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Facebook, YouTube Struggle With Taliban Content Following Afghanistan WIthdrawal

At the Taliban's first press conferences after taking over Afghanistan, spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid was asked if the organization would honor women's rights in its new regime. 
After responding that women would be allowed to remain in school and have jobs as long as it complied with Sharia law, Mujahid added a bizarre request. 
"This question should be asked to people who are claiming to be promoters of freedom of speech, who do not allow publication of foreign information and news," he asserted according to a translation by Al Jazeera. "I can ask Facebook company. This question should be asked to them."
Facebook — along with many U.S.-based social media companies and online platforms — have long banned the Taliban from officially holding accounts, citing the U.S. government designating them a terrorist organization. However, now that the Taliban has become the official leadership ruling Afghanistan, many are asking whether or not they should be allowed on as government officials. The arguments are similar to the conversations held when former President Donald Trump was ousted from social media platforms during the Capitol insurrection in January. 
"Just like the American government wasn't ready for this quick downfall the Afghanistan government and the rise of the Taliban, the social media companies are not ready to make these decisions," said Chris Haynes, professor of political science at the University of New Haven.

The Taliban vs. Social Media

As a terrorist organization, Facebook does not allow the Taliban or any accounts affiliated with them on its platforms under its Dangerous Organization policies. While the situation in Afghanistan continues and heartbreaking images of Afghan nationals struggling with the reality of their new leadership continue to be posted on social media, the company has added experts to monitor posts for violations, including native Dari and Pashto speakers.
"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," a Facebook spokesperson said via email. "Regardless of who holds power, we will take the appropriate action against accounts and content that break our rules."
Similarly, YouTube follows similar guidelines regarding designated terrorist organizations and has been monitoring its platforms through its Trust and Safety and Intelligence teams for any additional content that may violate its policies. 
"All content on YouTube is subject to our Terms of Service and Community Guidelines. YouTube complies with all applicable sanctions and trade compliance laws, including relevant U.S. sanctions," a YouTube spokesperson said. "As such, if we find an account believed to be owned and operated by the Afghan Taliban, we terminate it. Further, our policies prohibit content that incites violence."
Snapchat has banned Taliban content, but due to the fact it is a messaging service more than a place to widely disseminate information, it is harder to go viral, a Snap spokesperson pointed out. As a result, while there has been an uptick in posts from Kabul showing the situation on the ground, it hasn't seen an increase in Taliban-related content. Furthermore, features like Discover only highlight vetted media partners and accounts.
But while there are strong bans from other platforms, Twitter has allowed the Taliban to disseminate official English language statements as long as it does not violate its policies of glorification of violence, abusive behavior, or promoting "hateful conduct." It has been working to label Tweets that may be manipulated or misinformation and pointed out that it is also being used to send messages of what is happening on the ground from all people inside the country.
"The situation in Afghanistan is rapidly evolving," a Twitter spokesperson said. "We're also witnessing people in the country using Twitter to seek help and assistance. Twitter's top priority is keeping people safe, and we remain vigilant.  We are taking steps to safeguard the voices of those on our service who represent protected groups including, humanitarian workers, journalists, news media organisations, human rights activists, and others."
Most of these companies are self-regulated so they have to set their own rules, explained the University of New Haven's Hayes, and in light of the fact many U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been itching to regulate these companies, they're trying to remain as neutral as possible. Added to this issue is the fact that the U.S. government has not officially recognized the Taliban as the leaders of Afghanistan but has been meeting and negotiating with them on several matters including the control of the Kabul airport, leaving everyone confused on what to do.

"I think the public is getting kind of a mixed message, and it's probably accurate in what the social media companies are kind of going through," Hayes said.

How the Taliban Is Still on Social Media

Still, despite all the companies' efforts to monitor content on their respective platforms, posts highlighting the Taliban are still slipping through. According to the New York Times, a Taliban spokesperson uploaded five videos on his official page following the fall of Kabul on Sunday. 
Despite the investments in artificial intelligence technology to identify problematic words and images and more human staff to physically comb through posts, content is posted at a rapid rate, pointed out Erica Patrick, senior vice president of direct paid social media for Mediahub Worldwide.
"For in-stream video content alignment (like ads that play in front of videos), there's some control there to make sure we're in brand-safe content," she said. "You can filter extremist posts from a Newsfeed perspective or a Stories perspective. But there's limitations on what we can do. Everyone's feed is going to be different, and if you are targeting a certain audience, there's no way to guarantee you won't see Taliban content."
The Taliban has also become more sophisticated with their social media. Recent posts have been about assuring the public of their safety and other types of propaganda, which skirt around the glorification of violence and misinformation guidelines. Facebook's WhatsApp, which cannot look into the content of messages sent on its service because of encryption, has also been used, although an official Taliban WhatsApp helpline was shut down a few days ago.
"The content itself is designed in a way they won't get flagged," said the University of New Haven's Hayes. "They try and sneak stuff off in other ways on other platforms. They're much more sophisticated than we would like to give them credit for, in terms of their ability to communicate."
There are also ways to highlight content without using obvious terms, MediaHub's Patrick pointed out. For example, while anti-vaccination false facts are banned from Facebook, many groups get around it by using different under-the-radar hashtags like #va((ine, replacing the CCs in the word with two parentheses.
"Facebook is doing what they can to the Taliban content, but we have to see how it goes because we've all seen how it's gone to block content in the past around election fraud and vaccine misinformation," she admitted. 
At the end of the day, it's an almost impossible battle to fight, Hayes points out.
"I'm not sure Facebook and Twitter are going to be able to police this in any near-perfect way," he said. "I don't think the standard can really be 'Practically everything should be taken down immediately.'" 
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