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Tech Platforms Try To Limit The Taliban's Social Media Propaganda, But Won't Ban Them

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

With the Taliban now in power in Afghanistan, should they control the country's official Twitter and Facebook accounts? That's a question social media companies are confronting just as the international community weighs how they should view the Taliban. NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn reports.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: The last time the Taliban were in power 20 years ago was before Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The group sent reporters videotaped statements recorded in caves. Now they turn to YouTube, Instagram and Facebook to spread the word. The platforms ban Taliban content, but sometimes not before it's viewed by thousands. The Taliban also use encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram.

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: They have found ways of, you know, mastering current social media and the current media environment in such a way to ensure that when people hear what the Taliban want to say, they hear it in the way that the Taliban wanted it to be heard.

ALLYN: That's Raffaello Pantucci. He's a fellow at the British think tank the Royal United Services Institute. He says the Taliban of the '90s went around the country destroying television sets. Today, the spokesman for the Taliban has more than 300,000 followers on Twitter. Unlike other platforms, Twitter hasn't banned the Taliban but says it will crack down on glorifications of violence. Afghanistan's official presidential account on Twitter has been suspended and not handed over to the Taliban. That could change.

Emerson Brooking of the Atlantic Council says the social media platforms are in a tricky position.

EMERSON BROOKING: The platforms would desperately like the international community to act first. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter don't want to be setting international precedent when it comes to recognizing or not recognizing the Taliban.

ALLYN: When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the internet barely existed there. A recent survey found that now 40% of residents have internet access and 90% have mobile phones. Pantucci says it's unclear if the Taliban will eventually crack down on Afghans' connection to the rest of the world.

PANTUCCI: So will we see sort of bans on, you know, faces, on soap operas, on sex and stuff like this? Music, for example, is something that the group is not particularly a fan of unless it's religious music.

ALLYN: Pantucci says the Taliban hasn't changed its fundamental belief system just because it's on Twitter. He says the Taliban's goal on social media right now is to try to appear legitimate. But if it wants, it could eventually cut the internet off completely.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.

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