META, formerly known as Facebook banned the RTA TV channel and Bakhtar News Agency on 21st July on the basis of their affiliation with the Taliban. Meta justified their move through its policy on “Dangerous individuals and organizations”. Under their policy rationale, they have made three further tiers. These bans were placed under tier 1 which states that,
“Tier 1 includes hate organizations; criminal organizations, including those designated by the United States government as specially designated narcotics trafficking kingpins (SDNTKs); and terrorist organizations, including entities and individuals designated by the United States government as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) or specially designated global terrorists (SDGTs)”.
Hashtag Wars: BNA & RTA
Bakhtar News Agency is the official state news agency of Afghanistan. Taliban have had an official webpage called Alemarah since 2005. BNA is not the personal media cell for the Taliban like other organizations have for example the Umar media cell which is the media cell for Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). BNA was working for the people of Afghanistan and not the Taliban. “RTA is a national institution, the voice of the nation”, said the director of Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA) Ahmadullah Wasiq. In events like the earthquake in Paktika, BNA was at the forefront to report the causalities in the calamity. It is at events like these where the official news agency’s role is the most prominent one.
An example of the negative effects of this banning is that Facebook has also blocked official Taliban WhatsApp accounts. This included a WhatsApp hotline set up by the Taliban for Afghan citizens to report violent incidents and looting. Afghan citizens could have used this amid all the chaos but they were deprived of it.
On the other hand, if we read the policy of Meta further which states that “In addition, we do not allow content that praises, substantively supports, or represents events that Facebook designates as violating violent events – including terrorist attacks, hate events, multiple-victim violence or attempted multiple-victim violence, multiple murders, or hate crimes. Nor do we allow praise, substantive support, or representation of the perpetrator(s) of such attacks.
And a Facebook spokesperson told the BBC after the platform banned Taliban-related content after the fall of Kabul in 2021, “The Taliban is sanctioned as a terrorist organization under US law and we have banned them from our services under our Dangerous Organization policies. This means we remove accounts maintained by or on behalf of the Taliban and prohibit praise, support, and representation of them.”
Taliban was and is not sanctioned as a terrorist organization under US law which can be verified from the Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism website. This makes the ban completely illegal on the account of Facebook.
The question that is to be raised here is why only BNA? BNA was not praising any of the abovementioned activities. Moreover, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report, between mid-August 2021 and mid-June 2022, it recorded 2106 civilian casualties (700 killed, 1406 wounded). Most civilian casualties were attributed to targeted attacks by the armed group self-identified “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province” against ethnic and religious minority communities in places where they go to school, worship, and go about their daily lives. It is clear from the report who is the actual perpetrator of these human rights violations.
Judging from the actions of Facebook it can be argued that the same rules need to apply to Indian and Israeli state media outlets as both the countries are responsible for grave human rights violations in Kashmir and Palestine respectively.
After this ban on Facebook, a trend called #BanTaliban started on Twitter as well where the users were now asking for a ban on all Taliban-affiliated accounts on the platform. At the time of writing this, there are approximately 114k tweets with this hashtag.
To counter this trend, another trend launched on 22nd July called #AfghansSupportTaliban. According to a report by ExTrac, this campaign was carried out with really good behind-the-scenes coordination. Pakistan was blamed once again for this trend but what is surprising is that more than one-third of these tweets originated from the US. 4.4% of the tweets were from India, while only 4.6% were from Pakistan. So, India might get the same amount of blame for this.
The Thing About Hashtag Wars
The thing about hashtag wars is that their foundations are very shallow and are based on inaccuracies.
Unfortunately, these trends in the contemporary period have an influence regardless of their credibility. Even the media is swayed by these trends and do not bother to fact-check them. In a documentary by Aljazeera, Farhan Virk from Pakistan demonstrates how a situation can be manipulated using misinformation and a storm of hashtags. “Repeat a lie continuously and it becomes the truth. Media cannot differentiate between what’s true and what’s a lie”. He gave an example from 2020 when tensions were high between India and Pakistan and the trending news was of a full-blown conflict in Sialkot when in reality there was complete peace in Sialkot.
What the Taliban did as a response to the #BanTaliban can be termed as self-defense because platforms like Facebook have defined the Taliban as a terrorist organization for many years and have a history of banning them on their platform. They did win the hashtag war but at the cost of exposing themselves through coordinated campaigns. Twitter on the other hand has not acted in haste and has not banned any profile affiliated with the Taliban.
Taliban are now an important stakeholder in Afghanistan. The regional powers have shown that they are willing to work with the Taliban as was evident at Shanghai Conference Organization (SCO) in Tashkent. Writing them off is not an option anymore.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times.