But many of those platforms, including Facebook and its subsidiary WhatsApp, have said they will crack down on accounts run by or promoting the Taliban. The Taliban’s efforts to push back against or circumvent restrictions on its online activities illustrate how reliant the militant group has become on Western tech companies and the internet broadly — and highlight a potential reversal from the group’s rule decades ago when it banned the internet outright.
“All in all, various social media platforms and messaging applications have had a vital role in the Taliban’s media strategy,” said Weeda Mehran, a lecturer and Afghanistan expert at the University of Exeter who focuses on propaganda by extremist groups.
“The Taliban are really trying to change their narrative and they’re really trying to change the way they’re viewed,” she said. “And so I think you’re seeing that shift now. A lot of it has to do with the huge use of smartphones and the fact that many in Afghanistan now have smartphones. … They’ve noticed that you can use these tech platforms to really spread your message.”
From imposing internet bans to dodging them
Mehran says the Taliban’s online presence in its current form really began after it was ousted from power in 2001, when the militant group started posting videos and sharing messages online. Since then, it has enthusiastically embraced platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Telegram, none of which existed during its last period in power.
As a result, instead of imposing internet bans, the Taliban finds itself trying to get around them — at least for now.
“The Taliban is sanctioned as a terrorist organization under US law and we have banned them from our services under our Dangerous Organization policies,” a Facebook spokesperson said. A WhatsApp spokesperson declined to comment specifically on the helpline ban, but said it was “obligated to adhere to US sanctions laws,” which includes “banning accounts that appear to represent themselves as official accounts of the Taliban.”
YouTube said it will continue to “terminate” accounts run by the Taliban. Twitter hasn’t actively banned Taliban accounts but a spokesperson for the company said its “top priority is keeping people safe, and we remain vigilant.”
“I think at the end of the day, [the Taliban] don’t want the internet to be banned. I don’t think they want YouTube to pull out of the country, I don’t think they want Google to pull out, I don’t think they want Facebook or Twitter to just pack up and leave,” Ghori-Ahmad said.
The relationship between the Taliban and the tech platforms may get even more complicated if the Taliban receives official recognition from the global diplomatic community — a determination that depends to a large extent on what form the Afghan government now takes.
“If the Taliban allows for an inclusive government, and them … being a part of that government, then they have essentially, for lack of a better word, they’ve gained their legitimacy in Afghanistan, because other groups are going to be represented,” Mehran said. If that does happen, it might be harder for the likes of Facebook and YouTube to justify keeping the militant group off the platform.
An uncertain future for online expression
The real test of the Taliban’s approach to the internet may not be what the group says, but what it allows the Afghan people to say.
“Looking ahead, the Taliban will certainly want to use technology for its own PR and propaganda purposes. But now that it has taken over Afghanistan, it will in all probability want to restrict social media access to the Afghan population in its bid to reduce their access to information,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s foreign policy program. “Platforms like Twitter and WhatsApp will have to figure out how to deal with the Taliban’s propaganda, while still trying to ensure that Afghans retain their access to these platforms if the Taliban attempts to restrict access.”
At the same time, the Taliban insists that online content must comply with Islamic law, which experts say could only add to the challenge platforms face in trying to continue operating in the country. “I think it’s going to be a really tricky and delicate balance for a lot of these tech companies to have to figure out how to navigate that market,” Ghori-Ahmad said.
Beyond that, there is already widespread fear that the Taliban could use social media in a more sinister fashion — to find and go after Afghans who worked with the US government or military.
Twitter is working with the Internet Archive to address requests from users to remove older tweets and has offered the option of temporarily suspending accounts in case Afghan users aren’t able to access them to delete content. LinkedIn said it has “taken some temporary measures including limiting the visibility of connections, and helping members in the country understand how they can hide their profiles from public view.”
And although the Taliban has sought to project a more moderate image in the days since it took back control, there are no guarantees that will last — particularly once US forces exit the country at the end of this month. After that, it may only be a matter of time before Afghans start to lose the ability to use social media to speak out.
“If that is silenced by the Taliban, and if that is not accessible to them, then that should actually tell a lot to the tech companies about the Taliban,” Mehran said, “And they should factor that in when they want to decide if the Taliban … should be allowed to have a presence on those platforms.”