One year on: Misinformation about the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan
One year ago, on August 15, 2021, the Afghan capital of Kabul was surrounded and then captured by the Taliban. As the world watched the takeover unfold, numerous examples of misinformation began circulating online. The FRANCE 24 Observers followed the fake news trail: debunking posts that critiqued the American withdrawal, supported Afghanistan’s new leaders or denounced the violence that accompanied Taliban rule.
Just over a month after the official announcement that the US army would withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban took over the city of Kabul on August 15, 2021, securing its power over Afghanistan. Online, this event was accompanied by a wave of false information.
Photos and videos taken out of context were shared to either praise the Taliban’s victory, criticise the departure of US troops, or even share false news of atrocities committed in the country. Posts like these were widely circulated in August and September of 2021, but have decreased in 2022.
False images used to praise the Taliban victory
In Kabul, the day of August 15, 2021, saw the hasty departure of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Only a few days after denouncing the American army’s withdrawal, the then-president of Afghanistan finally fled the capital before it fell into the hands of the Taliban.
On the same day, some images were shared out of context to criticise Ghani’s departure. For example, some Twitter users shared a video that showed the former president boarding a plane.
But the footage was actually taken on July 15, 2021, when Ghani was leaving to attend a conference entitled "Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity, Opportunities and Challenges", being held the following day in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Around September 20, 2021, pro-Taliban accounts and several Afghan media outlets then shared images purporting to prove that Amrullah Saleh, former vice president of Afghanistan, had "stolen money belonging to the Afghan people" before fleeing the country. In reality, these photographs taken in a bank in the United Arab Emirates predate April 2020.
In France, some people online were alarmed when a video shared online showed several members of the Taliban posing in front of military tanks. Like French MP Eric Ciotti, people online claimed these were tanks left behind by the US army and reclaimed by the Taliban.
But in fact, the tanks in these images were abandoned, likely unusable and date back to the Soviet era.
Afghan women the subject of misinformation
The Taliban’s return to power led to a rapidly deteriorating situation for women and girls, who were deprived of many basic freedoms and subjected to violence. This oppression continues to this day: on August 13, 2022, women in Kabul protested for their rights to work and receive an education. But the demonstration was harshly suppressed.
What followed were a number of posts shared online in August and September 2021 which falsely claimed to show these abuses. For example, several users shared photos which they said showed Afghan women chained up in the streets of Kabul.
Some of these posts claimed that enslaved women were being auctioned off in the streets of Kabul. But their proof came from a video taken out of context. The footage actually showed a protest in London in October 2014, held by Kurdish activists denouncing human trafficking by the Islamic State.
What are the impacts of this misinformation, one year later?
Although false information regarding the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan has become less frequent since the beginning of 2022, it still has a marked impact. According to the media outlet South Asian Voices, the Taliban is the party that benefits from misinformation.
Fake news about Taliban abuses distracts from their actual abuses, which have continued to proliferate since their takeover. [...] The information vacuum that drives this misinformation surge gives the Taliban cover to carry out more violent activities.
[...] Fake or unconfirmed information focused on Taliban behaviour — from the purported threat to launch an offensive in Panjshir to fake images of Taliban brutalities — complicate efforts to get an exact handle on the Taliban’s record. [...]
These considerations also apply to donor countries more broadly, especially in the West: They’ll want to have a clearer sense of the Taliban’s record before deciding to dramatically step up financial assistance that goes beyond humanitarian aid. But with so much misinformation, gathering the inputs to make that assessment won’t be easy.