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The Technology 202: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube face high-stakes question of whether to recognize Taliban

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with Aaron Schaffer

Social media companies have had to make numerous critical calls over the years about contentious and even violent government transitions, including a military coup in Myanmar and the 2020 U.S. presidential election. They’ve done so by leaning on decisions by global authorities, such as the United Nations.

But the Taliban’s swift push to wrest control of the Afghan government could soon force the platforms to make the same high-stakes decisions now confronting global leaders — determining whether to recognize a transfer of power and new regime, without the benefit of clear direction from their usual lodestars.

“It feels unique,” said Katie Harbath, a former public policy director at Facebook. “It feels like it is not a typical situation that there’s like a written playbook for how to handle something like this.” 

Setting policies for Taliban rule would pose a major challenge for the companies, who will play a huge role in deciding how effectively the Afghan government and the Taliban can reach audiences online — and what they can do with that power.

Companies will ultimately control who runs the government’s official accounts, such as for the office of the Afghan president, which has nearly a million followers, and whether the Taliban’s own pages will be granted an air of legitimacy by being verified or labeled by the platforms. They are also facing pressure to keep Taliban leaders off their services altogether because of the group’s links to terrorism, particularly from conservatives still fuming over former president Donald Trump’s suspensions.

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement that the Taliban is banned from the company’s products under its policies against dangerous organizations.

That means it will remove accounts maintained by the group or on its behalf, and prohibits “praise, support, and representation of them.” (Despite the ban, the Taliban has already used Facebook’s WhatsApp platform — where encryption shields users’ private chats — to gain support in the country and spread its message, according to a Vice report.)

But ultimately, Stone said, “Facebook does not make decisions about the recognized government in any particular country but instead respects the authority of the international community in making these determinations.”

Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough noted in a statement that the “situation in Afghanistan is rapidly evolving,” and that “Twitter’s top priority is keeping people safe, and we remain vigilant.” Spokespeople for Google-owned YouTube did not return a request for comment. 

By relying on guidance from the U.N. and others, platforms escape making politically dicey and highly consequential decisions on which regimes to recognize. The picture may not be so clear this time, though.

Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said social media companies are “very much in uncharted territory."

“We’ve seen attempted and successful coups in the Internet age, we’ve seen revolutions, but we haven’t seen a successful insurgency and invasion from within the state,” he said.

Some global leaders are already rejecting the prospect of Taliban rule. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on other countries not to recognize the militant Islamist group as the government of Afghanistan. The United States is still “taking stock” of the situation and whether to recognize Taliban rule, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday. China has welcomed “friendly” relations with the Taliban but stopped short of recognizing its rule.

Without clear cues from global leaders, tech companies are forced to make their own decisions about who gets to speak for the Afghan government on social media, and how seriously to take the Taliban’s campaign to gain legitimacy. And to do that, they’ll need to weigh other crucial factors, including the safety of users desperately seeking to flee Afghanistan.

“This puts them in a surreal position where decisions they make about who to verify, who to give voice to, who to recognize as the president of Afghanistan could have extraordinary ramifications for how the next few weeks unfold,” Brooking told The Technology 202.

Twitter, Facebook and other platforms have long faced pressure to crack down more forcefully against countries linked to terrorism, such as Iran, and Afghanistan is now poised to become another battleground.

Complicating matters for platforms: while the Pakistani Taliban is designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department, the Afghan Taliban is not. If a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is recognized internationally, it could create a tension with companies' policies against promoting terrorism.

But Brooking said solving the issue isn’t as simple as expelling the Taliban from the international community online, because having a presence could be important “if for no other reason than they can be better compelled to abide by some basic norms and the treatment of their people.”

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  • Mike Liptak is joining the Internet Association as director for federal government affairs. He previously worked as the Travel Technology Association’s vice president of government relations. 

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