Afghanistan’s shrinking information environment
What is the information environment, and what challenges face Afghanistan’s own information space? How can we strengthen it?
Since the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021 and the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, organisations and journalists attempting to monitor the situation in the country have faced a host of challenges in accessing up-to-date and reliable information.
There are multiple reasons behind this limited visibility. The Taliban’s restrictions on the press mean certain topics are more difficult – or even more dangerous – to report on. Self-censorship is also likely widespread among both the public and the media, which further limits information from surfacing.
Some local media outlets have suffered financially, and have been forced to close down their operations, let go of staff, or work from exile, and the challenges facing female journalists are two-fold, as they must deal with the added barriers of the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s work, dress, and freedom of movement. This is on top of the fact that being a journalist in Afghanistan is dangerous – rights groups have raised the alarm on reports of journalists being arbitrarily detained and beaten.
These factors combined have resulted in a shrinking information environment, with the repercussions being felt by both those in country, and those monitoring the situation from afar.
What is the information environment?
Simply put, when we talk about the information environment – sometimes described as an information ecosystem – we are talking about the space in which information is disseminated and consumed.
It can be thought of as a type of infrastructure – both physical and digital – that contains information ‘actors’: such as journalists, media outlets, public relations and communication agencies; the content: news articles, editorials, interviews, documentaries; the different media: print, digital, social media channels, and the crossroads at which these interact and overlap.
A healthy information environment includes the sharing of accurate and reliable information, and also promotes transparency (audiences should know who their actors are, how they are funded, which methodologies are used), as well as accountability and autonomy (being financially independent from the other ecosystems, especially the political).
The ideal information environment relies on the integrity of the information within it. The United Nations Development Programme describes this concept of information integrity as: “the accuracy, consistency, and reliability of the information content, processes and systems”, i.e., the access to trustworthy and unbiased information by the general public, and their ability to trust in that system.
In short, the information environment is something we all partake in, contribute to and consume on a daily basis, and the way it functions has implications for the health of any society.
The digital divide
The internet has transformed the way in which we access and share information, with billions of users globally. Access to the internet is not equal, though: according to Gallup’s 2022 World Poll, 15% of Afghans said they have access to the internet – with that percentage further broken down as 25% of men versus just 6% of women.
This is likely a result of widespread poverty, coupled with a lack of reliable infrastructure to facilitate connectivity, particularly in more rural regions.
So, what does this mean for Afghanistan’s information environment? Afghan Witness (AW) uses social media sites such as Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) to monitor information emerging from the country and, while claims and reports of human rights incidents are collected daily by our researchers, lack of internet access and poor connectivity is likely limiting information from surfacing.
Increasing opportunities, growing threats
While global digital access still has a long way to go, broadly speaking, the internet has provided many with a wealth of news and resources at their fingertips. It has allowed individuals and organisations to connect remotely, and social media has enabled individuals to share information, updates, and images in real time.
The emergence of open source has created an online community that uses these methods to cooperate and exchange information more readily, allowing journalists and investigators to monitor and report on human rights incidents and, where possible, reconstruct events in detail.
The various tools and technologies available today – from Google Earth and other satellite imagery providers, to Reverse Image Search – have made it easier to verify information while comprehensive open source investigations have demonstrated the power to hold individuals, organisations, and governments to account for their actions.
The expansion of the global information environment offers increasing opportunities, but these are also accompanied by a rise in mis- and disinformation. Although misinformation – the sharing of false information – can be innocuous as the author might not be aware that the information is not true, disinformation is always intended to cause harm.
How open source can be used to counter threats
While social media has become a key source of information for researchers, journalists, and analysts monitoring Afghanistan, AW analysts spot misinformation surfacing on a daily basis, and this is often posted by all sides of the political spectrum. Most commonly, this content involves old videos shared out of context or reframed as new content. While the intention behind the sharing of such videos is not always malicious, these videos can attract thousands of views at a time, allowing false claims to spread rapidly.
Analysts have also come across more deliberate attempts to mislead. AW has identified false news accounts which are impersonating Afghan media outlets and spreading disinformation, often in an attempt to undermine the opposition. By imitating the news outlets’ styles and branding, the majority of the content could be read as genuine news by a passing viewer, further undermining Afghanistan’s information environment. In some cases, these posts generate thousands of views.
Several of our investigations have demonstrated the importance of open source techniques to debunk mis- and disinformation, from footage of an earthquake relief effort presented as a child-selling market to the use of old stock and satellite imagery repurposed by several groups claiming to use drones against the Taliban.
How we're strengthening the information environment
These continuous threats are undermining the country’s information environment at a time when the Afghan press has limited freedom. Relying on meticulous verification techniques with transparency at its core, open source can provide irrefutable evidence that makes for powerful storytelling and advocacy, giving any member of the public – journalist, human rights investigator or otherwise – the potential to hold perpetrators to account.
AW focuses on building community and sharing capabilities with Afghan civil society organisations and media outlets, international organisations and others working on Afghanistan to collect, analyse, and record information in a way that is verifiable and in accordance with international accountability mechanisms. We work together with our partners via several initiatives – joint reports and investigations, data-sharing, training, events, grants and fellowship programmes – all with an aim to collectively strengthen the Afghan information environment.
It is crucial that we continue to prioritise the integrity of information and work towards creating a trustworthy and sustainable information ecosystem in Afghanistan.
Afghan Witness uses open source and capacity-building initiatives to strengthen Afghanistan’s information environment.