The Taliban has over 800k Twitter followers - could they get a blue tick soon?

By Multimedia Producer Wedaeli Chibelushi

As governments across the world have had to grapple with the Taliban's swift takeover of Afghanistan, so too have social media companies.

Facebook and YouTube moved fast - following Kabul's fall, both said they consider the Taliban a terrorist organisation and will continue prohibiting its accounts.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, official Taliban representatives post regular updates to over 800,000 people. Their follower counts show no sign of slowing, but for a group that desperately seeks legitimacy in and outside of Afghanistan, a coveted blue tick from Twitter may be a boon.

With high levels of engagement on the platform and the US not strictly classing them as a terrorist organisation, could the Taliban 2.0 become verified in the near future?

The Taliban's relationship with social media

When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan - 20 years ago - social media as we now know it did not exist. Internet use in the country was virtually nonexistent, with just 0.01% of the population online, according to the World Bank.As this percentage increased, so did the Taliban's online presence.

“The Taliban has an elaborate media ecosystem online”, said Moustafa Ayad, who tracks online extremist activity at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen

Their highly produced content has occasionally evaded bans on YouTube and Facebook, while as Mr Ayad explains, Twitter has not explicitly banned the group.

"You have the footprints of the Taliban all over Twitter,” he said.

The two largest prints are that of official spokespeople Zabihullah Mujahid (375.4k followers) and Suhail Shaheen (449k followers).

It's unlikely Twitter would attempt to justify hosting a group deemed to be terrorists by the state, and the Taliban is not on the US State Department's list of foreign terrorist organisations (this allowed America to enter into its recent negotiations with the group). The US Treasury, on the other hand, has imposed sanctions on the Taliban.

To verify, or not to verify

Should the Taliban remain off the State Department's list, the group may request a blue tick from Twitter.

Mona Elswah, who researches the Arab region at Oxford University's Internet Institute said: "Verifying their accounts might signal a global acceptance of their control over Afghanistan and that whatever they tweet/say is legitimate."

If the request comes their way, Twitter must consider whether blue tick Taliban accounts would have the potential to incite violence.

Taliban fighters stand guard in front of Kabul airport after the US troops leave. Credit: AP

When asked about its approach to the Taliban after the fall of Kabul, Twitter pointed to policies that bar the “glorification of violence, platform manipulation and spam”.

“The Taliban definitely has the ability to incite violence and does commit violence - the question is whether or not those accounts are doing this,” Mr Ayad said.

So far, the Taliban accounts have been issuing public information to the 40 million people it's poised to rule. A blue tick would aid this effort.

After US forces denotated their equipment at Kabul airport last Thursday, the Taliban's Zabihullah Mujahid used Twitter to reassure a city rocked moments before by a terror attack.

Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted: "Explosions were heard inside Kabul airport after dinner today. These explosions were carried out by American forces to destroy their equipment, so that the citizens shouldn't worry."

Verification would confirm to Afghans that information like this has come from an official source.

What happens next?

“I assume if they do become the government and Twitter does not take any stance against them, I could see them becoming verified,” Mr Ayad said.

Twitter also faces another contentious issue - whether or not to give the Taliban control of already verified government accounts.

However, Ms Elswah doesn't think any big decisions will happen any time soon.

"I believe that social media companies won't rush in making such an important decision," she said.

"These companies will wait for a long while until the US government and the international community reach a decision in relation to the legitimacy of the Taliban rule."On numerous occasions, social media companies have come under fire for helping to incite violence and hatred across the world. Twitter, for example, was slammed this year after a verified Donald Trump encouraged the deadly US Capitol riot via tweet.

The company is unlikely to want a repeat of that horror, but while the Taliban face no major rivals for leadership, uncomfortable decisions lie ahead.