Arash Azizzada has spent much of the past week talking to people in Afghanistan and helping them evacuate as the Taliban took control of the country. The former photojournalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Afghans for a Better Tomorrow has also been ensuring vulnerable citizens erase online evidence that could put them at risk. “Just like us, [Afghans] have spent 20 years on the internet,” said Azizzada, who is part of the Afghan diaspora in the United States. “They may not always remember their digital trail.”
As the Taliban seized control of major cities, people grew concerned that the group could use social media profiles and other information on the internet to identify citizens who previously worked for the Afghan security forces, civilian government, or foreign organizations. Many Afghans scrambled to delete their accounts or adjust their privacy settings, sometimes forced to choose between staying safe and maintaining important connections to contacts abroad. In response, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter all said they had taken steps to help people in the country secure their data.
The advocacy organization Human Rights First published guides in Dari and Pashto, the main languages spoken in Afghanistan, instructing people how to delete their social media accounts. Will Byrne, who leads HRF’s innovation lab, says the process can be cumbersome. “It’s not like you have one streamlined way by which you can turn off your footprint across five platforms, or two or three,” he explained.
Byrne also noted that basic logistical issues could hamper Afghans from taking steps to protect their digital privacy, including lack of access to electricity, internet, and working smartphones or computers. “Without those things, it can be almost effectively impossible to delete your accounts,” he said.
Patricia Grossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Rest of World that earlier this month, a man was detained outside the southeastern city of Ghazni for several days after the Taliban stopped him, searched his phone, and found evidence that he had connections to the Afghan National Security Forces. “It’s particularly those kinds of contacts that they are interested in right now,” said Grossman. “They’re making searches in different parts of the country.”
Azizzada said that contacts on the ground have told him that the Taliban is using Facebook and LinkedIn “extensively” to identify who has connections outside the country and might have worked with Western groups like the United States Agency for International Development. Tech platforms have “been the tools for them to say which people they deem as collaborators, or think worthy of some kind of retribution,” he said.
Because of U.S. sanctions, Facebook and YouTube have both banned the Taliban from their platforms. Twitter and LinkedIn similarly prohibit “violent organizations” and “violent extremist groups.” Despite the rules, the Taliban is still using Western social media sites to its advantage. Over the last ten days, more than 100 official or pro-Taliban accounts have sprung up on Twitter and Facebook, according to The New York Times, which also identified a number of official Taliban YouTube videos that were later removed. During the same time period, Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesperson for the movement, gained almost 100,000 followers on Twitter (his account was launched in 2017).
In a statement, a spokesperson for LinkedIn said the company was “monitoring conversations about developments in Afghanistan and taking action on any content that doesn’t follow our professional community policies.” LinkedIn added that it has also temporarily limited the visibility of connections for users in the country. A spokesperson for Twitter said it would “continue to proactively enforce our rules and review content that may violate Twitter Rules, specifically policies against glorification of violence, platform manipulation, and spam.” Google and Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said on Twitter that the company had launched a tool for people in Afghanistan to quickly lock their profiles, as well as temporarily halted the ability to search friends lists of accounts in Afghanistan. Earlier this week, Facebook shut down an emergency helpline on WhatsApp set up by the Taliban, prompting outcry from human rights groups who argued it was a potentially important resource in a quickly changing security environment.
Even before the recent takeover, the Taliban had already proven adept at using social media to identify and research its opponents. As far back as 2012, media reports indicated that the group was using Facebook to gather information on coalition soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. A report published by Human Rights Watch in April found that members of the Taliban have also harassed women and journalists on social media.
As the situation continues evolving on the ground, some advocates are worried that members of the Taliban may be impersonating civilians online. Linda Raftree, a consultant who helps humanitarian organizations adopt new technology, said that a friend in the aid sector recently received a LinkedIn friend request from someone in Afghanistan asking them to confirm whether they had previously worked with an Afghan colleague. They worried the message could be an attempt to target people who had worked with foreign NGOs. “It’s hard right now because no one is quite sure what the Taliban’s capabilities are,” Raftree said.