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Social media and disinformation in war propaganda: how Afghan government and the Taliban use Twitter

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Advancement in communication technology evolved means and structure of media production. It also democratized dissemination of information. Social media as a significant platform for political engagement are also used for both diffusion and propagation. This study examines disinformation and propaganda in war in the age of information particularly through social media. It analyzes Twitter's posts of the Afghan government and the Taliban, from January to March 2018. For understanding disinformation, 952 tweets of both parties were crosschecked with four national media outlets and a civilian protection advocacy group; and to recognize how the belligerents tried to present and propagate, their contents were analyzed to identify terms that dominate their outbound information. The study found discrepancy in information disseminated by the warring parties and mainstream media. Terrorism and Jihad were dominant frames of government and the Taliban, respectively. The findings could contribute to a greater body of literature regarding propaganda in operationalization of social media in the conflict zone.
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Social media and disinformation in war
propaganda: how Afghan government and the
Taliban use Twitter
Hazrat M. Bahar
To cite this article: Hazrat M. Bahar (2020): Social media and disinformation in war propaganda:
how Afghan government and the Taliban use Twitter, Media Asia
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/01296612.2020.1822634
Published online: 21 Sep 2020.
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Social media and disinformation
in war propaganda: how Afghan
government and the Taliban
use Twitter
HAZRAT M. BAHAR
Advancement in communication technology evolved means and structure of media production. It
also democratized dissemination of information. Social media as a significant platform for political
engagement are also used for both diffusion and propagation. This study examines disinformation
and propaganda in war in the age of information particularly through social media. It analyzes
Twitters posts of the Afghan government and the Taliban, from January to March 2018. For under-
standing disinformation, 952 tweets of both parties were crosschecked with four national media
outlets and a civilian protection advocacy group; and to recognize how the belligerents tried to
present and propagate, their contents were analyzed to identify terms that dominate their out-
bound information. The study found discrepancy in information disseminated by the warring par-
ties and mainstream media. Terrorism and Jihad were dominant frames of government and the
Taliban, respectively. The findings could contribute to a greater body of literature regarding propa-
ganda in operationalization of social media in the conflict zone.
KEYWORDS: Social media; twitter; disinformation; war propaganda; propaganda; Taliban; Afghanistan
Introduction
Propaganda and its role in war carried out
through media are well researched topics
particularly after the Second World War
(see, among other, Bernays & Miller, 2005; Fuchs,
2018; Herman & Chomsky, 1988; Lasswell, 1927;
Scriver, 2015; Simpson, 2005). However, online
propaganda and disinformation in a country like
Afghanistan, which is still engulfed in civil war,
have been rarely sufficiently contextualized and
studied. Following the 9/11 incident, the United
States ousted the Taliban government that shel-
tered Osama bin Laden, a leader of al-Qaida who
carried out the incident, in Afghanistan. A new
government, supported by the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO), was established;
however, the Taliban regrouped and started fight-
ing against the government and the NATO forces.
Propaganda and means of communication have
been evolving in what Casteel called information
............................................................................................................................................
Hazrat M. Bahar is a PhD candidate at School of Journalism and Communication, Shanghai University, Yanchang, China;
and faculty at Shaikh Zayed University in Khost province of Afghanistan. Email: bahar@iuj.ac.jp
© 2020 Asian Media Information and Communication Centre 1vMEDIA ASIA
MEDIA ASIA, 2020
https://doi.org/10.1080/01296612.2020.1822634
RESEARCH
society (Castells, 2010). Adam Hodges tries to the-
orize propaganda in the age of fake news and wrote
that the twenty-first century’s version of propa-
ganda is aimed at spreading disinformation and
sowing ignorance, division, doubt, and fear
(Hodges, 2018). This is easier now than the past as
social media optimally make it possible. Social net-
working sites (SNSs) have both dark and bright
sides (Baccarella et al., 2018). Besides being an
uncensored platform, social media have also chal-
lenged the monopoly of traditional media (Lang &
Lang, 2002) and the information disseminating
through online platforms is considered a great
source of power (Castells, 2010).
Both social media and Afghanistan, when con-
textualized, are understudied topics in political com-
munication. The former is an emerging but topical
issue in post-war countries while the latter as a third
world country has attracted no or less attention in
relevant scholarship. This study is an attempt to fill
this gap by looking into the use of social media
(Twitter) by Afghan government and their warring
belligerent – the Taliban. Since Twitter is increas-
ingly used in political context (Stieglitz & Dang-
Xuan, 2013), this platform was one of the reasons for
choosing this study. Instead of the propaganda model
(PM) by Herman and Chomsky (Herman &
Chomsky, 1988), media frame is employed for ana-
lysis because the former may not adequately explain
social media and its propaganda mainly due to the
drastic evolution in communication technology and
the emergence of Web 2.0 technology.
War and propaganda
The concept of justifying war, argued by Welch
and Jo (2012), is closely linked with the ‘just war’
theory. The theory encompasses ‘justice in resort to
war’ and ‘justice in the conduct of war’ (Calcutt,
2011). Belligerents justify war. This justification,
precisely persuasion, is nothing but propaganda,
which tools include artwork, music, mass media,
multimedia and now social media (Scriver, 2015);
they have been used in the propaganda battle for
wining ‘hearts and minds’ (Welch & Jo, 2012).
When wars begin, in order to mobilize and direct
public opinion, belligerents invariably initiate pub-
lishing accounts of how the war was caused; there-
fore, propaganda has become an essential tool of
engagement, and the development of media offered
a fertile ground for propaganda and war (ibid).
In war, as in case of the civil war in Afghanistan –
a war between counterparts for power and govern-
ment (Scott et al., 2013) – the public pays the price;
public spending needs to be redirected to war. In a
democratic society the general public’s support is
equally important (Scriver, 2015). Therefore, winning
the ‘hearts and minds’ of the ‘bewildered herd’ – as
Noam Chomsky termed – is significant. In a demo-
cratic society it is rather easily applicable through
propaganda and disinformation, “Propaganda is to a
democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian
state.” (Chomsky, 1997,p.16).Exploringtheimport-
ance of propaganda, Heibert wrote “the battle for pub-
lic opinion is as important during a war as the
engagement of soldiers on the front (Hiebert, 2003,p.
243) cited in (Scriver, 2015).
The word “propaganda tended not to be the
damning term” and it retained “strong Catholic
aura well into the 19
th
century … . However, while
the word then could be used to make a sinister
impression, it did not automatically evoke subver-
sive falsehood, as it has since the 1920s” (Bernays
& Miller, 2005, pp. 9-10). Propaganda is an integral
part of war and it has a long history (see, Bernays
& Miller, [1928] 2005; Fuchs, 2018; Simpson, 2005).
It should not be confounded with fake news, which
recently emerged particularly after the inception of
web 2.0 materialized. Disinformation is another
closely related concept. It is deliberately “outright
false information that is disseminated for propa-
gandistic purposes but may be identifiable as false
later on” (Lewandowsky et al., 2013, p. 488). In
contrast, propaganda is “the deliberate, systematic
attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cogni-
tions, and direct behavior to achieve a response
that furthers the desired intent of the prop-
agandist” (Jowett, 2017, p. 7). In the theory of polit-
ical propaganda, Lasswell argued that propaganda
is “concerned with the multiplication of those
2vH. M. BAHAR
stimuli which are best calculated to evoke the
desired responses.” (Lasswell, 1927, p. 630). It is, he
further argued, a mere tool for persuasion and
directing. In war propaganda is meant to “bolster
the moral of troops and to weaken the resolve of
the enemy (Scriver, 2015).
A theory of propaganda, described by Lasswell,
argues to multiply “stimuli which are best calculated
to evoke the desired responses [and nullify those
stimuli] which are likely to instigate the undesired
responses. ”(Lasswell, 1927, p. 30). Scriver (2015)
concluded Lasswell’s understanding of propaganda:
a) it functions through the organization of culturally
significant symbols; b) propaganda and propagandist
are important in war; and c) it is deliberate and
intentional. Therefore, warring parties would try to
propagate, exaggerate and twist reality and informa-
tion. Adam Hodges tries to theorize the current ver-
sion of propaganda and wrote that the twenty-first
century’s propaganda is aimed at spreading disinfor-
mation and sowing ignorance, division, doubt, and
fear (Hodges, 2018). Same as mass media, the follow-
ing hypothesis is posited:
H1: social media are used for propaganda
or intentional exaggeration in war.
Social media and propaganda
As a group of internet-based applications build on
the ideological and technological foundation of web
2.0, social media allow the creation and exchange
of user-generated content and are increasingly used
in political context recently (Stieglitz & Dang-
Xuan, 2013). Concerns raised by observers that
dominant mainstream media would reduce policy
debate to privileged charismatic candidates over
those who have more ability to lead (Lang & Lang,
2002) seem to have been mitigated by social media,
which provide space and platforms where those
who wish to voice their concerns can disseminate
thoughts about issues in which they are interested.
In addition, social media are also used by politi-
cians and governments to “improve service and
communication with citizens and voters” (Stieglitz
& Dang-Xuan, 2013, p. 1281). In the era of the
information society, information becomes a funda-
mental source of power (Castells, 2010). New
media, particularly Web 2.0 have changed trad-
itional ways of generating and disseminating infor-
mation. Social media as platforms for
dissemination of information, including disinforma-
tion and propaganda, have been politicized and
extensively used, as illustrated by the 2016 presi-
dential election in the United State. During the
election, Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) found that a
total of 158 fake news stories were shared 37.6 mil-
lion times.
War propaganda, disinformation and their dis-
semination have been extensively research (Farwell,
2014; Shehabat & Mitew, 2018; Simpson, 2005;
Woolley & Howard, 2017). Woolley and Howard
conducted a large research project on computa-
tional propaganda (CP) in nine countries and con-
cluded that social media are ‘actively used as a tool
for public opinion manipulation’ and CP is one of
the powerful new tools against democracy’. CP,
they define, is the use of algorithms, automation,
and human curation to purposefully distribute mis-
leading information over social media networks
(Woolley & Howard, 2017). Propaganda and con-
tent production on social media differ from that of
mass media. Production of attention and visibility
on mass media requires money, time and labor
force (Pedro-Cara~
nana et al., 2018); however, atten-
tion and visibility could be produced without a
great deal of capital, particularly on the internet –
the social media platforms – as the social networks
are “seen as shaking off the shackles of the problem
of ownership” (Williams, 2003). Besides that, mass
media relatively have hierarchical and vertical
structure while social media have decentralized
traits when it comes to application and utilization.
Therefore, propaganda on social media might be
different and cheaper from that of mass media.
This seems to be the case in Afghanistan because
the Taliban are far weaker than the government in
terms of resources; however, they are equal or bet-
ter in dissemination of information, particularly
through social media.
3vMEDIA ASIA
Although online platforms of social media have
provided an easy and free environment for grass-
roots population and social movements to voice
their concern and participate in politics (Fuchs,
2018), given the security and political situation of
Afghanistan, networked public sphere is vulnerable
to the danger of manipulation by both the state
and non-state actors including the Taliban. To
understand the use of social media and making
sense of the information posted by the parties,
framing analysis (Goffman, 1986) can be helpful as
“it is about efforts at making sense of an issue or
how [sic] people think about an issue” (Edy &
Meirick, 2007, p. 122). In framing, it is not what,
but “how [sic] a given piece of information is being
presented (or framed)” (Scheufele & Iyengar, 2014).
People’s reception and effects of such information
though is an important part of framing but it is
beyond the scope here. This study tries to under-
stand and analyze a question of how the belliger-
ents use Twitter to represent themselves and their
warring party.
Framing is distinguishing an object or its
attributes from another by salience, when they are
represented to audiences. It refers to, Chong and
Druckman argue, “a process by which citizens learn
to construe and evaluate an issue by focusing on
certain “frames”—i.e., certain features and implica-
tions of the issue — rather than others” (Chong &
Druckman, 2011). An emphasis framing (Scheufele
& Iyengar, [2012] 2014) that focuses on how infor-
mation is framed or presented is employed here
because determining how parties present them-
selves through information is a result of this study.
Framing does not necessarily present an objective
aspect of an attribute. Rather, it is a representation
of perceived reality. In elaborating the concept,
Entman wrote that framing is to “select some
aspects of a perceived reality and make them more
salient in a communicating text” and salience is to
make “a piece of information more noticeable,
meaningful or memorable to audiences”
(Entman, 1993).
The concept of framing proven helpful in
understanding how media represent objects and
attributes in relation to salience and the extent of
association to how salient they are. The degree and
aspect of salience are also important in making
sense and meaning of related issues and this seems
to be the reason that William (1992) in defining
framing, called it the “central organizing idea” in
construction of meaning. Putting it simply, framing
helps an audience to make sense of social construc-
tion of reality.
Afghanistan and media
After the NATO-led invasion in late 2001,
Afghanistan witnessed development in almost all
sectors including information and communication
technology (ICT) as well as media. After the col-
lapse of the Taliban, a new constitution ratified in
2004 guarantees freedom of speech (article 34) and
the law of mass media permits establishment of
private media (article 10). Afghanistan, adopting a
liberal theory of press (Siebert et al., 1956), enter-
tains better press freedom in the region (RSF.,
2019). In the last one and a half decades, media
industries and freedom of speech have been
improved. From only one radio in 2001, there are
currently about 495 operational media outlets that
include 183 newspapers, 200 radio stations, 96 TV
stations, and 14 news agencies (Khalvatgar, 2019).
Media are hailed as one of the “remarkable
success[es] of the Afghan state” (Page & Siddiqi,
2012, p. 6).
All prominent social media platforms are freely
accessible in Afghanistan. With 31.6 million total
population (CSO., 2018), out of 9.7 million internet
users 3.8 million people use social media
(Hootsuite, 2019). To put this into perspective, in
the 2018 parliamentary election, around 9 million
voters were registered across the country (Adili,
2018); out of total 34 provinces, only 4 million peo-
ple cast their votes in 32 provinces (Popalzai et al.,
2018). Interestingly, that is almost also the total
number of social media users; however, it does not
necessarily mean that only online users voted in
the election. With a 38 percent literacy rate, 31.6%
of educated citizens actively use social media and
4vH. M. BAHAR
after sport and celebrity, politics is a topical issue
discussed on social media in Afghanistan
(GIZ, 2014).
Penetration of internet and number of social
media users are increasing. So are the concentra-
tion of both the Taliban and the government in uti-
lizing social networks for disseminating and
propagating war related (dis)information to attract
more attention of netizens, mainstream media, and
of those who have stake in the war. Both parties
have been extensively using Twitter as per the
study’s observation and it is comparatively per-
ceived “less ‘social’ and more ‘informative’” (Biały,
2017, p. 74) and a predominant purpose of using
social media by such parties are the distribution of
propaganda (West, 2016).
Social media are extensively used in
Afghanistan. President Ashraf Ghani’s surprised
and unexpected announcement of cease-fire with
the Taliban first appeared on his Facebook account
in June 2018. Almost all ministries, provincial gov-
ernors, semi-governmental and independent organi-
zations, members of parliament and politicians
have social media accounts. For government, dis-
semination of information (or propaganda) is not
limited to spokespersons. Each relevant administra-
tion of the government has a separate office which
runs public relations activities by using social
media, buying airtime and space on television,
radio, print media, and billboards. The office is
staffed with media savvy employees equipped with
appropriate technologies for using social media. A
verified Twitter account of the ministry of defense,
examined in this study, on average has 13 posts
a day.
Today, The Taliban also rigorously use social
media, although during their governance from 1996
to 2001, not only internet use, but also watching
television, listening to music, and engaging in other
related entertainment were strictly prohibited.
Their leaders communicate with followers and
potential supporters using digital technology
including social media networks (Drissel, 2015).
The Taliban use Twitter and Facebook to report
their attacks on security forces, make statements,
and disseminate propaganda. They have separate
channels for communicating with media and jour-
nalists. It ranges from emails, WhatsApp,Viber,
Telegram to short message service (Sediqi & Jain,
2019). They publish six magazines but cannot buy
airtime or space on mainstream media because the
government does not allow media to publicize
Taliban propaganda (ibid). A Taliban Twitter
account was created in 2011 and is run by their
spokesperson’s pseudonym – Zabihullah Mujahid –
and posts more than 15 tweets per day.
Methods
This study looks into the belligerents’ use of
Twitter and their attempts in framing and propa-
gating the contents to further their desired intents
by adopting specific terms. Claimed numbers of
casualties tweeted by their official accounts were
crosschecked with four mainstream media and a
civilian protection and advocacy group named and
explained elsewhere. This approach was useful in
identifying any discrepancies in terms of claimed
number between the warring parties and main-
stream media. To see how the information was
presented, emphasis framing was employed. The
author first manually vetted the dataset and broadly
identified the dominant terms, which are explained
in detail in the Results section. They were later
categorized based on a broader definition and
inclination towards Jihad and terrorism. The former
is promoted by the Taliban in justification to fight
against evil and occupation, whereas the latter is
adopted by the government to counter and root
out those who frighten and kill civilian and govern-
ment employees. The concepts of Jihad, terrorism,
relevant terms and their operationalization are
described by several researchers (Bunzel, 2017;
Perteshi & Balaj, 2018; Rogan, 2010).
Categorization was made accordingly and the fre-
quency of the terms was used as a unit of
measurement.
Tweets of the government and the Taliban for
33 days were collected: January 20-31, February 20-
28 and March 20-31 of 2018. Different time spans
were chosen mainly because some important
5vMEDIA ASIA
security incidents took place in these periods: an
attack on the highly guarded Intercontinental Hotel
and a suicide attack using an ambulance in Kabul,
which left 128 people dead and 205 injured. These
attacks ignited international condemnation, how-
ever the Taliban did take responsibility. Tweets
from the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense (MoD)
and from Zabihullah Mujahed, official spokesperson
for the Taliban, were examined. Accounts from
these two sources provided regular information
about war and number of casualties inflicted on
one another. MoD (@MoDAfghanistan) has 65,700
followers while Zabihullah (@Zabihullah_M33) has
124,900 followers. A sample of 952 tweets posted
by both parties in 33 days was retrieved. Frequency
of tweets and the number of casualties claimed
were noted. Microsoft Excel was used in the sorting
and calculation of data. Since the dataset was lim-
ited and the author understood its languages, cod-
ing was not stipulated.
Tweets and claims of inflicted casualties were
organized chronologically and checked with media
outlets. The outlets were a) Pajhwok Afghan News
agency (PAN) – an online platform, with 43 report-
ers in 33 out of 34 provinces of Afghanistan,
including 10 reporters in Kabul. PAN sells news
stories to media and paid users; b) Tolo News, a
24-hour TV channel; c) EtilaatRoz, a daily news-
paper; and d) Afghan Islamic Press (AIP), an online
news agency. Claims of the warring parties during
the same timespan were also checked with civilian
casualties compiled and shared with the author by
the Civilian Protection Advocacy Group (CPAG).
Results
The Ministry of Defense posted 450 messages (13.5
per day) and the Taliban posted 502 messages (15.4
per day) respectively in the time observed. The
MoD posted tweets in either Pashto or Dari (the
official languages of the country), with English
translation accompanying most of them in a separ-
ate tweet. The Taliban typically posted tweets in
three languages: English, Pashto, Dari but some-
times in Arabic and Urdu if the story was of high
importance. It is claimed that there are 21 terrorist
organizations operating in Afghanistan (Sputnik,
2018), for this study however, only casualties
inflicted by the Taliban on security forces and gov-
ernment employees have been considered. While
other agencies of the government dealing with
security, in addition to the MoD, such as the minis-
try of interior and national directorate of security
(NDS – the intelligences) have their own channels
for disseminating information, these have not been
considered either. Data from sources considered
showed that MoD allegedly killed 1341 and
wounded 802 Taliban fighters and showed that the
Taliban allegedly killed 935 and wounded 338
security forces and government employees. Figure 1
indicates their claimed casualties.
However, the casualty reported in media is
considerably lower than claimed by the belligerents.
PAN reported overall casualty inflicted by security
forces of the government as 600 killed and 190
injured. The same media reported casualties caused
by the Taliban as 207 and 147 killed and injured.
AIP’s report of killings and injuries attributed to
MoD was 1043 and 243 and to the Taliban was 330
killed and 235 injured. Even though they do not
distinguish among security agencies, the greatest
number of security operations are conducted by
MoD. The numbers published on the websites of
ToloNews and Etilaatroz are lower. A possible
explanation may be their concentration on plat-
forms – the former being a TV channel and the
latter a daily newspaper. These media outlets, to
attract more attention to their main platforms,
most likely try to redirect audiences to stay tuned
to television or to read the newspaper. ToloNews
reported MoD claims of killing 296 and injuring 33
and of the Taliban killing 164 and injuring 59.
Etilaatroz reported the number of casualties
claimed by MoD as 214 killed with no injuries
reported and 34 killed and 16 injured claimed by
the Taliban.
Interestingly, no warring party claimed or took
responsibility for civilians killed during the time
observed. PAN reported the killing of 76 civilians,
AIP 45; ToloNews 17; and Etilaatroz 21. Civilian
casualties of the two incidents (Intercontinental
6vH. M. BAHAR
Hotel and ambulance suicide attack in Kabul on 21
and 27 of January respectively) were not included
in this study, because the Taliban took responsibil-
ity and claimed that people killed or injured were
security forces and government employees.
However, CPAG and mainstream media reported
that most of them were civilians. These two inci-
dents sparked international condemnation mainly
because a great number people were killed and
injured: 25 people were killed in Intercontinental
Hotel and 103 killed and 205 injured during the
ambulance suicide attack. The Taliban usually deny
their involvement in incidents where most of the
people killed or injured are civilians; an attack on
the German Embassy in Kabul that killed 150 and
injured more than 400 people in May 2017 went
unclaimed. However, the Taliban claimed responsi-
bility for both the hotel and ambulance attacks.
They were providing intermittent update on
Twitter and arguing that the people killed or
wounded were government official and foreigners.
The Taliban sometimes provided their claims
with pictures, particularly when weapons and
vehicles were captured, but pictures of the casual-
ties were rare unless some renowned government
officers were killed. MoD on the other hand, some-
time used archive pictures depicting military
maneuvering. The government did not make public
any number of their soldiers killed or wounded;
however, the Taliban reported in some rare cases
their own casualties and biographic information of
suicide attackers seemingly to internalize the war
and refute a claim that foreigners are fighting in
their ranks. Figure 2 indicates relevant numbers.
The Taliban have dominantly presented their
activities in theological terms. They address their
own fighters with mujahid or mujahidin (for
fighter or fighters), shahid (martyr), shahadat (mar-
tyrdom for death), and fidayee (martyrdom seeker
for suicide attacker). They, however, called security
forces of the government hireling,gunmen,militia-
men and international forces as invaders. Putting
these terms and devices in perspective, a new
frame (or microframe devices, for detail see Rogan,
2010)–Jihad – can be developed. A contextualized
concept and frame of Jihad is looking into
Afghanistan as an occupied country by non-
Muslims and fighting against them is an obligation
mandated by God. The Taliban also termed civilian
allegedly killed by the government or international
Figure 1.
Casualties claimed by MoD and the Taliban.
7vMEDIA ASIA
forces martyred. Likewise, after applying a signa-
ture matrix of Gamson and Lasch (1981), a new
device they call “appeals to principle” was also
observed. The Taliban used hashtag of war crime
(#WarCrime) whenever their opponent has
allegedly killed and injured either civilians or tor-
tured prisoners. The following tweet is an example
posted by the spokesperson of the Taliban follow-
ing the attack on the Intercontinental Hotel
in Kabul:
#BREAKING Tens of foreign & hireling
enemy killed in #Kabul martyr attack on
Intercontinental Hotel targeting enemy
meeting. Attack carried out by 5
martyrdom seekers armed with heavy/light
weapons entering Hotel & killing foreign
nationals. Attack ended after 14 hours.
In contrast, the MoD used few terms for those
who wage war against the government, such as
referring to the Taliban as insurgents and terrorists.
They did not make their casualties public or label
security personnel killed in the war with any title
or honor as the Taliban did. However, the govern-
ment did use the title of shahid (martyr) in state-
ments in formal communication, but such a
practice was not observed in social media. Both
parties call one another the enemy. Figures 3 and 4
show frequency of the terms the Taliban and gov-
ernment have used. MoD tweeted on March
26, 2018:
14 insurgents killed and 10 wounded in
ANA [Afghan National Army] artillery
attacks and clearing operations in Chora
and Deh Rahwod districts of
Uruzgan [province].
Discussion
The Afghan government and the Taliban exten-
sively use social media to propagate and dissemin-
ate war-related incidents. The government does not
have or may not want to have the ability to censor
social media. In other words, there is no restriction
on online media and activism in Afghanistan. Both
warring parties have been posting information that
is not matched with or confirmed by mainstream
media. The belligerents propagate and exaggerate
the number of casualties they claimed to have been
inflicted on each other to further their desired
intents. Such practice is called disinformation. That
is what the theory of propaganda argues:
Figure 2.
Casualties of MoD and the Taliban reported by national media and CPAG.
8vH. M. BAHAR
multiplication of stimuli that evoke the desired
response (Lasswell, 1927). Taking into account that
they are in war against each other, propaganda and
disinformation through any possible means, includ-
ing social media, should not be a new or surprising
phenomenon. In other words, propaganda does not
seem uncommon during a period of war. However,
this finding confirms the idea of social media’s vul-
nerability of manipulation and the danger of disin-
formation. Moreover, such practice of propagation
and dissemination of disinformation in a domin-
antly illiterate society has the potential of misguid-
ing the public. It also shows that propaganda,
unlike in mainstream or traditional media, can be
carried out without a great deal of capital and
means of ownerships.
In the era of an information society (Castells,
2010), the parties have already understood the
importance of providing target audiences with rele-
vant information for wining minds and support.
However, since the online platform, as argued by
Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) do not stipulate vet-
ting measures to limit or distinguish between
authenticated and misinformation, the PM “filter”
on social networks at least at the micro level
cannot better explain propaganda on social media.
Anyone who has easy access to using a social
online platform can disseminate information
including disinformation and propaganda. The
Taliban and Afghan government, as warring parties,
without any limitations e.g. lack of third-party veri-
fication or “filter”, expertise, and technological
infrastructure spread information that are not sup-
ported by mainstream media. Such discrepancy,
unsupported numbers and content confirm our
hypothesis and strengthen the argument that social
media, particularly when utilized by warring parties
are used for propaganda and diffusing disinforma-
tion. This was observed here. In addition, neither
parties ever took responsibility of casualties
inflicted on civilians; for example, the Taliban cat-
egorically and stubbornly denied civilian causalities
in Kabul incidents in January though media and
United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan
(UNAMA) reported that they were mostly civilians.
The attacks were the biggest in terms of casualties.
The Kabul Intercontinental Hotel attack left 25
people dead on January 20, 2018 and three days
later an ambulance laden with explosive and suicide
attacker struck government premises in Kabul that
Figure 3.
Terms used by the Taliban: clockwise, the first fours for their fighters and the second three
for enemy.
9vMEDIA ASIA
killed 103 and injured 205 people according to
media reports. This again further confirms the the-
ory of propaganda arguing that stimuli which insti-
gate undesired response would be nullified
(Lasswell, 1927).
Social media platforms are spaces in which
meaning of symbols and claims are constructed,
interpreted and shaped (Spier, 2017). Looking into
their terminology or terministic screens as Rogan
(2010) terms them, the belligerents presented the
information in particular frames. In the case of the
Taliban, they have been trying to project them-
selves within the mujahidin Jihadi frame,
whereas the government by deploying the terrorism
frame portray the Taliban as terrorists and insur-
gents. The Taliban classified the government as a
puppet regime. The focus of both parties has been
on how (emphasis frame) rather than on what (for
details see Scheufele & Iyengar, 2014). Each side
tries to present a scenario by employing factors
that Lasswell (1927) and Scriver (2015)
have described.
In an environment where the belligerents are
responsible to no one, the danger of disseminating
propaganda and disinformation is high. Such prac-
tice could easily exploit networked public sphere of
a society where literacy rate is too low. As Allcott
and Gentzkow (2017) observed, education and
media consumption are “strongly associated” with
trueness and falseness of headlines. In Afghanistan,
having one of the lowest literacy rates and the idea
of media and information literacy almost does not
exist, people seem to be more vulnerable to the
immediate effects and victimization of disinforma-
tion and propaganda. The result confirms a claim
of Lippmann cited in (Herman & Chomsky, 1988)
that propaganda becomes “a regular organ of popu-
lar government,” which here is not limited only to
the state. When it comes to the use of social
media, the Taliban are ahead of the government in
this case. The number of tweets made by the
Taliban is higher than that of the government.
Information from mainstream media was con-
sidered a baseline or ‘ground truth’ for this study
though they did not present a uniform image of
both sides’ claims. Nevertheless, they did provide a
new narrative, which is different from that of the
government and the Taliban. One of its possible
reasons could be the difference in terms of their
platform and keeping their audiences engaged with
their main platforms (television and newspaper).
Variation is also possible if specific bias exists, but
Figure 4.
Terms adopted by MoD.
10 vH. M. BAHAR
it is early to claim that this would be the case with-
out a thorough investigation of the mainstream
media for bias. So far, no such research has been
conducted in Afghanistan. The fact that main-
stream media are consistent in reporting lower
numbers of both parties lends its support to a point
that each outlet has a primary platform that
reflects their particular brand. Nonetheless, the
new narrative shows that national media of the
country, to some extent, stay in between though it
is too early to locate their position in terms of par-
tisan bias, objectivity, and impartiality without con-
ducting rigorous research.
Conclusion
This study examined how Twitter is used for
propaganda in war. Similar to mass media, social
media are used in conflict and war for propaganda,
and Afghanistan is not an exception, thus the
hypothesis was confirmed. Belligerents are actively
using online platforms where they do not hesitate
to frame and disseminate disinformation that suit
their desired intention. Observing discrepancy in
terms of the number of casualties between the par-
ties and mainstream media shows propagandistic
traits. This was expected based on propaganda the-
ory (e.g. Lasswell, 1927). Having structural differ-
ence with mass media, social media become
suitable means not only for those who can com-
paratively easily dominate mainstream media, but
far more optimal for those who with limited
resources as argued by Fuchs (2014). This is
because social media do not need much expertise
and infrastructure. In other words, as the result of
this study confirms, social media are a potential
asset of the weaker and less-heard ones: in this
case the Taliban. They, having comparatively lim-
ited resources, post and share more information in
terms of frequency and amount than that of the
government. This potentially results in widening
the danger and possibility of victimization of neti-
zens, who are not equipped with media and infor-
mation literacy. Mainstream media needs to be
able to verify and authenticate war- related content
to counter disinformation. This area of scholarship
(social media and propaganda in a war zone) has
not been widely investigated and this study should
contribute to the relevant literature.
This study has limitations. Crosschecking the
number of incidents and casualties in war is com-
plicated and dependent on the accuracy of the
sources who report information. This research
relied only on information published by national
media and an advocacy group and is subject to the
reliability of information provided to it. Production
of mass media in Afghanistan may not be immune
in terms of bias and propagandistic traits; however,
so far, the chosen outlets for crosscheck have not
been dis/proven un/biased vis-
a-vis the government
or the Taliban. Although this cannot ultimately dis-
prove that such media do not pursue preference in
production, they were the only possible options for
conducting this study and it is one of the limita-
tions of this research. Different types of media
were chosen (TV, newspaper and internet-based
news agency) to achieve a relatively diversified con-
clusion. Besides that, the dataset was relatively
small. A larger one could provide a broader picture
where reception of such propaganda and its impact
could also be analyzed.
Acknowledgements
I would like to thank professor Shen Hui (my
supervisor), professor Janice Xu, professor Marilyn
Weaver and professor Roy Weaver for their timely
guidance, reading and correcting syntax and
semantic mistakes of the paper.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by
the author.
ORCID
Hazrat M. Bahar http://orcid.org/0000-0001-
6146-4958
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