How fake media accounts in Afghanistan are used to push Taliban propaganda
Since the Taliban took over control of Afghanistan in August 2021, numerous accounts mimicking or trying to present themselves as media outlets have popped up online. These fake accounts share content that appears to be authentic, often using the same graphic signature and style as the real media outlet. But on closer inspection, researchers from the NGO Afghan Witness found that their posts have no basis in reality and serve to undermine opposition groups in Afghanistan and clamp down on independent media.
Since December 2022, researchers at Afghan Witness – a human rights project dedicated to documenting and verifying events in Afghanistan – have identified several of these fake accounts and the messages they are trying to share. Their analysis centred on one fake Twitter account, @AF_Inter5, which presents itself as the news media Afghanistan International.
‘It will erode trust in the opposition movement’
Tom Stubbs, Senior Analyst for Information Operations at Afghan Witness, told the FRANCE 24 Observers more.
The content revolves around denigrating both Afghan International and opposition within Afghanistan. And a lot of the stories they were sharing weren’t backed up in any other media. Normally, when you have a news story from Afghanistan International or other news agencies, we can actually follow that up and we can understand the nature of what they’re saying is true. But what this fake account was doing was just made up.
The @AF_Inter5 account’s posts often extol the Taliban’s impact on Afghanistan, after the group reclaimed control of the country in August 2021.
One post, published on March 1 and viewed more than 57,000 times, claims that the former top-ranking army commander of the Republic of Afghanistan and former Deputy Interior Minister for Security, Khoshal Sadat, said that the arrival of the Taliban ended the Republic, as well as “espionage, nationalism and insurgency”.
However, there is no other record of this statement in English, Persian or Pashto-language media. And the image shared in this post dates back to 2020, before the Taliban took control of the country.
Posts also undermine the rival National Resistance Front (NRF), which constitutes the main organised resistance to Taliban control.
Another tweet, published on March 11 and viewed more than 20,000 times, claims that the leader of the NRF, Ahmad Massoud, told the New York Times that his organisation has close relations with the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), a part of the Islamic State organisation active in Afghanistan.
However, Massoud has never been interviewed by the New York Times nor said that the NRF has a good relationship with ISKP. This claim serves to link Afghanistan’s self-proclaimed only legitimate resistance movement fighting for democracy with ISKP, a UN-designated terrorist organisation.
Another tweet claimed that an NRF commander had visited Israel to discuss bilateral goals, despite no other evidence in the media that this visit occurred.
Stubbs explained how this content reflects common Taliban talking points.
It will erode trust in the opposition movement because if people are believing what this fake account is saying about the opposition movement, they’ll believe that [the NRF] is dealing with Afghanistan’s enemies and people who want to destroy Afghanistan, that they’re dealing with the Islamic State. It really degrades people’s opinion of the NRF.
The narratives shared in this content also vary drastically from that which is shared by the real Afghanistan International, a media outlet which claims to “provide balanced, and impartial news, about all for all Afghans, including all voices from across the political, social and business sectors inside Afghanistan and around the world”, according to its website.
Afghanistan International is a UK-based broadcaster and media outlet that emerged from the parent company of Iran International when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Iran International has been criticised for alleged ties to the Saudi state through its parent company funding, though the media outlet denies this.
Although the fake account had only 6,500 followers at the time of writing, its posts sometimes receive over 50,000 views and numerous comments and shares.
A poorly copied fake account
After noticing the traction that @AF_Inter5 had online, the Afghan Witness team began analysing its content and posting behaviours. It was immediately evident that the account was fake, thanks to several clear indicators on its page.
First, the account is not verified on Twitter, unlike the official Afghan International account, which is verified through Twitter Blue. The fake account has a different bio and email address – notably a Gmail address, and not a “@Afintl.com” address. And the account was created in November 2021, several months after the Taliban took over the country.
The fake account also has posted far fewer times than the real Afghanistan International account: 236 tweets versus 34,230 tweets on the real account.
Finally, the fake account’s cover photo shows a CNN newsroom, while the real account has an Afghanistan International graphic with text.
That being said, the account’s tweets look very convincing. They follow the same graphic formatting as the legitimate Afghanistan International’s breaking news tweets, with a logo and edited text on a photo.
According to the Account Analysis tool, which allows you to see statistics about a Twitter account’s posting patterns, @AF_Inter5 tends to post between 6:30am and 8:30pm Afghanistan time – certainly not a 24/7 outlet as it claims.
All of @AF_Inter5’s posts were posted on Twitter for Android, which could point to it being run by an individual or group of individuals who are supportive of the Taliban. In contrast, the real Afghan International account posts from Twitter’s web client, Tweetdeck, and several social media clients – more typical of a newsroom social media outlet managed by several staff members.
Contacted by the FRANCE 24 Observers team, the media outlet Afghanistan International confirmed that they are not at all affiliated with the @AF_Inter5 account and “have been trying to take it down for some time without much luck”.
‘The Taliban are trying to change the media environment in Afghanistan into a Taliban promotion machine’
Stubbs says the Afghan Witness has no indication that those posting on @AF_Inter5 are part of the Taliban. Nonetheless, the account typifies several important aspects of the Taliban’s online propaganda campaign.
We’re seeing that the Taliban are labelling Afghanistan International as fake news when they publish stories that criticise the Taliban. And they are incredibly quick to jump on news stories that they feel are unfair. And so having these fake accounts really chimes into the wider information operation that the Taliban is trying to create – they’re trying to erode trust away from independent news sources.
The information environment within the country is being eroded at such a massive rate. The official news sources that people can trust are diminishing. So it just means that there’s going to be one less source that people can look for. The Taliban are trying to change the media environment in Afghanistan into a Taliban promotion machine rather than a free and independent media, as was prior to August 2021. What we’re seeing is effectively a revolutionary movement trying to rapidly erode a free media environment in a way that’s never really done in the world before. Quite often restrictions on the press are gradual, but what the Taliban are doing is incredibly rapid.
Online propaganda operations are nothing new for the Taliban, and many believe they were key to helping the group regain control of the Afghan territory.
Utah’s ambitious social media law
Utah’s sweeping social media legislation passed this week is an ambitious attempt to shield children and teens from the ill effects of social media and empower parents to decide whether their kids should be using apps like TikTok or Instagram.
What’s not clear is if — and how — the new rules can be enforced and whether they will create unintended consequences for kids and teens already coping with a mental health crisis. And while parental rights are a central theme of Utah’s new laws, experts point out that the rights of parents and the best interests of children are not always aligned.
For instance, allowing parents to read their kids’ private messages may be harmful to some children, and age verification requirements could give tech companies access to kids’ personal information, including biometric data, if they use tools such as facial recognition to check ages.
“Children may be put at increased risk if these laws are enforced in such a way that they’re not allowed to some privacy, if they are not allowed some ability for freedom of speech or autonomy,” said Kris Perry, executive director of the nonprofit Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.
The laws, which will go into effect in a year, impose a digital curfew on people under 18, require minors to get parental consent to sign up for social media apps and force companies to verify the ages of all their Utah users. They also require tech companies to give parents access to their kids’ accounts and private messages, which has raised alarms for child advocates who say this could further harm children’s mental health by depriving them of their right to privacy. This is especially true for LGBTQ2S+ kids whose parents are not accepting of their identity.
The rules could drastically transform how people in this conservative state access social media and the internet, and if successful, serve as a model for other states to enact similar legislation. But even if the laws clear the inevitable lawsuits from tech giants, it’s not clear how Utah will be able to enforce them.
Take age verification, for instance. Various measures exist that can verify a person’s age online. Someone could upload a government ID, consent to the use facial recognition software to prove they are the age they say they are.
“Some of these verification measures are wonderful, but then also require the collection of sensitive data. And those can pose new risks, especially for marginalized youth,” Perry said. “And it also puts a new kind of burden on parents to monitor their children. These things seem simple and straightforward on their face, but in reality, there are new risks that may emerge in terms of that that collection of additional data on children.”
Just as teens have managed to obtain fake IDs to drink, they are also savvy at skirting online age regulations.
“In Southeast Asia they’ve been trying this for years, for decades, and kids always get around it,” said Gaia Bernstein, author of “Unwired,” a book on how to fight technology addiction.
The problem, she said, is that the Utah rules don’t require social networks to prevent kids from going online. Instead, they are making the parents responsible.
“I think that’s going to be the weak link in the whole thing, because kids drive their parents insane,” Bernstein said.
There is no precedent in the United States for such drastic regulation of social media, although several states have similar rules in the works.
On the federal level, companies are already prohibited from collecting data on children under 13 without parental consent under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. For this reason, social media platforms already ban kids under 13 from signing up to their sites — but children can easily skirt the rules, both with and without their parents’ consent.
Perry suggests that instead of age verification, there are steps tech companies could take to make their platforms less harmful, less addictive, across the board. For instance, Instagram and TikTok could slow down all users’ ability to mindlessly scroll on their platforms for hours on end.
The laws are the latest effort from Utah lawmakers focused on children and the information they can access online. Two years ago, Gov. Spencer Cox signed legislation that called on tech companies to automatically block porn on cell phones and tablets sold, citing the dangers it posed to children. Amid concerns about enforcement, lawmakers in the deeply religious state revised the bill to prevent it from taking effect unless five other states passed similar laws — which has not happened.
Still, child development experts are generally hopeful about the growing push to regulate social media and its effects on children.
“Children have specific developmental needs, and we want to protect them at the same time that we’re trying to push back on Big Tech,” Perry said. “It’s a two-part effort. You have to really put your arm around the kids while you’re pushing Big Tech away.”
Trans Flight Attendant Famed For United Airlines Ad Found Dead After Emotional Social Media Post
Kayleigh Scott, a transgender flight attendant who gained fame after appearing in a United Airlines commercial, has died after posting an emotional note to her social media channels. According to The Independent, the 25-year-old was found dead on Monday in her Colorado home. In her Instagram and Facebook posts, she penned a heartbreaking letter to her friends and family that asked them to remember the “good memories we have shared”.
“As I take my final breaths and exit this living earth, I would like to apologize to everyone I let down,” Scott wrote. “I am so sorry I could not be better. To those that I love, I am sorry I could not be stronger. To those that gave me their everything, I am sorry my effort was not reciprocated. Please understand that me leaving is not a reflection on you, but the result of my own inability to turn myself for the better,” the flight attendant added.
In her post, Scott also named a few of her loved ones and apologised saying, “I will see you all again on the other side”.
Scott’s mother, Andrea Sylvestro, confirmed her daughter died after posting the letter. In a Facebook post, Ms Sylvestro wrote, “Kayleigh Scott…I am so unbelievably proud to have you as my daughter, proud and amazed by everything that you have done in your life, your smile was absolutely beautiful, your laughter was unbelievably contagious, your heart was bigger than any of us could have ever understood.”
As per The Independent, the Denver Police Department is now investigating Scott’s death. The cops stated that a final determination as to the cause of death will be made by the Denver Medical Examiner’s office.
Separately, United Airlines said it was saddened by the loss of Scott. “We are incredibly saddened by the tragic loss of Kayleigh Scott and extend our deepest condolences to her family, friends and coworkers,” the company stated.
Notably, Kayleigh Scott made headlines in 2020 when United featured her as a part of its diversity campaign. In the clip for Trans Day of Visibility, she spoke about the importance of coming out and living authentically. “I used to be so embarrassed about being trans,” she said, adding, “All I wanted was to blend in.”
The following year, Ms Scott also spoke about her progress since publicly coming out as transgender. She had alluded to battling depression. ” I’m really struggling to find happiness and hope. I’m begging 2023 to be better to me. Please,” she wrote, as per the outlet.
Utah social media law means kids need approval from parents
SALT LAKE CITY –
Children and teens in Utah would lose access to social media apps such as TikTok if they don’t have parental consent and face other restrictions under a first-in-the-nation law designed to shield young people from the addictive platforms.
Two laws signed by Republican Gov. Spencer Cox Thursday prohibit kids under 18 from using social media between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., require age verification for anyone who wants to use social media in the state and open the door to lawsuits on behalf of children claiming social media harmed them. Collectively, they seek to prevent children from being lured to apps by addictive features and from having ads promoted to them.
The companies are expected to sue before the laws take effect in March 2024.
The crusade against social media in Utah’s Republican-supermajority Legislature is the latest reflection of how politicians’ perceptions of technology companies has changed, including among typically pro-business Republicans.
Tech giants like Facebook and Google have enjoyed unbridled growth for over a decade, but amid concerns over user privacy, hate speech, misinformation and harmful effects on teens’ mental health, lawmakers have made Big Tech attacks a rallying cry on the campaign trail and begun trying to rein them in once in office. Utah’s law was signed on the same day TikTok’s CEO testified before Congress about, among other things, the platform’s effects on teenagers’ mental health.
But legislation has stalled on the federal level, pushing states to step in.
Outside of Utah, lawmakers in red states including Arkansas, Texas, Ohio and Louisiana and blue states including New Jersey are advancing similar proposals. California, meanwhile, enacted a law last year requiring tech companies to put kids’ safety first by barring them from profiling children or using personal information in ways that could harm children physically or mentally.
The new Utah laws also require that parents be given access to their child’s accounts. They outline rules for people who want to sue over harms they claim the apps cause. If implemented, lawsuits against social media companies involving kids under 16 will shift the burden of proof and require social media companies show their products weren’t harmful — not the other way around.
Social media companies could have to design new features to comply with parts of the laws that prohibit promoting ads to minors and showing them in search results. Tech companies like TikTok, Snapchat and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, make most of their money by targeting advertising to their users.
The wave of legislation and its focus on age verification has garnered pushback from technology companies as well as digital privacy groups known for blasting their data collection practices.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation earlier this month demanded Cox veto the Utah legislation, saying time limits and age verification would infringe on teens’ rights to free speech and privacy. Moreover, verifying every users’ age would empower social media platforms with more data, like the government-issued identification required, they said.
If the law is implemented, the digital privacy advocacy group said in a statement, “the majority of young Utahns will find themselves effectively locked out of much of the web.”
Tech industry lobbyists decried the laws as unconstitutional, saying they infringe on people’s right to exercise the First Amendment online.
“Utah will soon require online services to collect sensitive information about teens and families, not only to verify ages, but to verify parental relationships, like government-issued IDs and birth certificates, putting their private data at risk of breach,” said Nicole Saad Bembridge, an associate director at NetChoice, a tech lobby group.
What’s not clear in Utah’s new law and those under consideration elsewhere is how states plan to enforce the new regulations. Companies are already prohibited from collecting data on children under 13 without parental consent under the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. To comply, social media companies already ban kids under 13 from signing up to their platforms — but children have been shown to easily get around the bans, both with and without their parents’ consent.
Cox said studies have shown that time spent on social media leads to “poor mental health outcomes” for children.
“We remain very optimistic that we will be able to pass not just here in the state of Utah but across the country legislation that significantly changes the relationship of our children with these very destructive social media apps,” he said.
The set of laws won support from parents groups and child advocates, who generally welcomed them, with some caveats. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on kids and technology, hailed the effort to rein in social media’s addictive features and set rules for litigation, with its CEO saying it “adds momentum for other states to hold social media companies accountable to ensure kids across the country are protected online.”
However, Jim Steyer, the CEO and founder of Common Sense, said giving parents access to children’s social media posts would “deprive kids of the online privacy protections we advocate for.” Age verification and parental consent may hamper kids who want to create accounts on certain platforms, but does little to stop companies from harvesting their data once they’re on, Steyer said.
The laws are the latest effort from Utah lawmakers focused on the fragility of children in the digital age. Two years ago, Cox signed legislation that called on tech companies to automatically block porn on cellphones and tablets sold in the state, after arguments about the dangers it posed to children found resonance among Utah lawmakers, the majority of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Amid concerns about enforcement, lawmakers ultimately revised that legislation to prevent it from taking effect unless five other states passed similar laws.
The regulations come as parents and lawmakers are growing increasingly concerned about kids and teenagers’ social media use and how platforms like TikTok, Instagram and others are affecting young people’s mental health. The dangers of social media to children is also emerging as a focus for trial lawyers, with addiction lawsuits being filed thorughout the country.
Ortutay reported from Oakland, California.
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