Note: Some of the hyperlinks in this essay lead to graphic images.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 has produced a surge of misinformation about the country. It has been fueled by information shortages that emerged following the Taliban’s ascent to power and the withdrawal of NATO forces. Initially, much of the misinformation focused on U.S. actions. On the whole, however, it has mainly related to two themes: Taliban behavior, and developments in Panjshir, home to Afghanistan’s sole anti-Taliban resistance movement.
This misinformation has been chronicled in several media reports and compiled and aggregated by The Poynter Institute, the Associated Press, and Agence-France Presse’s fact checker Uzair Rizvi. However, most of this content covers only the first few weeks after the U.S. withdrawal. With the world having moved on from Afghanistan, more recent efforts to probe misinformation about the country have lapsed—a dangerous development, given the large quantity of fake content that continues to be churned out. This misinformation strengthens the Taliban and hampers the capacity of Afghanistan’s regional neighbors and Washington to get the inputs they need to make important future policy decisions, including the question of eventual recognition of the Taliban regime.
The first phase of misinformation sought to portray Washington in a bad light during the chaotic final days of the U.S. withdrawal. Most of it was disinformation—intentionally false content meant to malign. Social media posts photoshopped fake images of Afghan evacuees with heavy weaponry, suggesting Washington helped terrorists leave Afghanistan. Others falsely accused U.S. President Joe Biden of giving $80 billion in arms to the Taliban, and even abandoning U.S. military dogs. Much of this content was propagated by Russian media outlets and the Republican Party, and can be read as attempts by administration rivals to capitalize on the White House’s botched withdrawal and to make it look even worse.
After the withdrawal, misinformation shifted to actors in Afghanistan. There have been many reports of Taliban brutalities that never happened. This has included misattributing images, such as an image of the Taliban ostensibly auctioning off women that actually depicted a protest against the Islamic State in London in 2016, and a photo of a man leading women in chains that was digitally edited from an image taken in Iraq in 2003. Purported images circulated of Taliban members locking locals in shipping containers were taken from a movie, and a photo claimed to be of the Taliban executing a man by having him hang off a flying helicopter was actually an image of a Taliban member affixing a flag to the helicopter. Other posts mention a nonexistent Al Jazeera investigation on women abducted by the Taliban and an alleged Taliban plan to execute Christian missionaries, which was also debunked.
The other major target of misinformation has been Panjshir. Photos of supposed Taliban fighters there actually depicted French soldiers. Indian TV channels broadcast video purporting to show Pakistani aircraft attacking Panjshir, but the video was in some cases depicting American jets flying in Wales and in others using video game images. Social media accounts have posted content attesting to the strength of the resistance in Panjshir that seem questionable, given that anti-Taliban leaders are confirmed to have sought refuge in Tajikistan and are not known to be actively leading operations in Afghanistan.
Of particular concern is content that appears suspicious but has not, or cannot, be conclusively confirmed as false, or that cannot be given a confirmed context, such as a time stamp. Earlier this month, video circulated—without audio—of an apparent Taliban fighter executing a man. Some observers thought this was a recent case of the Taliban killing a former Afghan soldier, in violation of a Taliban pledge not to carry out revenge killings. Subsequently, however, a different version of the video surfaced with audio, which captured a brief exchange between the two men that appeared to show the gunman killing the other man after the latter admitted to being an officer in the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence service. Some social media users thought this meant the video predates the Taliban takeover, because NDS ceased to exist after the takeover. That would mean the depicted execution, while abhorrent, didn’t violate the Taliban’s vow to avoid revenge killings. Still, the date of the tragedy hasn’t been confirmed.
Another recent inconclusive example was a Twitter post claiming that the Taliban defense minister has said Afghanistan should prepare for a war in Panjshir in the spring. When people responding to the tweet asked for a source, the poster didn’t respond. The Taliban, which have repeatedly claimed to have ended their war, have said nothing publicly about a coming conflict. But they haven’t denied it either.
Misinformation in Afghanistan is driven by a massive information shortage. It started to grow in previous years, when an intensifying Taliban insurgency worsened the country’s security situation, making media coverage outside major cities more difficult. But it expanded even more after the Taliban takeover and U.S. withdrawal, which not only prompted foreign media outlets to downsize their operations, but also caused many Afghan journalists to flee, and led to Taliban crackdowns on Afghan reporters that remained.
A variety of players have filled the information vacuum. Some are innocent social media users who share content that they wrongly believe to be true. However, many are likely people with axes to grind who use misinformation as ammunition, in order to strengthen narratives against enemies. Indian nationalist TV channels have aired fake images of Pakistani jets in Panjshir, presumably to paint their Pakistani rival as an aggressor. Harsh critics of the Taliban—and American politicians who opposed Biden and his decision to withdraw—have posted fake content about their actions, likely to reinforce the reality of their cruelty. Taliban resistance supporters have trumpeted the movement’s strength, possibly to the point of exaggeration, to deflate the Taliban’s own narrative of strength.
Ultimately, it’s social media—and its capacity to amplify and rapidly disseminate fake news—that has filled the information vacuum in Afghanistan the most. This provides fertile ground for the manufacturing and multiplication of misinformation.
Afghanistan’s information shortage and the actors that fill the vacuum help explain why there is so much misinformation about Panjshir. The region is especially remote, and includes rugged mountainous terrain, which means cell coverage is poor and communication can be very difficult. This results in particularly acute information shortages. Additionally, Panjshir, as the last remaining bastion of Taliban resistance, is a natural venue for competing propaganda wars, with Taliban and resistance supporters both trying to build narratives about strength and capacity that may be at odds with the truth.
The Taliban benefit the most from this misinformation. Fake news about Taliban abuses distracts from their actual abuses, which have continued to proliferate since their takeover. These include beatings of women, attacks on journalists, and reprisal killings. When the Taliban are confronted with images depicting actual abuse, they can shrug them off as more false content. There is a boy-who-cried-wolf effect that the Taliban can fully exploit: If something has been a lie many times previously, it must be a lie now. Additionally, the information vacuum that drives this misinformation surge gives the Taliban cover to carry out more violent activities. Outside major cities, where there is little independent reporting on the ground, and where poor cellphone signals may constrain the efforts of citizen journalists, accounts of beatings, arrests, and intimidation often can’t be confirmed.
The Taliban, in effect, can resort to a form of plausible deniability. This gives them more space to project themselves as softer and more moderate versions of their former selves. Newer generations of Taliban leaders have mastered the art of leveraging technology for public relations purposes. Social media accounts of top Taliban leaders are purposively banal, with much of the content consisting of official statements and photos of meetings with foreign leaders. The Taliban have also benefited from post-takeover images that humanize the group, even if that’s not the intention of the journalists that provide the images. Witness the video of Taliban members happily riding bumper cars, examining gym equipment, and playing on swing sets.
In effect, misinformation boosts the Taliban’s PR efforts—which, by virtue of their ignoring the Taliban’s dark side, represent their own form of misinformation. To be sure, Taliban PR campaign also feature straight up lies—such as when the group provided video to an Afghan media outlet saying it showed shelves full of alcohol in the home of a former Afghan foreign minister. The video was aired with this Taliban claim. In reality, the video was of the Czech Embassy. The fact that the Taliban benefit from misinformation suggests they’ll have little incentive to address the drivers of misinformation. In other words, any Taliban efforts to encourage a freer press and healthier media environment more broadly likely aren’t in the cards—even though this would help the Taliban gain more of the external legitimacy that they crave.
For the people of Afghanistan, who are suffering though devastating humanitarian and economic crises, a brutal regime, and the relentless threat of Islamic State terrorism, misinformation campaigns risks worsening their plight by subjecting them to content that is confusing, inconclusive, or outright wrong. To be sure, those Afghans, especially in remote areas, lacking access to the internet may not be exposed to online misinformation campaigns (as of early 2022, Afghanistan’s internet penetration rate was nearly 23 percent). However, the country has experienced a telecommunications revolution over the last two decades, and especially in cities. More than 70 percent of Afghanistan’s 40 million people use cell phones, and a third of Afghans access social media (post-takeover claims that the Taliban banned cell phones have been debunked as another example of misinformation). This also means millions of Afghans will be exposed to social media-based Taliban public relations campaigns.
Misinformation and confusion about Panjshir could impact the future policies of regional players. For now, most regional actors have accepted the Taliban regime (albeit without formally recognizing it) and appear to have no interest in backing a weak resistance. However, if the Taliban—due to any combination of a collapsed economy, their own incompetence, and internal divisions—start to lose their hold on power, raising the risk of violence and civil war, some regional actors may want to reassess their position. At that point, accurate and trusted information on the capabilities of the Panjshir resistance and other potential armed anti-Taliban groups will be essential. Inputs from resistance members themselves, who would likely seek external support and may embellish their capacities, wouldn’t necessarily be sufficient. These challenges may be mitigated for any regional actor that has a covert presence on the ground. Still, so long as the information shortage remains entrenched, regional actors will struggle to get the inputs they need to craft policy.
Misinformation about Afghanistan also complicates U.S. policy choices. As I wrote for South Asian Voices in November, the scope of Washington’s future relationship with the Taliban, to include the possibility of formal recognition, will depend to a great extent on the Taliban’s record on inclusivity and human rights. Washington will engage more closely with the Taliban only if it sees clear progress on these issues. However, fake or unconfirmed information focused on Taliban behavior—from the purported threat to launch an offensive in Panjshir to fake images of Taliban brutalities—complicate efforts to get an exact handle on the Taliban’s record. And with the absence of a U.S. government presence on the ground in Afghanistan, and no known new intelligence-sharing agreements with neighboring states, it’s difficult for Washington to get clarity through its own information channels (U.S. officials likely will not take at face value Taliban assurances given to them in private discussions).
These considerations also apply to donor countries more broadly, especially in the West: They’ll want to have a clearer sense of the Taliban’s record before deciding to dramatically step up financial assistance that goes beyond humanitarian aid. But with so much misinformation, gathering the inputs to make that assessment won’t be easy.
Afghanistan may have faded from the headlines, but it’s essential that fact checkers and other media researchers continue to focus on misinformation there. Indeed, at a moment when Afghanistan is experiencing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, the importance of credible and verified information about the country has never been greater. Additionally, despite the information shortage, there are still excellent Afghan journalists and foreign reporters, including many lesser-known freelancers, on the ground reporting bravely and credibly. Ideally, a document with a list of these journalists could be prepared for public distribution, after having been peer reviewed by an independent expert group of Afghanistan analysts, media researchers, and other specialists.
To be sure, there are risks to creating such a list. An ever-shrinking information space, exacerbated by Taliban media crackdowns, could complicate efforts to produce a document with a critical mass of names. Also, for safety reasons, some Afghan journalists may not want to be given greater publicity by having their names featured in a public and widely disseminated document. Accordingly, another idea is to develop a list of organizations that focus on media issues in Afghanistan and that agree to provide, privately, access to their sources on the ground who are willing to provide inputs while remaining anonymous. Of course, those requesting access to those sources would need to be properly vetted.
In the social media era, it’s often tempting to latch onto attention-grabbing posts on topics that aren’t getting covered heavily in the news cycle, and share them without verifying them. But the safest bet for obtaining news on Afghanistan is to seek it out the old fashioned way—from people on the ground.
Image 2: Resolute Support Media via Flickr