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Misinformation about the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan

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A year ago, on August 15, 2021, the Afghan capital Kabul was surrounded and then taken by the Taliban. As the world watched the takeover unfold, countless examples of misinformation began to circulate online. The FRANCE 24 Observers followed the fake news trail: unmasked reports criticizing the US withdrawal, supporting Afghanistan’s new leaders or denouncing the violence associated with the Taliban rule.

Just over a month after the official announcement that the US military would withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban took over the city of Kabul on August 15, 2021, securing their power over Afghanistan. Online, this event was accompanied by a wave of false information.

Out of context photos and videos were shared to either praise the Taliban’s victory, criticize the departure of US troops or even share false news about atrocities committed in the country. Such messages were widely circulated in August and September 2021, but have declined in 2022.

False Images Used to Praise the Taliban’s Victory

In Kabul, the day of August 15, 2021 saw the hasty departure of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Just days after denouncing the US military’s withdrawal, the then-president of Afghanistan fled the capital before it fell to the Taliban.

On the same day, some images out of context were shared to criticize Ghani’s departure. For example, some Twitter users shared a video of the former president boarding a plane.

Screenshot of one of the tweets posted on August 15, 2021 sharing this video purportedly showing the escape of the Afghan president.
Screenshot of one of the tweets posted on August 15, 2021 sharing this video purportedly showing the escape of the Afghan president. © Observers

But the footage was taken on July 15, 2021, when Ghani left to attend a conference titled “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity, Opportunities and Challenges,” which was held the following day in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Around September 20, 2021, pro-Taliban accounts and various Afghan media outlets then shared images claiming to prove that Amrullah Saleh, former vice president of Afghanistan, “stole money from the Afghan people” before fleeing the country. In reality, these photos were taken in a bank in the United Arab Emirates before April 2020.

Click on the image to read our full article.
Click on the image to read our full article. © Observers

In France, some people were alarmed online when a video shared online showed several Taliban members posing in front of military tanks. Like French MP Eric Ciotti, people claimed online that these were tanks abandoned by the US military and reclaimed by the Taliban.

But in fact the tanks in these images were abandoned, probably unusable and dating back to the Soviet era.

Click on the image to read our full article.
Click on the image to read our full article. © Observers

Afghan women subject of misinformation

The return of the Taliban to power led to a rapidly deteriorating situation for women and girls, who were deprived of many fundamental freedoms and became victims of violence. This oppression continues to this day: on August 13, 2022, women protested in Kabul for their right to work and education. But the demonstration was severely suppressed.

What followed were a number of posts shared online in August and September 2021 falsely claiming to expose these abuses. For example, several users shared photos that they said showed Afghan women chained up on the streets of Kabul.

Click on the image to read our full article.
Click on the image to read our full article. © Observers

Some of these reports claimed that enslaved women were being auctioned on the streets of Kabul. But their evidence came from a video taken out of context. The pictures really showed a protest in London in October 2014detained by Kurdish activists denouncing human trafficking by the Islamic State.

Screenshot of one of the tweets, posted here on August 16, 2021, sharing this fake slave auction video.
Screenshot of one of the tweets, posted here on August 16, 2021, sharing this fake slave auction video. © Observers

What are the consequences of this misinformation, a year later?

Although false information about the Taliban rule in Afghanistan has become less common since early 2022, it still has a clear impact. According to the media outlet South Asian Voicesthe Taliban is the party that profits from misinformation.

Fake news of Taliban abuses distract from their real abuses, which have continued to increase since their takeover. […] The information vacuum created by this wave of misinformation provides a cover for the Taliban to engage in more violent activities.

[…] False or unconfirmed information targeting Taliban behavior — from the perceived threat to launch an offensive in Panjshir to false images of the Taliban’s atrocities — complicate efforts to get an exact grip on the Taliban’s file. […]

These considerations also apply to donor countries more broadly, especially in the West: they will want to have a clearer picture of the Taliban’s track record before deciding to drastically increase financial aid beyond humanitarian aid. But with so much misinformation, it won’t be easy to gather the input to make that assessment.

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