Taliban confront fake news and social media in propaganda war

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ISLAMABAD, Feb 15, 2019 (BSS/AFP) – Fighting “fake” news, wrestling with
social media, and deploying an intern army — the Taliban’s sprawling
propaganda machine embraces modernity even as the group vows to enforce
Islamist controls on journalists if it returns to power.

Notorious for banning TV and radio under its iron-fisted 1996-2001 regime,
the militants have proven surprisingly deft at adapting to the ever-changing
nature of modern media.

The Taliban’s official spokesman now tweets real-time updates about
battlefield operations and its media arm stays in direct contact with
journalists on a range of messaging apps.

“Media is considered one side of the struggle,” Taliban spokesman
Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP via Whatsapp.

“We are not against modern technology,” a senior Taliban source with links
to the insurgents’ media wing told AFP.

“This is the need of the hour and using it is not against Islamic
shariah.”

But the source admits his team struggles at times to control their own
narrative.

High-profile interviews have taken place without the media wing’s
knowledge, sparking hurried denials along with confusion over the identity of
the interviewee and whether he can really claim to speak for the Taliban.

Unverified leaks to media outlets from alleged Taliban sources are
frequent.

Fake or unauthorised accounts sprout often on social media, while their
official Facebook pages and Twitter handles are regularly banned only to be
restarted under another name.

Even the official spokesman, Mujahid, is widely believed to be not one man
but a moniker used by the information wing to issue statements.

The operation can be dizzying, admits the Taliban source.

– Truth greater than fiction –

The increasingly refined production has not gone unnoticed, with NATO
regularly briefing top officials on Taliban content.

“It gives us an idea of what the group is thinking about that day,” said
Colonel Knut Peters, spokesman for NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Kabul.

The casualty figures they release are often wildly exaggerated, but the
group has been known to describe their operations more accurately, with fewer
outlandish battlefield claims.

“The Taliban have discovered that truth has a greater impact than
fiction,” said Graeme Smith, a consultant for International Crisis Group.

Journalists said insurgents are also often more responsive than the
government.

“When a journalist was killed in Farah province, (a few) weeks back, I
wrote to the Taliban spokesman, and I got the reply in minutes,” said A.
Mujeeb Khalvatgar, the director of an Afghan media support group, who said he
is still waiting for a statement from the president’s office.

Information remains difficult to verify, however. Pakistani senior
journalist Tahir Khan, who showed AFP a stream of messages, photos and voice
notes from the Taliban on his mobile phone, said the information was “not
usually correct”.

But in a campaign like this, the battle for the truth might not matter.
“This war… one major factor is psychological propaganda,” he added.

Its value is demonstrated by how high the media operation goes.

The Taliban leadership gives orders to a handful of high-ranking militants
responsible for the group’s media strategy, the militant source said.

They work across five different language services — Pashto, Dari,
English, Urdu and Arabic — with dozens of volunteers who produce multimedia
content.

Print magazines target rural audiences without mobile phones, while slick
propaganda videos and songs reach the illiterate.

The army of interns include journalism school students, along with IT
experts who monitor the latest trends, the source claimed.

“They are servants of God, volunteers,” he said.

– Code of conduct –

The Islamists maintained strict control over media during their brutal
rule. Most foreign journalists fled the country, while Afghan reporters often
worked undercover for fear of being violently harassed or accused of spying.

In the 17 years since the US invasion, Afghanistan’s media has flourished.

But their success has made them targets, starting in 2016, when the
Taliban killed seven employees of popular TV channel Tolo — the first major
attack on Afghan media since 2001.

Journalists have faced killings, attacks and abductions. In 2018
Afghanistan was ranked the most dangerous country for journalists in the
world.

“Now (the Taliban are) using media a lot. It doesn’t mean they believe in
freedom of expression,” said Khalvatgar.

“It means that they know how to use the media… as a propaganda tool, not
as a right of the people.”

Meanwhile unprecedented talks between the Taliban and Washington have
sparked fears of a potential US exit and a possible return to power for the
insurgents.

The Taliban source said the group has no wish to shutter Afghan outlets —
but journalists would have to comply with an unspecified “code of conduct” in
line with Islamic shariah. Female anchors, common in Afghanistan today, would
not be allowed on camera.

“It’s better that they stay at home or join some other respectable
profession,” said the Taliban source.

But foreign media would be welcomed, he claimed, unlike in the past.

“We sheltered Osama [bin Laden] and provided him all our respect because
he was our guest,” he said.

“Everyone who comes from any other country will be our guest.”

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