How the Taliban is Weaponizing Twitter

Over the past two months, women rights activist Husnia, whose name we have changed to protect her identity, received random messages from Taliban-affiliated users on Twitter [now known as X], calling her a “prostitute” and “foreign spy.” Husnia, who is in hiding in Kabul, participated in several underground protests after women-led protests were violently suppressed by Taliban crackdowns last year. She was unmoved at first, but as death and rape threats became constant, she was forced to deactivate her Twitter account. At one point, she received a message asking if she preferred to be killed by a “bullet in the head” or “stoned to death” if she did not give up her activism.

The Taliban has used social media to threaten, intimidate, and harass journalists, activists, and protestors. Thousands are working in a climate of fear and underground or were forced to flee and work in exile to keep the information flowing and find critical and innovative ways to hold the Taliban to account.

A recent report by Afghan Witness has found that low-ranking Taliban and pro-Taliban social media users, including on Twitter, were largely involved in online abuse and harassment against politically engaged women, activists, and members of civil society. The report reveals that online hate against these women increased three times, by 217%, between the second half of 2021 and the same period in 2022. A significant portion of abuse was sexualized, the report findings show. Women users reported receiving direct messages that included pornographic content, sexually explicit photos, and threats of sexual assault, rape, and death.

Many social media companies revisited their policies when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. Among others, Meta, which considers the group a terrorist organization under U.S. sanctions laws, banned Taliban-linked pages and content on Facebook and Instagram including the state-run RTA TV channel and Bakhtar News Agency. The ban prompted many activists to start a campaign, urging Twitter to do the same.

Taliban sympathizers tried to trend the word “Fidayan” [suicide bombers], which again failed to prompt Twitter to remove Taliban-linked accounts, despite its policies against the glorification of violence, harassment, and hateful entities.

In July 2022, the campaign to ban the group from Twitter picked up on the platform. Its hashtag #BanTaliban became a trend in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Europe, and the United States. In response, Taliban supporters launched their own campaign, #AfghansSupportTaliban, which was shared over 130 thousand times and trended in Pakistan overnight. In another campaign, the Taliban sympathizers tried to trend the word “Fidayan” [suicide bombers], which again failed to prompt the social media giant to remove Taliban-linked accounts, despite its policies against the glorification of violence, harassment, and hateful entities. Given the group’s presence in Pakistan and its ties with Jihadi madrasas and the security establishment there, the concentration of activity there somewhat made sense. However, there was also another factor at play, namely the mass-scale and strategic use of bots by the group to crowd virtual spaces.

A woman holds a sign reading “#BanTaliban” in support of the campaign. Photo: @HabibKhanT via Twitter

Twitter does not have a specific policy against the Taliban, and unlike Meta, it has not shut down Taliban accounts and content on the platform. The Taliban’s growing presence on Twitter has stirred criticism and outrage in and out of Afghanistan. On August 17, two days after the Taliban captured Kabul, Dough Lamborn, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Colorado, wrote a letter to then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, complaining about the company’s tolerance of the Taliban voices. In his letter, Lamborn criticized Twitter’s decision to ban former U.S. president Donald Trump, accusing it of a bias against conservatives in the United States.

The arrival of the controversial billionaire, Elon Musk, on Twitter, brought him praise from many fringe and extremist groups who had long complained about the platform’s policies against hate speech. The Taliban also welcomed the change on Twitter. Muhammad Jalal, who previously identified as a Taliban official, praised Musk as “making Twitter great again.” One of the first policy changes Musk introduced was to monetize the platform’s user verification process. For years, it verified accounts by issuing the blue tick after a user applied for it, often through official email addresses linked to legal organizations. After the company announced that it would charge for the service, reports surfaced about the Taliban beginning to pay for the blue tick verification signs. No Taliban accounts were verified under the previous policy which issued the blue tick for “active, notable, and authentic accounts of public interest,” according to the platform. Yet, in the very early days of the introduction of Twitter Blue, the monetized subscription system that offered “priority ranking in search, mentions, and replies,” at least two Taliban officials and four of their prominent supporters, according to BBC Monitoring, had acquired the service.

Taliban’s reach on social media to domestic audiences was four times higher than the 18 mainstream domestic news outlets combined.

The social media boom arrived in the late 2000s, around the same time that the Taliban insurgency became a prominent violent force in Afghanistan. Access to phones and the internet grew exponentially. There were an estimated 26.95 million mobile connections and nearly 8 million internet users active in early 2023 compared to just one million in 2005. Unlike its first stint in power when the group ruled in secrecy and away from any modern means of communication and entertainment, it was quick to adapt to the change in digital space during its 20-year insurgency against the internationally recognized government. Its weaponization of modern communication technologies and smartphones was no less instrumental in its success than its brutal guerilla warfare that killed tens of thousands of civilians and members of the security forces. Taking advantage of a tech-savvy young generation, the group engaged in complex psychological warfare and propaganda operations that exploited the policy failures of the Kabul administration and promoted a counter narrative that justified its violence.

The group began using Twitter in 2011, when Abdul Qahar Balkhi, now a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, exchanged heated words with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) over a terror attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Since then, the New Zealand-educated Balkhi, one of the very few in the group who speaks English, has increased his social media following from a few thousand followers to over 223,000 today, most of them after 2021. The same is true for other prominent spokespersons of the group, including Zabihullah Mujahid, Suhail Shaheen, and Naeem Wardak. Today, these three accounts alone have more than 2 million followers on Twitter, while in September 2021, 63 prominent Taliban accounts combined had around the same number of followers.

Twitter accounts of three prominent Taliban spokesmen with over 2 million followers combined, as of November 27, 2023.

After 2018 when the U.S. began negotiating directly with the Taliban, the group found a new strategic opportunity in virtual space. A year later, the effects of the Taliban’s use of sophisticated social media strategies were evident in their Spring offensive that culminated in their return to power in mid-August. A study by the Centre for Artificial Intelligence, Data, and Conflict found explicit patterns in the group’s communication strategies during this period. The timing and content of social media activities were coordinated with events on the ground, promoting misinformation and false claims of premature victory and exaggerating territorial gains, among other things. The study concluded that the Taliban’s reach on social media to domestic audiences—through more than 126,000 Twitter accounts— was four times higher than the 18 mainstream domestic news outlets combined. According to a separate 2020 study, Mujahid’s account tweeted daily fifteen times more than Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence account.

Since returning to power, the Taliban has utilized Twitter as an effective public relations tool to control the information environment and to re-brand itself. The group generates content in a bid to sway public opinion in favor of the Taliban’s violent and draconian laws, especially against women and girls but also to influence certain audiences in the West. For instance, graphic content, videos of suicide attacks detonating foreign troops’ vehicles, and calls for violence and beheading have rigidly given way to messages showing “peace”, “stability”, and “welcoming foreign tourists.” They often project themselves as a liberation army that has freed the country from foreign invaders and their regime as a legitimate government that the world should engage with and recognize.

Although Twitter was nothing new for the Taliban, its swiftness and adeptness have given the regime in Kabul a cost-effective and useful tool to target dissent and silence critics. It maintains a wide network of social media activists, spanning tens of thousands of accounts involving the group’s senior leaders, spokesmen, and affiliates coupled with armies of trolls and bots. For example, the concentration of activity for the #AfghansSupportTaliban campaign in Pakistan was somewhat understandable given the group’s presence there, its ties with that country’s Jihadi madrasas, and the security establishment. Thousands of Afghans who live in Pakistan had escaped fears of Taliban brutality after the group recaptured Afghanistan.

Screencaps of the August 15 message from @Zabehulah_M33 (center in black) that was copied the most in which the Taliban spokesperson claims that everyone in Kabul would be safe. Credit: DFRLab

The Taliban has also managed to take over some of the official Twitter accounts affiliated with the previous government. Additionally, the group has created dozens of new official accounts, recruited hundreds of social media managers, and has begun engaging in more languages other than Persian, Pashto, and English, particularly through its official Al-Emarah website. These new languages include Arabic and Urdu, speaking to the group’s agility in catering to specific audience groups important for its survival. Its communication in Arabic is informed by its identity as an Islamic fundamentalist group and its financial ties to sources in the Gulf while the use of Urdu is to engage a widely conservative constituency in Pakistan where the group’s ideological roots are nurtured. 

The unprecedented hold over Afghanistan’s Twitter space has enabled the Taliban to try to fill the information gap caused by the group’s severe restrictions and crackdown on free and independent media. While Taliban-affiliated reporters, spokesmen, and leaders freely circulate uncounted messages on Twitter every day, local journalists working with independent media find it difficult to report even day-to-day events on the ground for fears of intimidation, arrest, and torture. The group has brought the Chinese giant Huawei Technologies to install mass camera surveillance across the country, particularly in Kabul. The group say they plan to tackle security threats, but critics have argued that it will further deepen fears of privacy violations and control over information and dissent.