US social media firms face new challenge in Afghanistan

Social media firms are split on how to treat content posted by the Taliban as only some of them consider it a rebel group.

Social media firms usually depend on state designations or official international recognitions to determine who is allowed on their sites [File: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg]

The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan poses a new challenge for big US tech companies on handling content created by a group considered “terrorists” by some world governments.

Social media giant Facebook confirmed on Monday that it designates the Taliban a terrorist group and bans it and content supporting it from its platforms.

But Taliban members have reportedly continued to use Facebook’s end-to-end encrypted messaging service WhatsApp to communicate directly with Afghans despite the company prohibiting it under rules against dangerous organisations.

A Facebook Inc spokesperson said the company was closely monitoring the situation in the country and that WhatsApp would take action on any accounts found to be linked with sanctioned organisations in Afghanistan, which could include account removal.

The Taliban is on the company’s list of dangerous organisations and therefore any content promoting or representing the group is banned, Adam Mosseri, head of Facebook’s photo-sharing app Instagram, said on Monday during a Bloomberg Television interview.

“We are relying on that policy to proactively take down anything that we can that might be dangerous or that is related to the Taliban in general,” Mosseri said. “Now this situation is evolving rapidly, and with it, I’m sure the risk will evolve as well. We are going to have to modify what we do and how we do it to respond to those changing risks as they happen.”

On Twitter Inc, Taliban spokesmen with hundreds of thousands of followers have tweeted updates during the country’s takeover.

Asked about the Taliban’s use of the platform, the company pointed to its policies against violent organisations and hateful conduct but did not answer Reuters questions about how it makes its classifications. Twitter’s rules say it does not allow groups that promote terrorism or violence against civilians.

The Taliban’s return has raised fears it will crack down on freedom of speech and human rights, especially women’s rights, and that the country could become a haven once again for violent groups.

Taliban officials have issued statements saying they want peaceful international relations and have promised to protect Afghans.

Outsized influence

Major social media firms this year made high-profile decisions on handling sitting world leaders and groups in power.

These include controversial blocks of former US President Donald Trump for inciting violence around the January 6 Capitol riot and bans on Myanmar’s military amid a coup in the country.

Facebook, which was long criticised for failing to combat hate speech in Myanmar, said the coup escalated risks of offline harm and its history of human rights violations contributed to the ban on the ruling military or Tatmadaw.

The companies, which have come under fire from global lawmakers and regulators for their outsized political and economic influence, often depend on state designations or official international recognition to determine who is allowed on their sites.

These also help determine who might be verified, allowed official state accounts or may receive special treatment for rule-breaking speech due to newsworthiness or public interest loopholes.

‘Subjective decisions’

However, the differences among the tech companies’ stances suggest the approach is not uniform.

Alphabet Inc’s YouTube, asked whether it has a ban or restrictions on the Taliban, declined to comment but said the video-sharing service relies on governments to define “foreign terrorist organisations” (FTO) to guide the site’s enforcement of rules against violent criminal groups.

YouTube pointed to the US State Department’s list of FTO’s of which the Taliban is not a member. The US instead classifies the Taliban as a “specially designated global terrorist,” which freezes the US assets of those blacklisted and bars Americans from working with them.

Complicating matters further, though most countries show little sign they will recognise the group diplomatically, the Taliban’s position on the world stage may yet shift as they cement control.

“The Taliban is somewhat an accepted player at an international relations level,” said Mohammed Sinan Siyech, a researcher on security in South Asia and doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh, pointing to talks China and the United States have held with the group.

“If that recognition comes in, then for a company like Twitter or Facebook to make a subjective decision that this group is bad and we will not host them poses complications.”

Source: News Agencies

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