to operate with impunity, allowing the government to affect the lives of critics all over the world. With that issue still unresolved, platforms like Twitter and Facebook now face important choices about how they’ll handle the rise of yet another dictatorial theocracy that has already made effective use of Silicon Valley’s tools.
As usual, these decisions are being hashed out in corporate boardrooms, between policy teams and senior executives and government advisers, with no transparency. The results are being spun in selective statements issued by anonymous spokespeople. With the previous government having fled, the Taliban is essentially the new official authority in Afghanistan and eventually may be recognized by a number of state governments. Its desire to make use of the same social platforms that its predecessors did is in keeping with other states’ uses of these tools and platforms.
Banning the Taliban and “pro-Taliban content” is likely to be ineffective and haphazard and will look increasingly arbitrary as the Taliban achieves international recognition. As a Facebook representative told Insider, “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.” Those determinations could come any day now. Although the new regime is preaching a rock-bottom form of tolerance, promising that women will have some sort of role in the new Afghan society, the Taliban may present extreme challenges to such neutrality if it decides to bring back some of its previous horrors, like public executions. Facebook may find its decision to ban the Taliban an easy and justifiable one. It’s not hard to imagine that Facebook could become a site for official Taliban propagandizing or calls to violence, much as it has been a home to such things for other state actors—the U.S. included.
As of Tuesday morning, many social media companies’ policies still seemed ill formed or in total disarray. On Twitter, most Afghan government accounts had yet to succumb to the Taliban’s countrywide takeover. On the Twitter page of the Afghanistan Mission to the United Nations, the pinned tweet is a video by Ambassador Ghulam M. Isaczai in which he pleads for international help for refugees and aid. The Afghanistan Ministry of Defense’s last tweet was on August 14, a post in which it announced the deaths of “17 #Taliban terrorists” in airstrikes. The last post from Afghanistan’s National Security Council is one in which Dr. Hamdullah Mohib, the former government’s national security adviser, denies issuing his resignation. Soon after, Mohib fled Afghanistan with the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani.
Moderating content has been the Achilles’ heel of large social media platforms, and their tendency to keep policies secret or to engage in ad hoc decision-making, sometimes based on specious reasoning or the influence of national governments, has led to a sense, mostly among the political right, that these companies are censorious. In fact, the situation is more nuanced, with left-wing groups, Palestinian activists, sex workers, and other typical targets of online censorship constantly dealing with the fickle, inscrutable systems that often automatically ban accounts, leaving little recourse. (Certainly there is rarely an opportunity to talk to an actual human being in such cases.) Because platforms are focused on scale and on earning the good favor of governments, the activities of nation-states, especially authoritarian ones, receive far less scrutiny than they deserve. It took a number of violations and finally the incitement of a riot for Twitter and Facebook to ban Donald Trump, while little has been done about the regimes of Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, or Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, which all abuse social platforms to further their authoritarian aims.
The result is not just an atmosphere of censure and limited debate but also a sense that the rules of the road, when they are even known, can be bent for powerful individuals or governments with which companies have to maintain goodwill and influence. Yet even the framing of who counts as an official government representative is skewed on these platforms. On Twitter, foreign officials and news agencies, like Redfish, a leftist-inspired video journalism outfit, or RT, a more pro-Kremlin news site, are marked as government-affiliated. The account for Voice of America, a U.S. government–funded news agency with more than 1.6 million Twitter followers, has no such designation. Similarly, U.S. military and intelligence agency accounts have spent years propagandizing audiences with videos of airstrikes and boastful posts about enemy casualties—without any warning labels attached. We’ve had plenty of official “updates” on the war—some of them outright lies. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook, however unwittingly, have been promoting the U.S. foreign policy line for years.
Meanwhile, social media remains one of the best sources for finding out what’s happening in Afghanistan and, to some extent, hearing from the Taliban, which, however violent, is the next government of the country. (Such violence also defines other close American allies, but that is a subject for another column.) The notion that the semilegitimate government of a country can now be banned wholesale from major communications platforms seems fraught. It goes beyond questions of corporate policy and encompasses whether platforms have a moral duty to shape the informational culture and digital environment in which their users live and communicate, to provide a baseline of safety and security that supersedes the rights of powerful governments. To endow these platforms with such a responsibility is equally fraught.
What’s clear about Afghanistan is that the U.S. lost—totally and disastrously, in what’s above all a loss for the Afghan people. If there’s another prolonged, whack-a-mole-style war to be fought on social media, it will also be a losing effort. Companies should enforce their own terms of service agreements and content policies uniformly, not make improvised decisions based on government pressure. The Taliban wasn’t vanquished from the battlefield, and it’s foolish to think it can be summarily banished from social media.