Social Media and Disinformation in War Propaganda

Ministry of defence and the Taliban posted 450 and 502 messages (13.5 and 15.4 per day) respectively in the time observed (33 days). Language MoD posted in was either Pashto or Dari (the official languages of the country) mostly with English translation but in a separate tweet while the Taliban were tweeting a same message in three languages: English, Pashto, Dari and sometime in Arabic and Urdu if the story was of high importance. Since Pashto and Dari are official language, the government seems to consider one alternative for the other. It is claimed that there are 21 terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan (Sputnik, 2018), for this study however, we observed only casualties that the Taliban have inflicted on security forces and employees of the government.

On the other hand, other agencies of the government dealing with security i.e. ministry of interior and national directorate of security (NDS – the intelligences) have their own channels for disseminating information and have not been observed here. The result showed that MoD allegedly killed 1341 and wounded 802 Taliban fighters; and on the other hand, the Taliban claimed to have 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 is 600 killed and 190 injured. The same media report of casualty caused by the Taliban is 207 and 147 killed and injured respectively. AIP’s report of killings and injuries claimed by MoD is 1043 and 243 respectively; claims of losses inflicted by Taliban is 330 killed and 235 injured.

Although they do not distinguish among security agencies, great number of security operations are conducted by MoD. The number published on the websites of ToloNews and Etilaatroz is lower. A possible reason maybe their concentration on platforms; the former is TV channel and the latter a daily newspaper. ToloNews reported MoD claims of killing 296 and wounding 33; and of Taliban 164 and 59 respectively while Etilaatroz number of causality claimed by MoD is 214 killed with no injured reported, and of Taliban 34 killed and 16 injured.

Interestingly, no warring party claimed or took responsibility of civilian killed during the time observed. PAN reported killing of civilians 76; AIP 45; ToloNews 17; and Etilaatroz 21. We did not count casualty of the two incidents (Intercontinental hotel and ambulance suicide attack in Kabul on 21 and 27 of January respectively) in civilians because the Taliban took responsibility 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 incidents sparked international condemnation mainly because great number people were killed; as per media report 25 people were killed in Intercontinental hotel and the suicide attack using ambulance killed 103 and injured 205.

The Taliban sometime provided their claims with pictures particularly when weapons and vehicles were captured, but pictures of the casualties were rare unless some renowned government officers were killed. MoD on the hand, used archive pictures depicting military manoeuvring. 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 basic information of suicide attackers. Figure 2 indicates relevant figures in details.

For creating meaning and making sense (media frame – “giving meanings to events that otherwise would be meaningless” Goffman, E. (1974) quoted in (Noorzai, 2012)), the Taliban have dominantly used Jihad frame – looking into Afghanistan as an occupied country by non-Muslims and fighting against them is an obligation mandated by God – where have they adopted Jihadi terminology.

The Taliban address their own fighters using terms mujahid or mujahidin (for fighter or fighters), shahid (martyr for killed), shahadat (martyrdom for death), fidayee (martyrdom seeker for suicide attacker). They, however, called security forces of the government hireling, gunmen, militiamen and international forces as invaders. The Taliban also termed civilian allegedly killed by Afghan government or international forces martyred. On the contrary, MoD called the Taliban as insurgents and terrorists, and since the government did not make own casualty public, neither they name or term security forces as the Taliban did so. Both parties call each other enemy after all. Figure 3 shows frequency of terms the parties have used.

Discussion

Afghan government and the Taliban extensively use social media to propagate and disseminate war related incidents. The government does not or may not have the ability to censor social media and any other online platforms. In other word, there is no restriction on online media and activism. Both warring parties have been posting dis/information that are not matched or confirmed by mainstream media.

The belligerents propagate and exaggerate number of casualties they claimed to have inflicted on each other to further their desired intents. Such practice, though not proven wrong but at least was not confirmed by third party in this case, is called disinformation. Taking into account that they are in war against each other, propaganda and disinformation through any possible means including social media should not be a new or surprising phenomenon. In other words, propaganda and exaggeration do not seem uncommon during war period. However, this finding confirms the idea of social media’s vulnerability of manipulation and the danger of disinformation they possess.

In the era of information society (Castells, 2010), the parties have already understood the importance of providing target audience with relevant information for wining minds and supports. However, since the online platform, as argued by (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017) do not stipulate vetting measures to limit or distinguish between authenticated and misinformation, anyone including the parties have open hands to disseminate information that better suit their interest and support their causes.

The Taliban and Afghan government, as warring parties, without any limitations i.e. any third party verification process, expertise and technological infrastructure, spread information that are not supported by mainstream media. Such unsupported number and contents can elicit and support the argument that social media particularly when used by warring parties, in this case the Taliban and the government in Afghanistan context, are used for propaganda and diffusing disinformation.

Besides that, neither parties ever took responsibility of casualties inflicted on civilians; for example the Kabul incidents in January, which killed dozens of civilians as per media and United Nation Assistance Mission (UNAMA) reports, were categorically and stubbornly denied by the Taliban if there were any civilians among the killed or injured ones. Looking into their particular terminology, the belligerents have adopted and propagated different media frames to justify and give meaning to their armed struggles. In case of the Taliban, they have been trying to project themselves mujahidin – Jihadi and occupation frame, while the government are considering them terrorists and insurgents – terrorism frame.

In an environment where the belligerents including their social media bloggers are responsible to no one, the danger of disseminating is high. Such practice could easily exploit virtual 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 rate and the idea of media and information literacy does not literally exist, people seems to be more vulnerable to the immediate effects and victimization of disinformation and propaganda disseminated by the Taliban, government or anyone else using social media. The result confirms a claim of Lippmann cited in (Edwar S. Herman; Noam Chomsky, 2008) that propaganda becomes “a regular organ of popular government,” which is not limited only to the state and when it comes to social media the Taliban are ahead of the government in this case.

Mainstream media did not present a uniform image covering both sides’ claims. One of its possible reasons could be the difference in terms of their platform. Nevertheless, they did provide perspectives which are quite different from both the government and the Taliban. It shows that national media of the country, to some extent, stay in between although it is too early to locate their position in terms of objectivity and impartiality without conducting rigorous research. However, measurements and dataset adopted here are subject to more research where a large-scale data and criteria can further prove it. This limited dataset and loose measurement are one of the limitations of this study.

Conclusion

Social media turned to be part of ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Both parties use online platforms including social media where they do not hesitate to propagate and disseminate dis/information that suit their interests. Having censor-free virtual environment, social media become suitable means not only for those who can comparatively easily dominate mainstream media, but far more optimal option for those who has relatively limited resources because it does not need much expertise and infrastructure.

In other words, social media is a strength of the weaker and less-heard ones. This in turns widens the danger and possibility of victimization of netizens, who are not equipped with media and information literacy, to be trapped into disinformation and propaganda. Mainstream media need to have clear verification process of authenticating war related contents and also responsibility of educating the public against disinformation. This study, with limitations, can pave the way for further research of this kind.