The Rise of Digital Dictators: How Social Media is Strengthening Repressive Regimes

September 2021
 by Cally Salter

The Rise of Digital Dictators: How Social Media is Strengthening Repressive Regimes

September 2021
 By Cally Salter

The use of digital technology has become a hallmark of modern foreign policy. From public announcements to press conferences, social and digital media are frequently used by governments to engage directly with their electorate. As the world bears witness to the international crisis in Afghanistan, however, urgent questions are being raised about how social media companies should address repressive regimes. Calls abound for big tech to do more to hold controversial political actors to account. But there is a tightrope between avoiding censorship and giving voice to extremist groups. The big tech companies must re-evaluate how their technology is used, and its broader repercussions for democracy in the digital age.

The Taliban’s resurgence has been directly fuelled by the adoption and manipulation of digital technology. As speech is censored and freedoms curtailed, political repression is expediated through digital repression. Defined by political analyst Steven Feldstein, digital repression refers to “the use of information and communications technology to surveil, coerce or manipulate individuals or groups in order to deter specific activities or beliefs that challenge the state”. According to Feldstein, acts of digital repression fall under five different categories: surveillance, censorship, disinformation, social manipulation and internet shutdowns.[1] Within a culture of political repression, a new breed of digital dictators is rapidly reshaping the way that governments can exert power over the people.

A new Taliban for the digital age

When the Taliban first took control of Afghanistan in 1996, one of its early actions was to ban access to the internet. In the subsequent 25 years, social media and digital literacy have exploded. As the extreme Islamist group reclaims control of the country today, a simple blanket ban is no longer feasible. The Taliban has adapted to the demands of an internet-dependent world. Its soldiers are outfitted with smartphones to record each military victory, and frontline reporters are equipped with microphones for purposes of surveillance and coercion.

Using social media, the Taliban is seeking to reframe the narrative of an extreme hardline group. Nobody can forget the notoriety or brutality that defined its previous regime. But its social media coverage, including viral messages and videos, is now flooded with messages of peace. This notion of a more palatable Taliban, however, is in sharp contrast to the images flooding across western media. Eyewitness testimonies and documented events at Kabul Airport are a powerful refutation of these claims. Digital media has become an effective tool for propaganda, disinformation and social manipulation, facilitating organisations and individuals to portray themselves in a positive light.

How can big tech respond?

As these events are reported to the world, social media companies face increasing scrutiny regarding their position on potentially dangerous political actors. Facebook immediately enacted an emergency response team to assess the Taliban’s influence across their platforms. The tech company has long barred the Taliban from access, citing its designation as a terrorist organisation under US law. The group remains blocked from creating profiles, and Taliban-related posts are quickly removed.[2] However, social media policy is not uniform, and the Taliban has quickly turned to Twitter to broadcast its messages. The group’s official spokesperson Suhail Shaheen, with a Twitter following of just under 450,000, dictates policy in both Arabic and English.[3] Hundreds of Twitter accounts have emerged, seemingly overnight, in praise of the regime.

As social media exposure swells, the Taliban has found ways to operate within existing policies. The group has evaded detection on Facebook-owned platforms by changing the spelling of key words and hashtags. Applications such as Telegram and WhatsApp are used as channels to send encrypted messages. Pro-Taliban accounts have steered away from any content that features violent imagery. Unlike Trump, suspended due to the risk of inciting further violence[4], these messages have so far avoided infringing the platforms’ policies.

Meanwhile, Afghans are scrambling to delete any evidence that might connect them to the previous government. Many dissenters have gone underground, and central figures involved in anti-Taliban campaigns have deactivated their accounts.[5] But deleting profiles and old messages only provides a limited amount of security. Social media companies have been slow to offer more substantial aid. Facebook is now providing a lock button to close access to an account, but for the non tech-savvy populace, around-the-clock resources are required to help those at risk encrypt or erase their digital footprint.

The road ahead

The question of content moderation is controversial. Blanket censorship of pro-Taliban content, according to many political experts, may restrict much-needed dialogue about politics in the region. It could stifle discussion, drive opponents underground, and limit others’ understanding of regional norms. Without a coherent policy, however, platforms may be giving controversial and dangerous leaders the perfect tools to amplify their voice.

For better or worse, technology is the key battleground in which modern political crises play out. Social media companies have a responsibility to protect individual freedoms and liberty as much as free speech. But regardless of cultural or religious norms, any content that could endanger lives must be removed immediately, and posters of such content barred. As private companies working in the public space, social media giants have a duty to uphold more stringent policies, or else they risk strengthening the dictators who use digital tools to entrench their regimes.


[1] https://www.usip.org/publications/2021/07/digital-technologys-evolving-role-politics-protest-and-repression

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-58239786

[3] https://twitter.com/suhailshaheen1

[4] https://blog.twitter.com/en_us/topics/company/2020/suspension

[5] https://www.wired.co.uk/article/afghanistan-social-media-delete

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