You don’t need to be an expert in world politics to know that the Taliban are bad guys to pretty much anyone who isn’t an extreme Islamic fundamentalist with a penchant for medieval times. The Afghans rushing to remove any sign of connections to the West from their online lives certainly do.
But the Taliban’s swift rise to power in Afghanistan over the past few days has proved tricky for social media companies. Given the group’s murderous, terrorist ways, should they be allowed to post publicly to the world?
Facebook, perhaps looking to move on from criticism of its hesitancy around dealing with Trump, moved quickly. It made clear that the Taliban was banned
from all of its platforms.
On the other hand, Twitter and YouTube argued that until the group—now, remember, the actual government of a nation state—broke their platforms’ rules, they would be allowed to continue posting. Despite having faced some heat online from some quarters for this approach, it appears to have been the right call.
Just as Facebook’s hesitancy to ban Trump backfired with the January 6th insurgency and a humiliating dressing down by the company’s own Oversight Board, its fast-moving approach with the Taliban appears to have backfired too.
The Taliban had established an emergency communications channel on Facebook-owned WhatsApp, allowing citizens to report looting and violence on the streets of Kabul. But that went down along with everything else.
“Preventing communication between people and the Taliban doesn’t help Afghans, it is just grandstanding,” said Ashley Jackson, a former Red Cross and Oxfam aid worker in Afghanistan, and author of a book on the Taliban and its relationship to Afghan civilians.
“If the Taliban all of a sudden can’t use WhatsApp, you’re just isolating Afghans, making it harder for them to communicate in an already panicky situation. [WhatsApp’s actions] are really misguided.”
Operating critical social media infrastructure comes with serious responsibilities. Facebook doesn’t seem to have come fully to terms with those responsibilities, which amount to a lot more than just ‘advertising the right things to nearly half the world’s population’.