The hardline Islamic group is no stranger to online propaganda
As the Taliban has advanced to Kabul they have taken pains to present themselves as humanitarian. Any Afghan government is heavily dependent on international aid, with more than 80% of the nation’s healthcare being funded by such sources, so even the Taliban has no desire to turn the world against them. Thus, they have announced an amnesty for former Afghan state officials and employees — whether it will actually be respected is another question.
As well as attempting to present themselves as humane, the group is striving to appear cultured too. The spokesman of their “cultural commission” is a better English speaker than many representatives of first world nations (raising the concerning question of where exactly he was educated).
The Taliban has had decades to improve their once basic, half-hearted propaganda, developing magazines, DVDs and websites. Now, they are also displaying a grasp of social media. As they have advanced through government territory, they have revelled in posting videos of humbly clad warriors marvelling at the empty, opulent houses of fleeing Afghan officials, or playing with US equipment that was left behind. Most woundingly, Taliban fighters mimicked the famous flag-raising scene from Iwo Jima. Their aim is to project an image of triumphant underdogs — Deobandi Davids seeing off the American Goliath.
English-speaking pro-Taliban accounts have been active on Twitter, adopting the snappy, snarky style of Western posters. “MJalal700”, for example, presents himself as an ordinary Afghan and peace activist. He can also add to his roster the achievement of shitposting, responding to the former Minister of Interior Amrullah Saleh thusly:
He thinks he is King Leonidas of Sparta with his 300 in Panjsher & will be supported by entire Afghanistan. What are you smoking 🚬 these days? https://t.co/KLdnNyZfU8
— Muhammad Jalal (@MJalal313) August 22, 2021
While Western diplomats struggle to formulate a response to these new circumstances, Taliban accounts have also been engaging with random posters. A Spanish “groyper” account — representing an esoteric Right-wing subculture based on a cartoon frog — asked one self-proclaimed Taliban spokesman not to hurt people from the Spanish embassy because “we don’t like [America] either.” “We are human beings,” the Taliban spokesman said, “we all respect each other.” More bizarrely, an alleged Taliban account even published a variation on the popular “wojak vs chad” meme, in which a weeping, neckbeard-sporting loser (supposedly representing the liberal West) cries that “you literally treat women like property” while an iron-jawed Taliban fighter surrounded by his happy harem responds, simply, “Yes.”
This is comic because the typical image of the Taliban is as desert-dwelling Islamic militants who spend all their time with their Qurans and guns, but definitely not on social media. And yet, this is a rather foolish thing to believe — of course the Taliban keep up with modern propaganda techniques. They did not keep up pressure on the most powerful and best equipped armed forces in the world for almost twenty years by being primitive technophobes.
It is important to remember, too, that it is propaganda. Claiming that you will behave humanely does not mean you really will, and posting memes is not even proof that you have much of a sense of humour.
Still, this is an interesting illustration of how the Internet affects communications on all levels. ‘Shitposting’ has become a weapon of war. Governments and armies are not just struggling to be richer and more innovative than their opponents, but more based.