Social media and disinformation in war propaganda: How Afghan government and the Taliban use Twitter
This study aims to examine disinformation and propaganda in war in the age of information particularly through social media. The paper analysed Twitter’s posts of Afghan government and the Taliban from JanMar 2018. For understanding disinformation, 952 tweets were crosschecked with four national media outlets and a civilian protection advocacy group; and to recognize how the belligerents tried to propagate and frame their armed struggles, the contents were analysed to identify words and terms that dominate their outbound information. The study found that both parties disseminate disinformation, which are largely contradicting with that of mainstream media. Terrorism is a prominent frame or theme for the government while Jihad and its relevant terms were dominating the Taliban flow of information.
Keywords: social media, twitter, disinformation, war propaganda, Taliban, Afghanistan
Propaganda in war has a long history (see Simpson, 2005; Fuchs, 2018) while fake news and disinformation are relatively new terms. The latter emerged along with the development in communication technology particularly when the idea and inception of web 2.0 materialized. Propaganda in war and recently the spike in dissemination of disinformation or propaganda using online social networks i.e. social media by state and non-state actors including global network i.e. Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been extensively researched (Simpson, 2005; Woolley & Howard, 2017; Farwell, 2014; Shehabat & Mitew, 2018). However, online propaganda and disinformation in conflict zone (Afghanistan) have not been rigorously examined. This study is an attempt to fill this gap by looking into the usage of social media (Twitter) by Afghan government and her warrying partner, the Taliban.
After the NATO-led invasion in late 2001, Afghanistan witnessed visible development almost in all sector including information and communication technology (ICT) as well as media. Although first publication was printed in 1870s, Afghanistan had not exercised truly private and independent media of today’s scale except for one decade, dubbed as decade of democracy (1963-73) where, for the first time, establishment of private media was permitted (Tanwir, 2000). In the last one and half decades, media industries and freedom of speech have been remarkably improved. From only one radio in 2001, more than three hundred FM radios and 113 TVs are operating in the country as of the second quarter of 2018 (ATRA, 2018). After a great number of the United States (U.S.) forces withdrawal in 2014, media industries which were greatly supported by international forces mainly the U.S. (Barker, 2008) witnessed some setback; however, they continue functioning and some outlets i.e. Moby Group are improving and expanding their operation. By providing relatively good environment, media is hailed as one the remarkable success[es] of the Afghan state (BBC Action, 2012). Listenership, viewership and ownership of radio and TV continue to grow. In 2007, 37 percent family owned TV set and this number increased to 66.4 percent in 2017. Viewership of TV, for the first time, surpassed radio listenership (66.6% and 64.5% respectively) (TAF, 2017). The same trend has been observed in ownership of mobile phone (55.0 % in 2016 and 62% in 2017) and obtaining information using internet (3.2% in 2013when 3G service first launched11.6% in 2017) (ibid).
Penetration of internet and number of social media users increase and so does the concentration of both the Taliban, who have been waging war against Afghan government and NATO forces since they were ousted in late 2001, and Afghan government to utilize virtual public sphere for disseminating and propagating war related (dis)information to attract more attention of netizens, mainstream media and of those who are directly or indirectly involved and have stake in the war. Since social media, in particular Twitter, are increasingly used in political context recently (Stieglitz & Dang-Xuan, 2013), both parties have been extensively using it as per the study observation. This platform is comparatively perceived less social, and more informative (Bia?‚y, 2017) and a predominant purpose of using social media by such party is the distribution of propaganda (L. J. West, 2016). Literacy rate is lower than 40 percent in Afghanistan and the concept of media information literacy (MIL)the ability to access, analyse, and create mediavirtually does not exist although UNESCO considers it as a prerequisite for citizens to realize their rights to freedom of information and expression (Singh, Kerr, & Hamburger, 2016). In a country with such literacy rate, citizens are exposed to propaganda and (dis)information, and the chance of vulnerability to manipulation is getting higher. In this paper, I am looking into the belligerents’ usage of Twitter and their attempts in propagating and framing the contents to further their desired intents by adopting specific terms and words. Although subject to a more rigorous vetting, to distinguish disinformation from accurate and real ones, I also looked into factuality of those tweets by crosschecking their reflection in four mainstream media and a civilian protection and advocacy group. The paper starts with an attempt to contextualize social media in Afghanistan context.
Social media and Afghanistan
In the era of information society, information (its generation, processing and transmission) becomes fundamental source of power (Castells, 2010). New media particularly Web 2.0 have changed traditional or old ways of generation and dissemination of information. Its interactive or transactional models of communication (R. L. West & Turner, 2010) and four characteristics; abundance, mobility, interactivity and multimedaility (Schejter & Tirosh, 2016) have made such production easier. Besides that, through user-friendly interface and smartphone/tablet apps, social media enable distribution of information (text, audio, and video) and reinforcement of a mastering narrative which provides context, meaning and purpose, (L. J. West, 2016).
Social media defined as a group of internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundation of web 2.0 that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content are increasingly used in political context recently (Stieglitz & Dang-Xuan, 2013). Concerns raised by observers that dominant mainstream media would reduce policy debate to privilege charismatic candidates over those who have more ability to lead (Lang & Lang, 2002) seem to have been mitigated by social media, which provide platforms where those who wish to voice their concerns can disseminate thoughts about issues they are interested in. In addition, social media is also used by politicians and governments to improve service and communication with citizens and voters (Stieglitz & Dang-Xuan, 2013).
However, social media carry the potential of spreading propaganda, disinformation and are well-suited for fake news dissemination, and content can be relayed with no significant third party filtering and fact-checking or editorial judgement. (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017). Disinformation is deliberately outright false information that is disseminated for propagandistic purposes but maybe identifiable as false later on, (Lewandowsky, Stritzke, Freund, Oberauer, & Krueger, 2013) while propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist(Jowett, 2017). Such information (disinformation, propaganda and fake news) has been politicized and extensively used i.e. during 2016 presidential election of the United State. During the election, Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) found that a total of 158 fake news stores were shared 37.6 million times; 30 million times for pro-Donald Trump and 7.6 million pro-Hillary Clinton. Besides that, a recent disclosure of Cambridge Analytica, U.K. based political consultancy which is blamed and under investigation for its alleged involvement in swinging of the U.S. presidential and Brexit elections’ results, further exposes manipulation and vulnerability of social media. Given this multidimensional aspect and rapid growth of online platforms, as argued by (Baccarella, Wagner, Kietzmann, & McCarthy, 2018) it is important to recognize that social media are not usually dichotomous, but simultaneously have both bright and dark sides.
Afghanistan, after the collapse of the Taliban in late 2001, has been experiencing democratic government, arguably for the first time. A new constitution ratified in 2004 guarantees freedom of speech (article 34) and law of mass media, revised in 2009, permits establishment of private media (article 10). Afghanistan, adopting liberal theory of press (Siebert, Peterson, & Schramm, 1956), entertains better press freedom in the region (Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and India) (RSB, 2018). On this backdrop, back by international donors, the country witnessed drastic increase in media industries (Barker, 2008; BBC Action, 2012). All prominent social media platforms are freely accessible and with 31.6 million total population (CSO, 2018), out of 4.01 million internet users, 3.5 million people use social media (Hootsuite, 2018). With 38 percent literacy rate (ibid), as having one of the highest rate of illiterate people, 33.3 percent-educated citizens actively use social media in Afghanistan. Facebook is the dominant and mostly used platform (Internews, 2017), and after sport and celebrity, politics is a topical issues discussed on social media (GIZ, 2014). To put it into perspective, in 2018 parliamentary election, around 9 million people were registered across the country (Adili, 2018); out of total 34 provinces, only 4 million people cast their votes in 32 provinces (Popalzai, Latifi, & Laura, 2018). Interestingly, that is almost also the total number of internet users; however, it does not necessarily mean that only online users voted in the election.
Social media particularly Facebook and Twitter have been extensively used in Afghanistan. Presidential palaceArgruns two official accounts on both platforms; one for Arg and the other is personal account of the presidentAshraf Ghani. Mr. Ghani’s surprise and unexpected announcement of cease-fire with the Taliban first appeared on his Facebook account in June 2018. Almost all ministries, ministers, provincial governors, semi-governmental and independent organizations, members of parliament and politicians have social media accounts where they usually communicate and sometime debate issues with audience. For government, dissemination of information are not limited to spokespersons. Official accounts of government are run by public relations and outreach department of each administration where mostly youth media savvies who are equipped with both expertise including multiple languages and relevant equipment. A verified Twitter account of ministry of defence, which we have looked at for this study, averagely posts more than 13 times a day.
On the contrary, the Taliban rigorously use and have created multiple social media accounts including Facebook pages. During the Taliban rule (1996-2001), not only internet but also watching television, listening to music and other related entertainments were strictly prohibited though internet was not that popular due to the lack of technology and infrastructure. However, they reversed their previous ban and now their leaders communicate with followers and potential supporters using digital technology including social media networks (Drissel, 2015). Twitter and Facebook are used mainly for reporting daily security related incidents, statements and disseminating propagandistic materials for grabbing attentions of public and those who have stake in the country. They have separate channels for communicating with media and journalist. It ranges from emails, WhatsApp groups to short message service (SMS). Twitter account of the Taliban is run by spokesperson pseudo nameZabihullah Mujahid – and posts more than 15 tweets per days. This account has been constantly changing its handle -Twitter identity.
Liberal theory of the press that is emanated from what is called negative liberty – freedom from external restraintserves the interest of market or elite as argued (Siebert et al., 1956). Social responsibility theory grounded and pioneered by Theodor Peterson (1956) with objectivity (Almagor, 2001) seem suitable when it comes to critically analyzing media or social media of Afghanistan. It insists that media, besides having free environment of freedom, should carr[y] concomitant obligations (Siebert et al., 1956, p.74) and not worrying about the consequences of the report is grossly unethical (Almagor, 2001, p. 81). More precisely as argued by McQual, media have obligation to society, they should be objective, self-regulated and in some circumstance for safeguarding the public interests an intervention maybe needed (McQual, 2005, p.172). Although online platforms of social media have provided an easy and free environment for grassroots population and social movements (Fuchs, 2018) to voice their concern and political participation, given the security and political situation of Afghanistan, online public sphere is prone to the danger of manipulation by both the state and not-state actors including the Taliban and any other organization. For making sense of information diffusing on social media by the belligerents, framing analysis (Goffman, 1986) can be helpful as it is about efforts at making sense of an issue, or how people think about an issue (Edy & Meirick, 2007).
I have collected tweets of the government and the Taliban of 33 days: January 20-31, February 20-28 and March 20-31 of 2018. Different time spans were chosen mainly because some important security incidents took place in these periods. On behalf of the government, I chose ministry of defence (MoD) and from the Taliban, their official spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahed. These two accounts regularly share information about fight and number of casualty they inflict on each other. MoD (@MoDAfghanistan) has 53300 follower while Zabihullah (@Zabihullah_4) is followed by 16600 users and his account has been constantly changing at least once in two years apparently due to what is said to be hacking.
During the time, frequency of tweets and number of casualties claimed by the parties were observed. For understanding propagandistic traits and nature of the information, specific terms and words were identified. Claims and number were crosschecked with four national media outlets. As far as objectivity in disseminating information of the parties is concerned, civilian casualties occurred in the same time were also checked with figure collected by civil society advocating for civilian protection in Afghanistan. Analysis and calculation were processed using Microsoft Excel and dataset was derived from online websites and Twitters accounts of the sources.
During the chosen time, among other, two big incidents claimed by the Taliban occurred: attack on highly guarded Intercontinental hotel and a suicide attack using ambulance in Kabul city on 21 and 27 of January respectively. Tweets and claims of inflicted casualties were organized in a chronological order. Later on, they were crosschecked with national media outlets who, based on the text available on their websites, cover domestic issues of the country relatively more extensively. These outlets are a) Pajhwok Afghan News agency (PAN) an online platform, PAN has 43 reporters in 33 out of 34 provinces of Afghanistan including 10 reporters among them in Kabul, it sells news stories to media and paid users; b) ToloNews is 24-hour TV channel; c) EtilaatRoz daily newspaper; and d) Afghan Islamic Press (AIP), an online news agency. Claims of the warring parties during the same timespan were also checked with civilian casualties compiled and shared with the author by Civilian Protection Advocacy Group (CPAG).