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Editor’s Note: Hollie McKay’s latest special report for Deadline finds the veteran foreign affairs correspondent and Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield author writing from Kabul about the disinformation campaigns across the Taliban-ruled South Asian nation.
A month into the Taliban takeover of Kabul, and the misinformation and disinformation continues to soar into dizzying territory – driven not only by both clumsy, opportunistic social media sharing, but also seemingly structured propaganda initiatives both inside and outside Afghanistan.
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But like the boy who cried wolf, much of it is likely to hurt those suffering more than help. The more the fake news is shared, the more it gains creditability, only to be proven false and plunge the beleaguered further into fear, chaos and confusion as to what is really going on.
Most notably this week, Twitter took hold – and mainstream media caught on – to news that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the most visible faces in the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, was killed in an argument with other Taliban senior figures.
“Afghanistan has fallen into a chaotic and global information war. Taliban spokespeople have issued statements that are revealed to be lies by either open-source evidence or the candid testimony of other Taliban,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council. “Meanwhile, a surreal coalition of opposition groups – among them members of the Afghan diaspora, Iranian exile organizations, Indian ultranationalists and Western military veterans – have pushed back against the Taliban. In the process, they have spread falsehoods of their own.”
Rumors highlighting severe injury or the death of Taliban co-founder Baradar – who seemed poised to become the leader but was instead announced last week as acting first deputy prime minister – date back as far as early on September 4. The rumblings appear to have been part of meddling effort, and were sparked after widespread Taliban celebratory shooting Kabul linked to the group first entering the prized Panjshir. This was then morphed to appear as an internal Taliban conflict, according to a digital forensic analysis.
On this date, unverified accounts with NRF or Panjshir in their handles wrote: “Gunfire last night in Kabul was a power struggle between two senior Taliban leaders. Forces loyal to Anas Haqqani and Mullah Baradar fought over a disagreement on how to resolve the #Panjshir situation. Mullah Baradar was reportedly injured and is receiving treatment in Pakistan.”
One former U.S. government intelligence and cyber-intelligence affirmed that one of the earliest tweets on Baradar’s demise given the most attention has both a website and Twitter account put together in August. The domain was registered in Canada via a private company.
But then on September 6, the India-based Economic Times ran the headline “Infighting breaks out within Taliban; co-founder Mullah Baradar hurt in clash with Haqqani.” However, later that day Baradar was seen publicly in a meeting with Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, dispelling such rumors – at least temporarily.
At the strike of midnight on September 12, the unverified, pro-Panjshir based National Resistance Forces tweeted via @NRFAfghanistan that “According to unconfirmed sources, Mullah Baradar was killed and Anas Haqqani was wounded in fighting among Taliban’s. These battles have been raging in recent days during the formation of the government cabinet & there are reports of the presence of General Faiz on this occasion.”
General Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed is the Director of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, and extensive efforts in DC are underway to probe Islamabad’s role in bolstering the Taliban.
After failing to ignite the first time, the rumor proliferated a second time on Sunday, and within 24 hours became the dominant Twitter trending topic. It was even repeated off-record by those within tight Taliban circles, giving further weight to the murmurs.
While the official Taliban leadership was quick to deny the latest soaring speculation, the Taliban leadership disseminated a voice message and handwritten message on Tuesday purporting to be that of Baradar affirming that he has “been away on trips” and is “fine.”
However, the lack of video has continued to give rise to the possibility and ongoing conspiracies pertaining to his demise and the likelihood of further similar stories. The BBC reported Wednesday that some form of altercation involving Baradar occurred, prompting him to travel to Kandahar.
Social media storms have also run wild with unclear narratives pertaining to Panjshir – the last bastion of anti-Taliban resistance.
Much of the vacuum of information has spurned from the lack of cell coverage, which has long been spotty across the picturesque province, and is believed to be non-existent in the mountains – except for expensive satellites – where the skirmishes are said to be ongoing. Many residents have fled to Kabul or into the rugged caves and crevices.
Analysts have warned that Panjshir has become a perfect proxy playground amid the war of information between longtime rivals Pakistan – which is considered a Taliban ally – and India, which has thrown its support behind the NRF. After reporting that the main artery of all eight Panjshir districts – which I witnessed last Friday to be under Taliban control while also acknowledging that fighting continued in the mountains and a feared humanitarian crisis loomed for Panjishiri people both left behind and continued to flee – an array of troll, bots and accounts with no or few followers unleashed to content that the firsthand observations had to be wrong.
In recent weeks, stories surged mostly via Indian news media raising alarm over Pakistan intervention with footage claiming to be that of the Pakistan Air Force assailing the resistance forces. However, Michael Kugelman, deputy director at the U.S.-based Wilson Center think tank, later observed that the at least some “footage” was derived from video games. Another clip alleged to show a Pakistan “invasion” in the region was also debunked by the UK Defence Journal as an American F-15 in the UK.
“This information war has been clearest in the case of Panjshir, in which accurate information has been almost impossible to receive. The Taliban’s claims of victory were, understandably, treated with suspicion,” Brooking observed. “At the same time, the Panjshir guerillas appear to have misrepresented their strength in a bid for Western support. The falsehoods of this anti-Taliban group were heavily amplified by actors outside the region who likely saw it as a way to undermine Taliban strength.”
Some analysts said Pakistani intervention remains a possibility, but the use of fake “evidence” does more harm than good in delivering a sound and accurate portrait of the situation.
Further assessments run by a now private intelligence group in the UK, who requested anonymity due to their sensitive work in the region, and the France-based Ultra-Scan Research also pointed to France as a country in which many of the fake accounts are promulgated.
“Many activists are engaged in social media and make mistakes. But just as important as the domestic propaganda inside Afghanistan is the (narratives) of foreign states,” explained Frank Engelsman, CEO of Ultra Scan Research, which bills itself as an intelligence gathering, investigations, reputational risk mitigation group.
Yet ever since the Taliban’s waltz into Kabul and conquering of the capital on August 15, the distortion cycle has mushroomed in the form of countless – and widely circulated – images that are either doctored, fake, or entirely out of context or without context. These are often shared by otherwise credible news figures and government officials usually outside of Afghanistan, without explanation as to when they were shot or the story behind them.
Indeed, much of the fake news focus has also centered on the murky and concerning issue of women’s rights under the new Taliban regime.
Most recently, the France 24 fact-checking service @InfoIntoxF24, exposes that the image of a man cloaking beneath the burka at a gathering of all women was photoshopped from a picture taken of around 300 women during a protest at Kabul University on Saturday.
According to screenshots posted by the India Today Anti Fake News War Room, which first exposed them as fakes, the photoshopped pictures went viral Sunday.
The following day, offshore accounts tweeted and retweeted a fake CNN story screenshot claiming that the Taliban has “bans sanitory (spelled wrong) napkins in Afghanistan, says it’s not Shariah compliant practice.” A reverse image search shows that the photograph used of the woman shopping comes from an India.com article in 2017 pertaining to President Modi’s taxing on women’s hygiene products.
Moreover, widely shared images in recent weeks include that of three supposed burqa-clad Afghan women chained to each other and walking behind a man holding the chain. The feigned image took ignited the day after the Taliban takeover, seemingly from India-based accounts, capitalizing on the #AfghanWomen viral campaign. However, the image was taken by an Associated Press photographer in Iraq in 2003 and the chain was digitally added.
Another video that did the rounds features a woman being publicly executed – shared hundreds of times from a now defunct “Rout Jagganath” account asserting that it’s a current scene in Afghanistan in which “Taliban shot and killed a Muslim woman in the middle of the road.” Yet fact-checkers have traced the video back to an al-Qaeda linked group in Syria in 2015, killing a woman accused of adultery.
Other photos used out of context featured a plane filled with hundreds of Afghan men used to drive the narrative that women and children were being left behind, yet the image was taken in Turkey by a state-run news agency in connection with a story about the deportation of illegal immigrants. Other viral photos taken out of context or edited include one video captioned, “Brave Afghan women protest against #Taliban in #Kabul #Afghanistan.” Only the video hails from protests in Iran several days earlier.
Experts caution that while the situation pertaining to women’s rights is extremely dire and worrisome under a regime known for its strict interpretation of Shariah Law, the fake imagery does serious damage in undermining a critical cause that could potentially harm Afghan women even more by throwing doubt when real atrocities are committed.
The images also endeavor to ratchet up the hysteria and fear, contributing to an already chaotic situation and the desperation to flee.
And in the month since the Taliban took power, scores of fake social media accounts have been set up to mimic major news organizations including CNN, typically with the intention of showing journalists being captured and killed. For one, the now suspended @CNNAfghan claimed last month that the company’s non-existent journalist “Bernie Gores” was “executed in #Kabul” and the avowal that the company was “working with U.S. officials to get several more journalists out of Afghanistan at this time.” The story was then picked up by other fake accounts in a coordinated manner – such as @MSNBCAfghan and @BBCAfghanNews
Despite being clearly fake, this was sent to me several times by concerned individuals in the U.S. security sector, showing how easily and abruptly warnings can take hold without proper due diligence.
And while the U.S. may have left Afghanistan last month, differing narratives continue to play out in the mainstream media. Some analysts say that the western “military industrial complex” woven through defense firms, contractors, lobbyists and manufacturers have a vested interest in keeping the chaos of Afghanistan – and credence in the resistance – alive.
Other outside actors, including Russia, also have reason to stoke chaos and exploit American ineptitude. According to a Defense One breakdown last week, the “U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan has given NATO’s adversaries ammunition for disinformation attacks intended to sow doubt about America’s reliability as a security partner.”
States news outlet Russia Today was also criticized late last month for tweeting an image – now deleted – of an Afghan refugee with a photoshopped rocket in his backpack and the caption: “Are some terrorist getting a free ride out of Afghanistan?”
It remains unclear as to whether the numerous instances of disinformation are entirely all individuals or groups working at their own behest, or if any campaigns are directly state-sponsored. But thing is for sure: it’s a digital conflict that casts doubt from all sides of the equation.
“The net effect of this information war is to keep the Afghan people in a state of confusion regarding the stability of their own country,” Brookings said. “It also makes it harder for the Taliban to claim control of Afghanistan and hence negotiate for things like international aid which the Afghan people will need desperately in the months to come.”
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