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Afghan debacle once more exposes the incoherence of social media censorship

Social media companies have come under pressure to censor accounts linked to the Taliban, but there seem to be no clear guidelines or public policy.

Political censorship of social media became endemic last year as the Covid pandemic hit and the US general election approached. It coincides with an era of extreme partisanship, in which almost everything is politicised and thus subject to censorship. The latest focus of US establishment censors is the Taliban, who effortlessly retook control of Afghanistan as soon as the US ended its 20-year occupation of the country.

The US has long designated the Taliban a terrorist organisation, but will that still apply now that they’re in government? In line with that designation Facebook says it’s policy is “to proactively take down anything that we can that might be dangerous or that is related to the Taliban in general.” Meanwhile YouTube says it ‘has a long held policy of not allowing accounts believed to be operated by the Taliban on its site.’

Again, you have to wonder how sustainable that policy is now that the Taliban are in government. Will the US change its designation of a group it’s in active negotiations with and, if it does, will those platforms alter their policies accordingly? If not then it’s reasonable to ask which other governments they censor and why.

Twitter, as ever, is in the most precarious position as it’s where much contemporary political interaction takes place. To date it doesn’t seem to have censored Taliban accounts, leading many to question the criteria my which former US Presidents are banned from its platform but claimed terrorist organisations aren’t.

Another dilemma faced by all censors is the scope and accuracy of their interventions. The FT reports that Facebook-owned WhatsApp has shut down a hotline designed to allow Afghan citizens to report problems resulting from the chaos of the US withdrawal, in the grounds that it was set up by the Taliban. Surely, whatever concerns there are about the nature of a Taliban government, it won’t be improved by unilaterally censoring its lines of communication with the general population.

There is far too much indirect control of social media platforms by political interests, especially those favoured by the owners of the platforms. It seems increasingly likely that the current wave of political attacks on big tech is designed, at least in part, to give the state increased negotiating power when it comes to things like censorship. Perhaps the contradictions exposed once more by the current crisis will persuade those companies to push back harder in future.


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