Afghanistan-Taliban Crisis: Twitter, Google, Facebook Face Fresh Challenge Due to Country’s Takeover

The Taliban's rapid takeover of Afghanistan presents a new challenge for big US tech companies in terms of dealing with content created by a group that is considered a terrorist organization by some governments around the world.

Facebook confirmed on Monday that it has designated the Taliban as a terrorist organization and has banned it, as well as content supporting it, from its platforms. Despite Facebook's prohibition under its rules against dangerous organizations, Taliban members are said to have continued to use the end-to-end encrypted messaging service WhatsApp to communicate directly with Afghans.

According to a Facebook spokesperson, the company is closely monitoring the situation in Afghanistan, and any accounts found to be linked to sanctioned organizations in Afghanistan will face action, which could include account removal.

On Twitter, Taliban spokesmen with hundreds of thousands of followers have tweeted updates during the country's takeover.

The Taliban's return has sparked fears that it will repress freedom of expression and human rights, particularly women's rights, and that the country will once again become a safe haven for international terrorism. Officials from the Taliban have issued statements expressing their desire for peaceful international relations and promising to protect Afghans.

This year, major social media companies made high-profile decisions about how to handle sitting world leaders and powerful groups. These include controversial bans on former US President Donald Trump for inciting violence in the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol riot and bans on Myanmar's military in the aftermath of the country's coup. 
The coup increased the risk of offline harm, according to Facebook, which has long been chastised for failing to combat hate speech in Myanmar. Its history of human rights violations also contributed to the ban on the ruling military, or Tatmadaw.

The companies, which have come under fire from global lawmakers and regulators for their outsized political and economic influence, often depend on state designations or official international recognitions to determine who is allowed on their sites.

These also help determine who might be verified, allowed official state accounts or may receive special treatment for rule-breaking speech due to newsworthiness or public interest loopholes.

However, the differences among the tech companies' stances suggest the approach is not uniform.

When asked if the Taliban are banned or restricted on YouTube, Alphabet's video-sharing service declined to comment, but said it relies on governments to define "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" (FTO) to guide the site's enforcement of its rules against violent criminal groups. YouTube pointed to the US State Department's list of FTO's of which the Taliban is not a member. The US instead classifies the Taliban as a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist," which freezes the US assets of those blacklisted and bars Americans from working with them.

Complicating matters even more, the Taliban's position on the world stage may shift as they consolidate control, despite the fact that most countries have shown little sign of diplomatic recognition.

"The Taliban is somewhat an accepted player at an international relations level," said Mohammed Sinan Siyech, a researcher on security in South Asia and doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh, pointing to talks China and the United States have held with the group.

"If that recognition comes in, then it becomes more difficult for a company like Twitter or Facebook to make a subjective decision that this group is bad and we will not host them."