Pro-Taliban ‘fact-checking’ account takes on false accounts and problematic stories
By dismissing stories as ‘fake news’ and identifying fake profiles, the account utilises the weight and language of the ‘fact-checking’ brand, without doing the meaningful verification work required.
A Taliban-promoted account that calls itself ‘Fake News’ (@NewsF2197Fake) has been calling out various stories, accounts and trends as fake, with a particular focus on identifying accounts mimicking officials and posting false statements. The account describes itself as “an independent and free organization, which was created to identify false and fake news”.
The account has posted 66 times and has just over 7000 followers – a relatively low number despite its promotion by influential and official Taliban accounts. The account’s tweets have been amplified by several key members of the Taliban, including Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s Spokesperson, Bilal Karimi, the Deputy Spokesperson, and Hedayatullah Hedayat, the Deputy Director of National RTA.
The account has dismissed various stories as ‘fake news’, including a report that three Taliban fighters were killed in Jawzjan and Faryab (March 16), that the Taliban head of intelligence in Takhar was arrested for selling antiquities (March 1), and that the Taliban had received money from Pakistan to stop terrorism there (February 25). The account does not offer up evidence or debunks when calling out the news reports, despite branding itself as a fact-checking account.
AW analysed the account using AccountAnalysis, a social media monitoring tool, and found that, on average, 'Fake News' started tweeting at 03:00 GMT (07:00/08:00 Afghanistan time) and finished between 17:00/18:00 GMT (21:00/22:00 Afghanistan time), indicating the account activity is consistent with someone living in Afghanistan or within the same time zone.
The account’s first tweet (published on September 21, 2022) criticised the 8am news network after it published a story claiming Al Qaeda had a network in Helmand province. Subsequent tweets over the following week focused on countering the narrative in non-Taliban-affiliated Afghan media, labelling stories as fake news.
The account has also accused specific journalists, such as Tajudan Soroush from Afghanistan International, of spreading disinformation. The first example of when the account criticised Soroush was on September 28, 2022, when he posted a story about the Taliban buying low-quality oil from Iran, which the account labelled as fake. AW has not been able to verify Soroush’s claims.
While the ‘Fake News’ account was particularly active when it first launched, the frequency of its tweets has since decreased, with the account only posting four times between February 1, 2023 to March 16, 2023, compared to 27 times in the first month the account was created. Since this report was written, activity has decreased again, with the last tweet posted on March 30.
Identifying fake accounts
‘Fake News’ has also started identifying fake accounts mimicking Taliban officials and ministries, which AW has also confirmed. The highlighted fake accounts include those mimicking Zabihullah Mujahid, Afghanistan’s National Board of Examinations, General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), Inamullah Samangan, the Deputy Central Spokesperson, and Neda Mohammad, the acting Minister of Higher Education. The image below is an example of one of the posts, which points out how users can distinguish between real and fake accounts by looking at the user creation date, number of followers, and account name.
Use of ‘fact-checking’ brand
While the ‘Fake News’ account can claim to be tackling fake news by calling out mimic accounts, the lack of evidence for its dismissal of certain news stories means it is far from what would normally be considered fact-checking. Instead, it appears to serve as a device to dismiss problematic stories out of hand, regardless of whether they are true or not.
The account utilises the weight and language of a ‘fact-checking’ brand without doing meaningful verification. It is worth noting that anti-Taliban campaigners have also pursued this strategy, pushing unverified, out-of-context and occasionally false stories on accounts branded as fact-checkers.
AW’s recent research has identified several false news accounts set up to mimic Afghan media organisations – particularly those deemed critical of the Taliban. These accounts have closely mimicked news outlets’ branding, often overtly parodying the real platforms while spreading disinformation and attacking opposition figures. While closer analysis revealed several indications that these are parody or false accounts, some content could be read as genuine by a passing viewer, indicating a clear need for fact-checking and open source analysis in Afghanistan’s shrinking information environment.
26 Apr 2023