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24/07/2019

24/07/2019

The Taliban on Twitter: How the Group Uses Social Media

The Afghan Taliban have used social media to support their activity on the ground in Afghanistan. The group has utilised well known social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Telegram in order to disseminate their own version of events after skirmishes. This article aims to not only describe the methods used by the Taliban, but also explain the importance of the use of social media in modern Afghanistan. 

Fighting in Afghanistan takes place on a daily basis across the country with no respite in almost every province. Fighting is generally restricted to the rural areas of the country, which over the course of time have become infamous for being mountainous, sparsely populated and difficult to traverse. The impact that this has on media coverage of the fighting is predictable, as many Afghan and foreign journalists struggle to access information and details regarding recent clashes.

The lack of information coming from the ground therefore becomes an opportunity, as either side can aim to acquire a monopoly over the spread of information. Filling this information gap consequently becomes  the aim of the Taliban and Afghan Government social media campaigns alike, with the end goal being to shape perceptions of their respective operations. After each incident, the Taliban and the Afghan Government begin to produce and then release information which compliments their own narratives, with both sides employing similar methods. 

Immediately after an engagement, an account run by an official spokesperson of the Taliban, which boasts over 50,000 followers, begins to produce Tweets describing in detail the Taliban version of events. The Tweets released by the account are short, released in multiple different languages (including English) and are often accompanied by graphic images and videos claiming to be from the fighting.

Pictures showing militants equipped with high-tech equipment and small arms make for a tempting retweet from other Twitter accounts with an interest in the region. The Tweets are then immediately shared or copied by multiple pro-Taliban accounts, increasing the audience and traction of the original posts. 

The result is best shown in the form a hypothetical case study. If a skirmish were to take place between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban in the Sangin district of Helmand Province, the Twitter ‘hashtag’ #Helmand is within hours inundated with images taken directly from the fighting which have been shared by multiple pro-Taliban accounts. Each retweet and share adds additional comments to the narrative.

The language used is always carefully chosen in order to attempt to de-legitimise Afghan security forces personnel and the government itself. Afghan soldiers are often referred to as ‘hirelings’ or mercenaries and foreign forces are referred to as occupiers or invaders. The purpose this select language being to play on the feelings found among Afghans, who often distrust foreign forces and the Afghan government. The images included are often hard to verify, and the lack of features in the backdrop of many of these images makes geo-location difficult. 

The validity of the claims made are at times dubious, and the casualty figures given are normally embellished, but this is largely irrelevant. The sheer volume of Tweets conveying the Taliban narrative of events and the speed with which they are released often means that they are the first narrative released.

In turn, the Afghan Government generally tends to release information regarding recent fighting to the national media 24 hours after the fighting took place. The result being that the government narrative is often lost, or distrusted, as the Taliban one has already gained traction within the minds of observers. Furthermore, the reports of the fighting released by the Afghan Government are rarely accompanied with the same media and detail that accompanies the Taliban’s Twitter announcements. 

A recent example of false information being spread by the Taliban, more commonly referred to as ‘fake news,’ is a recent incident in which the group claimed to have shot down a B-52 bomber near the Shohrab Airbase in Helmand Province. The claim was false, and no evidence was provided to support it. Nevertheless, the claim gained significant traction both among national and international social media users. The story was picked up by some international media outlets who cautiously reported the incident with headlines along the lines of ‘Taliban claim to have shot down a B-52.’ Simple analysis of the Tweets which flooded Twitter cast immediate doubt on the claim.

Firstly, the images used claiming to show the crashed B-52 were taken from an incident in Guam in 2016 in which a B-52 crashed. Secondly, Shohrab Airbase does not house B-52s. In reality, it later turned out that a drone had crashed/been shot down nearby, and due to either mistranslation or simple opportunism, the Taliban decided to claim the downing of a B-52 instead of a drone. The traction gained by the Tweets, despite the rather blatant holes in the claim, suggest that the Taliban have been highly successful in disseminating their own narratives at a broader level regarding tactical level incidents.  

The impact and value of the Taliban social media campaign is hard to gauge, and it is worth highlighting that there are obvious limitations to social media usage as a tool in Afghanistan. Access to the internet in Afghanistan is limited to approximately 15% of the population, many of whom live in the major cities and are from relatively well off families. Furthermore, only 9% of Afghanistan’s population are believed to use social media.

With these figures in mind, traditional methods such as word of mouth and illustrated pamphlet distribution will still retain a vital role in the spread of information, particularly in the rugged rural areas of the country. This article is not suggesting that the social media front of the fighting is more important than the fighting taking place on the ground, or even suggesting that it is a front in its own right. Instead, this article aims to highlight that social media usage in Afghanistan is used to augment and support ongoing operations, acting as a force multiplier. The use of Twitter, Facebook and Telegram to disseminate news means that the Taliban are able to connect their tactical level operations with their broader ideological narratives.

The Afghan Government and their foreign allies were at first slow to respond to the inundation of social media with the Taliban narrative, and relied mostly on cumbersome press releases which fell short of the mark. However, more recently a number of accounts have emerged which support the government narrative and use similar methods to those of the Taliban. The pro-Government Tweets often come with images of heavily armed Afghan special forces carrying out night raids or pictures of captured militants. Also much like the Taliban, the casualty figures provided are often highly dubious.

The result of both sides digging in on social media has created a somewhat unique situation, in which Twitter profiles representing high ranking US military staff have been engaged in Twitter spats with the Taliban main account over specific details regarding recent incidents, a phenomenon unique to the modern era.

The Taliban have not only manipulated social media in their war against the Afghan Government, as at the time of writing, heavy fighting is ongoing in Kunar Province between IS-KP and the Taliban. In the social media side of this front, the Taliban have a large advantage. Crack downs among social media companies have forced Islamic State away from mainstream social media, making finding IS-affiliated accounts relatively difficult. The Taliban on the other hand, are still permitted to use platforms such as Facebook and Twitter largely unhindered. The Taliban also maintain an official webpage which can be found through a simple google search. 

During the fighting in Kunar, the Taliban have employed similar social media methods to those used against the Afghan Government. Carefully chosen language and claims aim to delegitimise IS-KP, and videos and photos add to the Taliban narrative. In the fighting in Kunar, the Taliban have claimed that IS militants are being sheltered by the Afghan Government (much like they claimed during an offensive in Jowzjan Province.) The accusations are part of their broader narrative which ultimately aims to delegitimise the Afghan Government and their foreign backers. In other words, the Taliban are linking their tactical level operations with their political goals through the use of social media.

Social media continues to play an important role in Afghanistan, with its importance seemingly being recognised by both sides. Going forwards, it appears likely that the role of media coverage in Afghanistan will only find itself becoming more and more important. Peace talks between the USA, the Afghan Government and the Taliban are heavily influenced by perceptions of the ongoing fighting, both among US voters and Afghan citizens. Therefore, portraying one’s efforts in a positive light, aiming to make one appear to have the upper hand, is of utmost importance to all sides involved. With this in mind, we can expect to see both sides of the conflict keep up the pace of their already sophisticated social media campaigns.

Social media also plays a key role in our operations here at Intelligence Fusion. Our team gathers information from social media, multi-language media and thousands of other sources to create a complete and comprehensive picture of the global security landscape. 

But with the vast amount of data available online, it's one of the greatest challenges faced by an OSINT analyst. In order for our internal analytical team to focus on the 'so what' context of intelligence collection, we've developed our own datamining algorithm using artificial intelligence to identify crucial information at a faster speed.

You can find out more about how we ensure the accuracy of our algorithms and why technology will never replace the human element of threat intelligence in our recent blog post

 

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