Following the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ascendance of the Taliban, Facebook has found itself with a power nearly unprecedented in history: an American corporation unilaterally controlling the most popular means through which an entire foreign government speaks to its people.
After the Taliban assumed power in August, Facebook initially tightened its controls on the group, which it had already blacklisted. But internal company materials reviewed by The Intercept show that Facebook has carved out several exceptions to its Taliban ban, permitting specific government ministries to share content via the company’s platforms and contributing to a growing tangle of internal policies on how the Taliban posts.
Facebook has for years officially barred the Taliban and myriad affiliates from using its platforms under the company’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy, an internal blacklist published by The Intercept in September. The DIO blocks thousands of groups and people from Facebook platforms and dictates what billions of people can say about them there. But unlike other banned groups on the DIO list, like Al Qaeda or the Third Reich, the Taliban is now a sovereign government engaged in the very real business of administering an entire country with millions of inhabitants.
An internal policy memorandum obtained by The Intercept shows that, at the end of September, the company created a DIO exception “to allow content shared by the Ministry of Interior.” The memo cited only “important information about new traffic regulations,” noting “we assess the public value of this content to outweigh the potential harm,” although it did not limit its exception to traffic updates only. A second DIO exception added at the same time provides a far narrower carveout: Two specific posts from the Ministry of Health would be permitted on the grounds that they contained information relevant to Covid-19. Despite the exceptions, however, Interior’s Facebook page was deleted at the end of October, as first reported by Pajhwok Afghan News agency, while the Health Ministry’s page hasn’t posted since October 2.
The exception memo cited “important information about new traffic regulations,” noting “we assess the public value of this content to outweigh the potential harm.”
While no other government offices are currently allowed to share information, other exceptions to the DIO policy reviewed by The Intercept were even narrower in scope: For just 12 days in August, government figures on Facebook were permitted to recognize the Taliban “as official gov of Afghanistan” without risking deletion or suspension, according to another internal memo, and a similarly brief stretch from late August to September 3 granted users the freedom to post the Taliban’s public statements without having to “neutrally discuss, report on, or condemn” these statements.
While exempting the Ministry of Interior would permit Afghans to receive information about a variety of important administrative functions like public security, driver’s licenses, and immigration matters, no such exceptions have been issued for other offices with responsibilities vital to the basic functioning of any country, like the ministries of agriculture, commerce, finance, and justice. Afghanistan is currently “on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe,” according to a recent U.N. report, and the new Taliban administration is still struggling to establish itself.
Facebook spokesperson Sally Aldous told The Intercept that the Taliban remains banned from the company’s services through the Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy, adding, “We continue to review content and Pages against our policies and last month removed several Pages including those from the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Public Works. However, we’ve allowed some content about the provision of essential public services in Afghanistan, including, for example, two posts in August on the Afghan Health Page.”
It’s unclear how Facebook has arrived at this piecemeal approach to its Taliban policy, or how exactly it determined which government ministries to permit. Aldous declined to explain how the company drafted these policy exceptions or why they they weren’t publicly disclosed, but told The Intercept that “Facebook does not make decisions about the recognized government in any particular country but instead respects the authority of the international community in making these determinations,” adding, “We have a dedicated team, including regional experts, working to monitor the situation in Afghanistan. We also have a wide and growing network of local and international partners that we work with to alert us to emerging issues and provide essential context.”
Experts who spoke to The Intercept say these exceptions, even if well-intentioned, demand a public disclosure not only of their existence, but also of how the determinations were reached. Others criticized the policy exceptions as arbitrary in nature, underscoring the unchecked power the American company holds over the functioning of another country’s government, particularly in a society like Afghanistan where a lack of internet infrastructure creates a greater reliance on Facebook products. In 2019, a New York Times report noted that Facebook messaging product “WhatsApp has become second only to Facebook as a way for Afghans to communicate with one another, and with the outside world.” While poorer countries are a lucrative and growing target for Facebook’s advertising operations, years of reporting show these markets are often an afterthought in terms of content policy and moderation.
Masuda Sultan, co-founder of Women for Afghan Women, told The Intercept that while the potential for Taliban propagandizing is a concern, Facebook platforms in Afghanistan may present “the only communication that many people have in order to relay messages with the entities in power, or for these entities to hear them.” In August, Sultan made use of the now-shuttered Taliban WhatsApp hotline when her NGO’s Kabul office was occupied amid the chaos of the American pullout. “It was incredibly important for us to have access to them because the police had abandoned their posts and we had no one else to call,” she added. “Especially during an emergency, it is not helpful to have communications shut down between ordinary people and those in power.”
Facebook platforms in Afghanistan may present “the only communication that many people have in order to relay messages with the entities in power.”
While Facebook is a publicly traded company and at times consults and collaborates with both governmental experts and regional NGOs, the company remains under the complete and total control of one man, founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, and its policy decisions are ultimately his. It’s unclear to what extent the future of Afghanistan is a priority for Zuckerberg, even while his company’s undisclosed content policies continue to affect it.
The company has stumbled through issues of national sovereignty in the past — throttling the military junta in Myanmar’s access to Facebook and banning the sitting president of the United States early this year — but the magnitude of banning an entire government and then creating niche exceptions to that ban is a new test of the company’s de facto control over the flow of information to billions of people around the world. “Facebook has had to make these calls before,” explained Jane Esberg, a senior social media analyst at International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, but “the scale of it is new in the sense that it is both extremely political in the United States, and it is with an organization that is a designated terror organization.”
While the Taliban is not listed as a terrorist entity by the State Department, it is subject to economic sanctions through the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Global Terrorist roster, a list of entities on which Facebook’s own internal blacklist relies heavily. Facebook has repeatedly pointed to the SDGT list as the legal rationale behind its Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy, claiming it has no choice but to limit such speech, though legal scholars deny the company is under any legal obligation to censor the Taliban or any other SDGT entity, let alone censor those who want to mention them.
However, Facebook appears to be operating based on its own extremely broad and conservative interpretation of the law, one that critics say isn’t grounded in the actual statutes at play but rather the company’s corporate prerogatives. In a recent Twitter thread on this topic, Electronic Frontier Foundation senior attorney and civil liberties director David Greene wrote, “I can confirm that for years we’ve been asking Facebook to provide the specific legal authority that compels them to remove these groups (as opposed to just deciding they don’t want them). I’ve always said there is none. And we’ve never had a specific law cited to us.”
By notable contrast, Twitter continues to permit the Taliban to use its platform without legal penalty of any kind. “It’s completely unclear what the political logic is and who’s driving the political logic internally,” said Esberg, who emphasized the importance of “some degree of transparency so that we understand what the logic is, what counts as information that the Afghan public needs to see” versus whatever speech is deemed too “dangerous” for the platform. In a recent article for Just Security, Faiza Patel and Mary Pat Dwyer of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice rebutted the notion that the company’s hands are tied by anti-terror statutes and sanctions compliance, writing: “Facebook needs to set aside the distracting fiction that U.S. law requires its current approach.”
The ad hoc exception to certain elements of the Taliban government makes Facebook’s claims that it’s legally bound by the federal government to censor certain foreign groups even more untenable: If U.S. law mandates barring the Taliban regime from using its platforms, as the company and its executives repeatedly assert, then presumably these exceptions would violate Facebook’s expansive interpretation of its legal obligations. Facebook spokesperson Sally Aldous did not respond to a question on this point.
Ashley Jackson, a former aid worker with the U.N. and Oxfam and co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups, also criticized the company’s approach. “Why not exempt the Ministry of Education, or whatever else that deals with essential services?” she asked. “The post-2001 republic collapsed. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan have absolute power over the government. It makes little sense to pick and choose.”
The ban is all the more baffling because members of the Taliban can thwart it, Jackson added. “I know that the Taliban have used Facebook to spread propaganda and wage the war because I’ve seen it and written about it,” she said. “I’ve even used Facebook to connect with Taliban commanders. All [Facebook] are doing is covering themselves and obstructing information.”
Still, Facebook is no doubt under political pressure at home to deny the Taliban any benefit whatsoever, even if it means keeping Afghans in the dark.
“What they are doing is a cynical PR exercise — not actual safeguarding.”
“Facebook’s stance reflects a much more contentious debate on ‘legitimizing’ the Taliban, which has been marked by total and utter policy incoherence on the part of Western States,” Jackson explained. “It makes sense that Facebook’s own policy is incoherent, but erring on the side of conservatism — they’re trying to avoid public criticism. No private company should have this power, of course, but what they are doing is a cynical PR exercise — not actual safeguarding.”
Facebook’s Taliban problem began as the militant group took control of Kabul in August, pitting the social network’s opaque and U.S.-centric content moderation policies against the undeniable reality on the ground. As the last American planes were escaping the city and Taliban officials were setting up shop in government buildings, Facebook terminated a WhatsApp “emergency hotline” created by the group “for civilians to report violence, looting or other problems,” the Financial Times reported. The move immediately drew a mixed reaction, satisfying foreign policy hard-liners while disturbing others who said it would only deprive an already beleaguered Afghan public of receiving information from their new government, however loathed in the West.
But even though Afghanistan now occupies a diminished space in the American public consciousness and media, Facebook’s role there remains no less fraught. “There’s a real tension between wanting to keep certain information on the platform, including propaganda and misinformation,” said Esberg, “and allowing these actors to actually govern, and not completely scuttling their attempts at governing a country that is already facing a pretty severe crisis in and of itself.”
Update: November 29, 2021
This article has been updated to clarify the circumstances of the encounter between Masuda Sultan’s NGO and the Taliban.