Facebook has told BBC News that it has now officially banned Taliban-related content from its platform. This news comes after a devastating week in Afghanistan when the extremist organisation overtook its capital unopposed and seized the presidential palace. The Taliban—as well as other radical groups—has often used social media to spread its messages and propaganda. Now, in the wake of this swift takeover, questions are being raised about the new challenges this will pose for social media giants in dealing with content made by the Taliban.
In the report, Facebook explained how it follows the “authority of the international community” when making such decisions. A spokesperson for the social media giant told the BBC, “The Taliban is sanctioned as a terrorist organisation under US law and we have banned them from our services under our Dangerous Organisation policies. This means we removed accounts maintained by or on behalf of the Taliban and prohibit praise, support, and representation of them.”
The spokesperson added that the team dedicated to this specific moderation would comprise Afghanistan experts—namely native speakers who have in-depth knowledge of the context and would be better able to spot the issues on the platform.
Facebook’s Dangerous Organisation moderation policies state that they assess entities that proclaim a “violent mission” under three tiers. Tier 1 focuses on those who engage in violence, hatred and human rights violations offline—which includes “terrorist, hate and criminal organisations.” This tier also explains that the platform does not allow the praise of content that showcases violence, terrorism, murder, racist ideologies or praise of the perpetuator of the hatred.
Its second tier “focuses on entities that engage in violence against state or military actors but do not generally target civilians—what we call ‘Violent Non-State Actors.’ We remove all substantive support and representation of these entities, their leaders, and their prominent members. We remove any praise of these groups’ violent activities.”
The third and final tier suggests that any content pertaining to hate speech or demonstrating intent to engage in violence would also be removed. This would include “militarised social movements, violence-inducing conspiracy networks and individuals and groups banned for promoting hatred.”
In spite of these regulations, social media platforms—especially the likes of Facebook—have a long timeline of historical failure in upholding these moderations. An obvious example is the racist abuse the England players suffered online post the Euro 2020 final. Recent studies have also suggested the use of emojis in abusive content protects posts from being taken down due to flaws in the algorithm. Even in the Taliban context, the moderation is not yet proven effective as Reuters stated that Facebook’s Whatsapp—an end-to-end encrypted messaging service—is still being used by Taliban members to communicate with Afghans, despite its prohibition under ‘Dangerous Organisations’.
Facebook’s Dangerous Organisation policies are not lacking in criticisms either. Although Facebook claims that policies recognise “neutral content”—whereby users often comment, report or discuss these subjects and would allow room for such discussions to take place—Facebook has wrongfully taken down posts like these in the past. Its definition is too wide and there are calls for the company to further detail them. The criticisms of its policies are still at large.
Not only this, but Facebook has failed to yet mention or address the impact monitoring Taliban content will have on its employees. The individuals being recruited for this job (as mentioned earlier) will be Afghans themselves. The proximity to this content may be incredibly detrimental to the employees’ mental health. It was just last year that the social media company agreed to pay $52 million to its content moderators over post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) claims, as first investigated by The Verge.
Other social media platforms have also been questioned about how they will approach this issue as many are split on the proper solution and fail to follow in Facebook’s footsteps. Taliban spokesmen have reportedly been using Twitter to communicate direct updates (of its takeover) to its hundreds of thousands of followers. When asked about the group’s use of the platform by Reuters, Twitter put forward its policies on violent content online but refused to disclose how the groups are classified or defined.
In its investigations of social media, Reuters was unable to get a comment from the video platform YouTube. The company stated that it relied on governmental definitions of what constitutes a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) in order to make any enforcements.” At this current moment, as YouTube pointed out, the Taliban is not defined by the US as an FTO, rather it is categorised as “specially designated global terrorist.” Do they require these specific definitions or is it a get-out-of-jail-free card?
President Joe Biden’s decision to completely withdraw US troops from Afghanistan in May 2021 has been met with international criticism as the Taliban’s swift offensive takeover of the country comes right after. At the time, Biden stated that “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” Those closest to the conflict have long criticised the President’s stance on the US’ longest conflict, indicating that it would ruin 20 years of work and would bring about a humanitarian catastrophe.
In just little more than a month, Biden has been embarrassingly—and rather concerningly—proven wrong as the Taliban swiftly swept across the nation, overtaking the country’s capital, Kabul. This simultaneous takeover and criticised abandonment has resulted in a fearfully-dark future for Afghan women.
The Taliban has always been a threat to the lives of women in Afghanistan. Now that very same threat has hit an all-time high as the extremist organisation overtook its capital unopposed and seized the presidential palace. Malala Yousafzai—Nobel Prize laureate and activist—took to Twitter and wrote, “We watch in complete shock as [the] Taliban takes control of Afghanistan. I am deeply worried about women, minorities and human rights advocates.” She continued by stating that “global, regional and local powers must call for an immediate ceasefire, provide urgent humanitarian aid and protect refugees and civilians.”
International help, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be on the way—with many criticising the US military withdrawal—and neither will it be coming from its own government after new reports surfaced that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban entered Kabul. The women of Afghanistan have reported that they feel abandoned by the world of democracy that they once felt a part of. Women’s rights activist and member of the delegation which aimed to negotiate peace with the extremist group before the US’ withdrawal, Fawzi Koofi, told NBC News that Afghan women felt “betrayed” and now fear a “dark” future.
She added that “women in Afghanistan are the most at danger or most at-risk population of the country.” The Taliban’s recruitment of freed prisoners (to gain numbers in its ranks) poses a dangerous threat of individuals “who [have been] upset with women becoming powerful in the last 20 years.”
Suhail Shaheen—a spokesperson for the Taliban—told BBC News, “We will respect the rights of women… our policy is that women will have access to education and work, [and will be allowed] to wear the hijab.” This statement conflicts both with the threat to women that the extremist group has historically posed as well as the current endangerment and abuse Afghan women and girls are suffering at this very moment.
This statement simply doesn’t seem to hold, given the reports of female Afghan journalists’ on the local scenes. With their names changed—to protect their identities—a couple of journalists spoke to The Guardian about what they had seen and heard. ‘Aaisha’ reported that the female journalists’ coverage of the takeover over the last few weeks had led to an influx of death threats from the Taliban as well as others who do not believe women to be equal. Another journalist called ‘Ferebya’ reported to The Guardian that there have been many stories of women and girls being forcibly taken, beaten and sexually assaulted. Stating her fear for her own safety, she said, “Firstly I am worried about myself because I am a girl, and also a woman journalist.” Adding that “in provinces they took some girls for themselves and used them as slaves.”
This comes after findings from The Wall Street Journal that the Taliban is reportedly requesting girls over the age of 15 and widows under 40 to be married to its fighters. Experts analysing the situation have noted that this demand is even more extreme than that of the regime of the 1990s. It continues the pattern of enforced marriage and sexual slavery from extremists in Syria and Iraq. Reuters also reported in the newly-taken over Taliban regions to have seen public floggings of women who are also forced to stay at home—unable to leave unless with a male companion.
With the usual bustling streets of Kabul now empty and images of women depicted in advertisements being painted over with rollers and buckets of white paint, the freedoms fought for over the past 20 years are now quickly unravelling. Afghan women’s rights activist Koofi also spoke to Reuters on the future of women in the country. “Women are still doing their best. You have seen from across Afghanistan, every woman is in the media. They are trying to talk about what’s happening to them, their communities. We have always been optimistic. We will continue with our struggle. But it’s becoming more and more difficult for women’s rights defenders.”