Cover: Comparing Taliban Social Media Usage by Language

Comparing Taliban Social Media Usage by Language

Who's Speaking and What's Being Said

Published Apr 25, 2023

by Bradley M. Knopp, Jon Niewijk, Zohan Hasan Tariq, Elmo C. Wright, Jr.

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Research Questions

  1. What insights can be gleaned from Taliban use of social media messaging regarding key personnel, policies, and themes?
  2. Is media messaging across various regional languages similar or different?

In the wake of the Taliban takeover and the reestablishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in August 2021, there are significant questions about the best methods to interpret Taliban messaging. Better interpretation would, in turn, help U.S. and Western policymakers to better understand Taliban leadership intentions and would thus allow for better-informed U.S. and Western policy decisions regarding Afghanistan. Limited direct diplomatic contact between the Taliban and most Western governments necessitates reliance on alternative sources of information. Taliban use of social media, particularly Twitter, was identified as one way to understand Taliban thinking.

The authors of this report examine Taliban leadership use of Twitter in various regional languages and in English. Focusing on three areas — the economy, relationships with other militant groups and neighboring countries, and the status of women in Afghan society — the authors sought to clarify the messaging broadcast via this medium and to determine whether messaging differed by language used.

The authors found no overall strategy behind Taliban social media use and no strong evidence that Taliban social media activity is coordinated at a high level. Messages appear designed to inform, persuade, and influence a target audience. On some issues, messaging was common across languages; in other cases, the messages were distinctly different, reflecting Taliban interest in tailoring a message for a specific audience without regard to potential contradictions by other individuals or among the various languages.

Key Findings

Messaging on the economy, relationships with other countries, and women's status is mixed to varying degrees

  • Concerning the economy, the Taliban appear to be attempting to craft a narrative about the 2022 economic crisis that says the economy was crumbling under the previous regime because of rampant corruption.
  • Overall, Taliban members are fairly consistent on messaging — or silence — about external relations with other nations and groups.
  • Messaging about women's rights has been prominent in Taliban tweets. However, the mix of themes surrounding women's issues that are discussed varies across language groups. The most-notable differences were Arabic messaging's relatively low emphasis on support for women's education and workforce participation compared with English messaging's relatively low emphasis on aligning women's rights with Islamic values.

An overall strategy behind Taliban social media use was indiscernible

  • There is no strong evidence that Taliban social media activity is coordinated at a high level. Taliban messaging on some issues was common across languages; in other cases, the messages were distinctly different, reflecting Taliban interest in tailoring a message for a specific audience without regard to potential contradictions by other individuals or among the various languages.
  • Analysis reinforced the hypothesis that understanding the differences in Taliban messaging for internal and external audiences can provide valuable insights into what Taliban leaders are saying on key issues, what messages they want to convey, and how they wish to shape those policy issues.

Recommendations

  • Consider expanding the analysis of differences between English messaging and messaging in regional languages to encompass more countries and other militant groups to broaden understanding of the wider regional situation.
  • Consider applying a similar approach in monitoring anti-Taliban (former Northern Alliance) groups and their military activities in the north and among former national security forces trained by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
  • Consider establishing a full-time team of native linguists and analysts with area expertise to continue to monitor Taliban messaging and provide in-depth, culturally sensitive insight into longer-term Taliban goals and actions and into leadership dynamics within the group. Close monitoring by native linguists of these social media activities could provide policymakers with a nuanced cultural appreciation for events; this, in turn, could provide insights regarding domestic and regional developments.

This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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