The Taliban Is No Excuse To Crack Down On Secure Tech
There are a lot of ways to look at the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghanistan government into the hands of the ever-patient Taliban. It’s a pathetic and predictable end to decades of wasteful war-driven nation building in a faraway steppe. On a deeper level, it illustrates the limits of imposing liberalism at dronepoint. The desperate and dark images we have seen so far will sadly only continue to flow. With them will surely come calls for policy changes that may ultimately serve some unspoken and unrelated ends.
Already, people are talking about the ways that the Taliban is using technology. So far, the discussion has mostly surrounded platform policies.
Should the Taliban have a Twitter account? Suhail Shaheen, the self-described “Member of Negotiations Team and Polit. Office Spokesman for International Media (English),” does, and he breezily tweets in English and Pashto of the Mujahideen’s mandate to protect the “life, property and honor” of those in the new Islamic Emirate. There is an official Pashto-only account as well, sharing news that “the general public is happy with the arrival of the Mujahideen and satisfied with security.”
One writer for the Washington Post touted the Taliban’s “strikingly sophisticated social media tactics” that have allowed the gang to avoid a Twitter ban. The article drew criticism for seeming to argue that President Donald Trump’s posting career “challenged platform rules against hate speech and inciting violence” in a way that “today’s Taliban, by and large, does not.” But apparently, Twitter agrees, as the Taliban continues to tweet through the chaos largely without reprisal.
Facebook has taken a tougher tack, at least on its eponymous social network and Instagram. The company’s policy is to remove any official Taliban accounts or content that “praise[s], support[s], and represent[s] them” as the group is “sanctioned as a terrorist organization under U.S. law.” This policy has been criticized by the Taliban and Jillian C. York for stifling free speech—the latter’s argument correctly and non-cynically pointing out that overbroad policies will capture important dissent and information in a dumb algorithmic net.
These issues are merely the latest iteration of the core design decisions that place central platform administrators in control of what content users can access. One might hope that the communications of a sitting U.S. president might be better included than the Taliban in the category of “acceptable platform speech,” but technologically at least, this is the administrator’s call to make.
It’s a tough one, since this rebooted, tech-savvier Taliban seems to excel not only at logistics but also tactics. We have apparently been presented with a softer, more enlightened Sunni extremist organization that welcomes women’s participation and brooks no ill will against Afghan collaborators. But are we really seeing the rise of a compassionate not-quite caliphate, or has the Taliban merely adopted a posture that they believe will get them out of Twitter jail and into some decent enough graces with the international order?
Powerful groups can and do lean on platforms to affect these decisions on who can say what in popular digital squares, notably in the case of mediating threats to established regimes. We will just have to watch how platforms and power centers decide to navigate the communications controls imposed on this seeming new order in its former satellite state.
The case of WhatsApp provides a more concerning possibility in the way governments may decide to react to yet ano
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