University of Regina leads research into how the Taliban weaponized Twitter

News Release Release Date: June 29, 2022 11:40 a.m.

Researchers with the University of Regina, Princeton University, University of Alberta and University of Maryland have released Powered by Twitter? The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, a report identifying social media’s central role in the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.

“To support their cause, the Taliban used Facebook, Instagram and YouTube; however, they used Twitter more than any other social media platform, publishing 23 times more content on Twitter than Facebook,” said lead author Dr. Brian McQuinn, co-director of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence, Conflict and Data (CAIDAC), and assistant professor with the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Regina. “And, while each of these platforms claimed to be taking action against Taliban accounts, the effectiveness or scope of their efforts is questionable.”

Twitter’s policy towards the Taliban is to moderate tweets only if they violate its rules against the glorification of violence, misinformation or spam. However, the research demonstrates Twitter failed to enforce the rules around the glorification of violence and its overall moderation of broader Taliban supportive accounts was limited – only 49 out of 126,000 such accounts appeared to have been moderated in some fashion.

“I found it incredible that Taliban accounts qualified for the placement of sponsored tweets for companies like Amazon, Disney, McDonald’s, and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce,” said  one of the contributing researchers who is from Afghanistan and who requested anonymity out of concern for family members still living in Afghanistan. “Even more disturbing is that we found that Twitter continues to monetize Talban accounts with ads still appearing  on 19 prominent Taliban accounts, including that of Anas Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani network, which the U.S. government declared a foreign terrorist organization in 2012.”   

The Taliban’s influence on the media in Afghanistan, was measured by the level of engagement Taliban content received from April 1 to September 16, 2021. Taliban tweets elicited well over eight million responses, seven million likes, almost a million retweets, 400,000 replies, and 94,000 quote tweets. Retweets and likes soared in mid-August, around the time Kabul fell.

The group was so effective at using Twitter to reach domestic audiences that it generated over four times more engagement on the platform than the content of 18 mainstream Afghan news organizations combined.

The researchers also identified six distinct strategies the Taliban used to manipulate international and domestic audiences leading up to the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the takeover of Kabul:

  1. Projecting themselves as a government-in-waiting.
  2. Highlighting military victories.
  3. Undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan government.
  4. Identifying and amplifying the mistakes and deaths caused by U.S. and Afghan forces.
  5. Highlighting their recruitment successes and defections from the Afghan military.
  6. Profiling their relationships with foreign government and the international community.

The report concludes social media platforms need to improve their strategies for moderating accounts by combining country-specific tools and methods with a detailed understanding of armed groups and their strategies to manipulate online information. Five specific recommendations for social media companies include:

  1. Apply existing content moderation policies.
  2. Increase coordination between internal teams (such as between advertising teams and moderating units).
  3. Instead of just blocking offending content, target the actors and accounts producing it.
  4. Build and sustain a continuous learning system that can monitor and adapt more quickly than the actors.
  5. Provide researchers with greater access to data to conduct additional research in this area.

“As we have seen, people around the world, including in Canada, are susceptible to online manipulation and propaganda, and social media is one of the main disseminators of such misinformation, not just in areas of armed conflict but in all manner of political and social contexts,” said Dr. Kathy McNutt, vice-president (research) at the University of Regina. “I am extremely proud that the University’s researchers are at the forefront of this incredibly important work and developing solutions to how we manage this issue now and into the future.”

Dr. McQuinn is available for interviews via the contact noted.

 

About the University of Regina

The University of Regina—located on Treaty 4 and Treaty 6 territories, the ancestral lands of the Cree, Saulteaux, Dakota, Lakota and Nakoda nations and the homeland of the Métis—is a comprehensive, mid-sized university that traces its roots back to the creation of Regina College in 1911. Today, more than 16,000 students study within the University's 10 faculties. The University has an established reputation for excellence and innovative programs that lead to undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees.

 

About the Centre for Artificial Intelligence, Conflict and Data

CAIDAC is a global network of researchers, practitioners, and humanitarians studying social media’s impact on conflict, political violence, and war. State and non-state actors’ evolving social media strategies and their influence on domestic and international perceptions are examined to understand how malicious actors weaponize social media and what moderation efforts could curtail dangerous or illegal activities.

 

- 30 -