November 25, 2015
Kabul: Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami and the Islamic State (Daesh) and other militants extensively use social media as part of their broader information warfare against the Afghan government and its allies, says a new study.
The insurgent groups appear to emulate the Daesh in integrating social media in their information campaign strategies. The increase in online campaigns come with a growing rivalry between these groups after the emergence of Daesh in Afghanistan.
As demonstrated by the September 28 fall of Kunduz City, social media is extensively being used by the insurgents as an instrument of information warfare. Hours after the government forces retreated, the news and pictures of the Taliban instantly spread across social media networks.
According to Pajhwok, in a research-based report, the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS) said Taliban members used Facebook by posting selfies with ordinary citizens and sharing videos of the fighters taking control of the city’s main institutions.
Social media platforms, particularly its features that facilitate instant messaging with imageries, played an important role in articulation of ideological views and political narratives, the ACSS pointed out.
One common belief is central to the narratives of the rebel groups: Afghanistan is an occupied country and its government is a puppet of foreign invaders or crusaders. Such narratives incite violence and subversion to overthrow the democratically elected government and expulsion of international troops.
According to the report, the groups combine these ideological positions with commentaries on popular frustration with the government, highlighting concerns over corruption and bad governance.
Many interviewees pointed to other forms of radical narratives and ideologies, notably extremist ethno-nationalist and secular views that also promote group hatred and intolerance through social media. Many pointed to a spike in radical ethno-nationalist viewpoints in tandem with political polarisation during the 2014 presidential election crisis.
The study says both militant and peaceful groups use special tactics, including anonymity and gender stereotypes, to reinforce their strategic narratives. For example, many individuals and sympathisers use the opportunity provided by the internet to create anonymous accounts which are used to share, support and spread the contents of the official accounts of various radical groups.
Some hymns, used as mobile phone ringtones in rural areas, the Taliban play on gender stereotypes as a tool of social communication campaigns. The hymns praise bravery and other manly characteristics for defense of the country and associate those refusing to join their ranks with women.
One group of respondents openly challenges messages from radical groups, but a second prefers to confront the views of real and personally identifiable social media users only. A third set of interviewees ignores radical content altogether.
Yet, a fourth clutch of respondents countered radical messages by promoting moderate views on religion, as well as cohesion and tolerance among ethnic groups and religious sects by highlighting the dangers of extremism.
All this is happening in the absence of a systematic counter-radicalisation policy by the government. As individual and civil society initiatives aim to counter radical trends and promote more inclusive views, the rulers are yet to formulate a policy to check radicalization through social media.
The government was urged to:
1. Initiate broad consultations with relevant stakeholders, including Afghan civil society, and Islamic groups, religious leaders and educational institutions to formulate a counter-radicalisation approach.
2. Broaden the scope of the current discussion on regulation of social media by engaging with civil society, educational institutions, Islamic groups and media organisations. A future legal framework should strike a balance between regulation of social media and concerns about restrictions on the freedom of expression.
3. Review the current procedure for registration of all mobile phone SIM cards in order to make it easy for the relevant agencies to track down fake social media users disseminating radical narratives online.
4. Take immediate and coordinated initiatives to counter radical ethnic narratives and political polarisation that intensified during the 2014 presidential election crisis. This must include the two ruling coalition partners, civil society groups and the media.
The report also asked the international community to:
1. Support the government in formulating a counter-radicalisation policy by sharing the experiences of fragile and conflict states, and providing advice on the best approaches to counter radical narratives in social media.
2. Encourage future research on more specific aspects of radicalisation processes in social media in the context of Afghanistan. These researches should focus on both the impact of macro-level narratives spread by the main radical groups and micro-level processes of recruitment of individuals via social media, particularly young people.
3. Back civil society initiatives that aim to promote tolerance and coherence among the various religious and ethnic groups. More specifically, consider supporting initiatives that can act as a bridge between Islamic groups and secular civil society.