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Taliban house searches accompanied by extensive communications campaign

AW looks at how the group mobilised social media to promote an image of success and support.


11 Mar 2022

Image, above: social media

On February 24, the Taliban launched extensive house-to-house search operations in Kabul as well as in the Panjshir, Parwan, Kapisa and Daikundi provinces. According to Taliban administration spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, the searches were part of a 'clearing operation' and houses were only targeted if there was a specific report of potential criminal activity. This claim was challenged by western diplomats, with Germany's designated ambassador to Afghanistan claiming the searches "mostly affected ordinary citizens."

As search operations began, Taliban and pro-Taliban accounts launched an extensive online communications campaign to position the searches in Kabul as part of an orderly and thorough clearance operation that had the full support of residents. Kabul ​​police spokesman Khalid Zadran posted multiple videos of the operations, including a filmed interview with himself apparently after his own house had been searched, where he said he was happy all citizens were being treated the same.

Figure 1: Posts from official (top) and non-official accounts (bottom) claiming public support and featuring vox pops with supportive citizens.

Official and non-official accounts also emphasised the presence of female police officers, who were apparently present to assist with searches of women. A video released by the Taliban showed two women accompanying a search squad, with one giving an interview to the camera saying:

“We have been assigned from the [Ministry of Interior Affairs] to join our brothers and carry out searches in the houses, we search the females, we request the people to cooperate with us and should not get angry because it will benefit them as well, we will seize things that are hidden and can be used in terrorist attacks in one way or another.”

Figure 2: Posts from the Kabul Police Spokesperson emphasizing the use of female police officers in the search operations (Twitter, Twitter)

In contrast, videos have surfaced where only male members of the Taliban have been present searching the houses of women.

While initial communications focused on positioning the searches as orderly and methodical, official and non-official accounts soon shifted to highlighting the claimed successes of the operation, featuring footage of weapons and other materiel that had allegedly been captured. Khalid Zadran, spokesperson for Kabul Police, also urged followers to “identify anyone who poses a threat to the system and the country”.

In the wider pro-Taliban social media landscape, AW observed the use of the following hashtags from pro-Taliban accounts: #ClearingOperationIsforSecurity, #تصفیوي_عملیات_دامنیت_په_پار and #عملیات_تصفیوی_جهت_تأمین_امنیت, which were used alongside content promoting the Taliban narrative and claimed successes of the operation.

Figure 3: example of tweets using hashtags that supported the operation.

Figure 4: Graph created on Hoaxly showing the network created through the spread of the hashtags #ClearingOperationIsforSecurity, #تصفیوي_عملیات_دامنیت_په_پار and #عملیات_تصفیوی_جهت_تأمین_امنیت, through mentions and retweets.

The most prominent member of the network created by the hashtags is the account @Aftabkochi313, a pro-Taliban writer with 64.6k followers. It is also worth noting that over half of the 243 accounts analysed (out of a total dataset of 603) exhibited bot-like behaviour, which AW has observed in pro-Taliban hashtag campaigns before, such as the one on the eve of the Troika meeting in November last year.

It should be stressed that the ‘bot scores’ illustrated above are not necessarily an indication these responses are automated. The metrics that trigger higher bot-like behaviour ratings can also reflect human behaviour such as frequent retweeting of select accounts. It does, however, suggest a well-established and potentially coordinated amplification network.

The hashtags used were launched simultaneously, and coincided with reports coming from Afghanistan that house searches were underway in Kabul and the surrounding provinces. Metrics on each hashtag show the Pashto hashtag was the most widely used, with over 1,630 unique users using it over 4,000 times between February 25 and March 2. The English language hashtag came second, with 934 users posting 2,700 times, and Dari third, with 547 users posting 1,380 times.

All of the hashtags peaked on 26 February and followed very similar curves - another possible indication that activity was not organic. It is worth noting that many users used all three tags in the same post, which would also lead to similar curves. Other tags also appeared alongside the most popular hashtags.

Figure 5: use of Pashtu hashtag #تصفیوي_عملیات_دامنیت_په_پار and other tags used with posts

Figure 6: use of English hashtag #ClearingOperationIsforSecurity and other tags used with posts

Figure 7: use of Dari hashtag #عملیات_تصفیوی_جهت_تأمین_امنیت and other tags used with posts.

The above-the-radar official campaign, with carefully-crafted content promoting a narrative of order, support and success, amplified through use of hashtags by pro-Taliban accounts, demonstrates a relatively sophisticated communications effort.

While communications weren’t mobilised until after the operation began and a degree of negative publicity had been generated online, the timing and speed with which the campaign was executed would suggest it was planned rather than purely reactive to events. This indicates that the communications-handling and reputational impact of the house-to-house searches had likely been considered in the planning process.

This is unsurprising, given that the Taliban’s mobilisation of social media and communications has been well-documented. The group previously told the BBC how its social media team has dedicated groups working to get Taliban hashtags trending and ‘disseminate’ messages on WhatsApp and Facebook. In August, as the Taliban captured Kabul, they launched a comprehensive social media campaign to run alongside their military offensive on the ground - recognition that the Taliban understand the value and importance of digital communications in managing domestic and international perceptions.

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