False news account spreads disinformation, undermines opposition
The account presents itself as the news outlet Afghanistan International, which has been a common target for mimic accounts – AW investigators have identified at least five accounts mimicking Afghanistan International in the last three months.
As highlighted in previous AW research, multiple social media accounts have appeared presenting themselves as Afghan media organisations – particularly those deemed critical of the Taliban – often overtly parodying the real platforms and attacking opposition figures.
On February 14, an account claiming to be owned by the news organisation Afghanistan International posted a [WARNING: GRAPHIC] tweet claiming that the Taliban killed over ten foreign engineers and captured a security guard in Kabul. The tweet received over 240 likes and 12 retweets.
The account @AF_inter5 presents itself as Afghanistan International, which has been a common target for mimic accounts but is not affiliated with the Afghanistan International Network.
According to SocialBlade – a tool for social media analytics – the account's tweets have gained over 1 million views since its set up in November 2021. The account has also received amplification from well-known pro-Taliban influencers, including Mobeen Khan, boosting the views of its posts.
Analysis of the account
The fake account uses the name Afghan International and has copied elements of the real account’s profile, such as the name, location, and part of the bio. However, AW found differences in the account to confirm that the account was fake.
The fake account’s banner picture is of a CNN newsroom - not Afghanistan International. The email of the false account is a Gmail address, whereas the real Afghan International account has an '@Afintl.com' email. The fake account joined Twitter later than the Afghan International account and published significantly fewer tweets. The fake @Afg_inter5 has posted only 221 times since its set up, in comparison to the real @AFIntlBrk which has tweeted 32,437 times since June 28, 2021. The @AfintlBrk account gained verified status by subscribing to Twitter Blue, a recent feature of Twitter that is only open to people who live in specific territories. In contrast, the fake account has not been verified.
When looking at the frequency and rhythm of the account's posts, the daily rhythm of the false account shows the user is active at times consistent with someone in Afghanistan. The real account posts heavily throughout a 24-hour period, as one would expect from an active newsroom.
Analysis of the content
The real Afghanistan International account publishes videos, pictures, and clips from news channels. It has distinctive images, with a channel identification label and caption. The images below give a visual comparison between the two accounts. The image on the left is from the official Afghan International account, and the one on the right is from a fake account, showing how the false account has closely mimicked the brand of Afghanistan International.
The fake account also publishes content that AW cannot verify, focusing on discrediting Afghanistan International and the National Resistance Front (NRF), as well as communicating some Taliban successes. Examples of unverified claims are “NRF Senior Member travelling to Israel'', “Ariana Saeed, a famous Khorasani singer and Taliban critic winning an award at an event with the NRF”, and (WARNING: GRAPHIC) “NRF confirmed that the Taliban had killed 10 foreign engineers and had captured a security guard in Kabul”. These claims have not appeared in any other media outlets.
Since February of this year, Twitter has added an update to see how many impressions each tweet gets. The average impressions of these three claims are 15,894, demonstrating how widely these messages are shared. It is important to note that while the account only has 6,238 followers, its views and engagements are significantly higher than the number of followers.
Influential members of the Taliban have also interacted with the account. Taliban influencer Mobeen Khan reshared a post that claimed the Taliban had cleared the streets of drug addicts and added, “Western Media is now watching what we say.” His post suggests he was not aware the account is a false account. He also called Afghanistan International a 'devil' in an additional reply.
Other fake "International" accounts and Afghanistan International’s prominence
AW investigators have identified at least five accounts mimicking Afghanistan International in the last three months. The others are Panjshir International, Afghan International, Tajikistan International, and Haqiqat International.
These accounts post similar content and appear to be working in tandem, suggesting they are run by a common network or group. They also post unique content focused on their purported constituency. For example, Panjshir International focuses on Panjshir issues, and Tajikistan International focuses on Tajik issues. Haqiqat International’s output is somewhat different; its primary focus is countering alleged disinformation spread by journalists in the West. Few have the same level of reach as AF_Inter5.
While attribution is not possible without technical data from the platform, the content suggests it is run by pro-Taliban users seeking to discredit the opposition, chiefly the NRF, while also mocking Afghanistan International’s approach to reporting. Importantly, and unlike other false accounts, the @AF_Inter5 account is not overtly a parody or obviously false. The majority of the content could be read as genuine news by a passing viewer, posing a greater risk for mis/disinformation and undermining the information environment.
1 Mar 2023