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The Taliban embrace social media: 'We too want to change perceptions' – BBC News

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Taliban forces patrol near the entrance gate of Hamid Karzai International Airport, a day after U.S troops withdrawal, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 31, 2021.

Reuters

In early May, as US and Nato forces began their final withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban stepped up their military offensive against Afghan national security forces.

But they also did something less common in the group’s history of conflict in the country – they launched a comprehensive social media campaign to go with it.

A network of social media accounts highlighted the alleged failures of the Kabul government while lauding the Taliban’s achievements.

Tweets boasted about the group’s recent victories – sometimes prematurely – and pushed several hashtags, including #kabulregimecrimes (attached to tweets accusing the Afghan government of war crimes); #westandwithTaliban (an attempt to drive grassroots support) and #ﻧَﺼْﺮٌ_ﻣٌِﻦَ_اللهِ_ﻭَﻓَﺘْﺢٌ_ﻗَﺮِﻳﺐٌ (help from God and victory is near). The first of the hashtags at least trended in Afghanistan.

In response, Afghanistan’s then-Vice President Amrullah Saleh warned his forces and the public not to fall for false claims of Taliban victories on social media, and called on people to avoid sharing details of military operations that could compromise security.

The coordination suggested the Taliban had moved on from the staunch opposition to modern information technology and media once associated with them, and built a social media apparatus to amplify their message.

When the Taliban first came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, they banned the internet and confiscated or destroyed television sets, cameras, and video tapes. In 2005, the official website of Islamic Emirates of Taliban, ‘Al-Emarah’, was launched and now publishes content in five languages – English, Arabic, Pashto, Dari, and Urdu. The audio, video, and written content is overseen by the cultural commission of Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan (IEA), headed by their spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid.

Zabihullah Mujahid’s first Twitter account was suspended by the company, but his new account – active since 2017 – has more than 371,000 followers. Underneath him is a dedicated team of volunteers promoting the Taliban’s ideology online.

The reported head of that group – effectively the social media director of the IEA – is Qari Saeed Khosty.

Mr Khosty told the BBC the team had separate groups focused on Twitter – attempting to get Taliban hashtags trending – as well as disseminating messages on WhatsApp and Facebook.

“Our enemies have television, radio, verified accounts on social media and we have none, yet we fought with them on Twitter and Facebook and defeated them,” Mr Khosty said.

His job, he said, was to take people who had joined the Taliban because of its ideology and “bring them to social media platforms so they amplify our message”.

There are just 8.6 million internet users in Afghanistan, and absence of network coverage and affordable data remains a key challenge. The IEA social media team team pays 1,000 Afghanis (£8.33; $11.51) per month for data packages for team members “fighting their war online”, Mr Khosty said.

He boasted that the IEA had “four fully equipped multimedia studios that are used for generating audio, video content and digital branding”.

The result is high-quality propaganda videos glorifying Taliban fighters and their battles against foreign and national forces, widely available on their YouTube and Al-Emarah websites.

The group publishes freely on Twitter and YouTube, but Facebook has designated the Taliban a “dangerous organisation” and frequently removes accounts and pages associated with them. Facebook has said it will continue to ban Taliban content from its platforms.

Mr Khosty told the BBC the Taliban was finding it hard to sustain their presence on Facebook, and was focusing instead on Twitter.

Although the US State Department has designated the Haqqani Network as an international terrorist group, their leader Anas Haqqani and many members of the group have Twitter accounts with thousands of followers.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one member of the Taliban’s social media team told the BBC that the team decided to use Twitter in earnest to promote a New York Times opinion article written by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the deputy leader of the Taliban, in February 2020. Most of the active Taliban accounts on Twitter were created after that.

“Most Afghans don’t understand English, but the leaders of the Kabul regime actively communicated in English on Twitter – because their audience is not Afghans but the international community,” he said.

“The Taliban wanted to counter their propaganda and that’s why we too focused ourselves on Twitter.”

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He said the team members, some of whom have tens of thousands of followers, were issued specific guidelines “not to comment on the foreign policy issues of neighbouring countries that would constrain our relations with them”.

In the past, the Taliban were known for being highly secretive about the identity of their leaders and fighters. So much so that there are barely any clear pictures of group’s founder, Mullah Omer.

Today, in an effort to gain international legitimacy, their leadership is not only making media appearances but promoting them heavily on social media. When the group’s previously secretive spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, made a press conference appearance shortly after the fall of Kabul, the profile pictures of many Taliban Twitter accounts were changed to his image.

By contrast, many Afghan citizens who worked for international forces, organisations, media and others who were critical of the Taliban on social media are now deactivating their accounts, fearing that the information could be used to target them.

Human rights organisations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say they have already received reports of Taliban fighters searching for, and allegedly killing, people in reprisal attacks.

Facebook has launched a one-click tool for people in Afghanistan to quickly lock down their account, preventing anyone not already listed as a friend from seeing their details. The site also announced it had temporarily removed the ability to view and search the “Friends” list for accounts in Afghanistan.

The question is whether the Taliban have changed and abandoned the brutality associated with the group. Many in Afghanistan and around the world do not believe their promises of change.

But they appear to have grasped that some of the technology they once shunned can help them in their quest to shape opinion on a global stage.

“Social media is powerful tool to change public perception,” said the social media team member. “We want to change the perception of the Taliban.”

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In the Elizabeth Holmes criminal case, the media is also on trial – CNN

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(CNN Business)For a time, Elizabeth Holmes was a media darling. The college dropout who started her blood-testing company Theranos at 19 graced the cover of magazines such as Forbes, Fortune, and Inc. in her signature black turtleneck to help cultivate her image as “the next Steve Jobs.” She was upheld as a rare female founder who’d raised significant sums of capital to drive her startup towards an eye-popping $9 billion valuation.

Seemingly everyone was fascinated by the young entrepreneur seeking to revolutionize blood testing and who managed to attract a who’s who of powerful men to buy into her lofty mission.
Now, Holmes’ criminal case is underway in a San Jose federal court where her relationship with the media is also on trial.
Holmes, who has pleaded not guilty, faces a dozen counts of federal fraud and conspiracy charges, and up to 20 years in prison over allegations that she knowingly misled doctors, patients and investors in order to take their money. Part of the alleged scheme? That she and her ex-boyfriend, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani — who served as Theranos’ chief operating officer — leveraged the media in their efforts to defraud investors. (Balwani faces the same charges, has pleaded not guilty and is set to be tried after Holmes’ case concludes.)
In the government’s opening statements, lead prosecutor Robert Leach called attention to Holmes’ role in using the media and positive press coverage to propel her company and attract investors. “The defendant’s fraudulent scheme made her a billionaire. The scheme brought her fame, it brought her honor, and it brought her adoration,” Leach said.
The government alleged that Holmes even approved a 2013 piece by a Wall Street Journal opinion writer prior to its publication that offered a glowing look at Holmes and Theranos, but also contained misleading claims of the company’s capabilities at the time. The article corresponded with a broader unveiling of the startup after years of operating in stealth and was leveraged by Holmes as external validation of the company.
In a statement to CNN Business, Journal spokesperson Steve Severinghaus said, “editors make publishing decisions based on their independent judgment.”
The statement continued, “Our writer asked Elizabeth Holmes to confirm complicated facts on a technical subject, not to approve publication. Our writer visited Theranos, spoke with numerous sources in and outside the company about its technology, and had his blood tested on a Theranos machine that appeared to offer credible results. If that was all a deception, then the responsibility lies with Ms. Holmes and Theranos.”
In his testimony Wednesday, retired four star general and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who served as a board member and invested $85,000 into the startup, shed light on the level of control Holmes asserted over what was revealed to reporters. Mattis testified that he asked what he was at liberty to share before speaking to the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, who profiled Holmes in December 2014. Holmes responded to Mattis in an email, shown in the courtroom, with a list of three topics she said the company didn’t talk about on the record, including “How our technology works (ie that there is a single device that does all tests).”
“I thought we had been kind of out front that there’s a single device and why would we want to hide that,” Mattis testified Wednesday, while also noting that it “didn’t bother me because I didn’t consider myself a technological expert, and I wasn’t going to talk about something I wasn’t an expert in anyway.” (Mattis is not directly mentioned in the New Yorker article.)
It was Auletta’s article that ultimately led then-Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou to start digging. Carreyrou’s investigative reporting would uncover significant flaws in the company’s technology and capabilities that contradicted claims made by Holmes and Theranos. His work prompted broader scrutiny into the company leading to its eventual demise. Carreyrou also wrote a critically-acclaimed book “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” based on his reporting.
In the course of his own reporting, Auletta pressed Holmes on her claims — particularly that Theranos was sharing data with the Food and Drug Administration. Holmes grew frustrated, according to audio recording of Auletta’s interview of Holmes that aired on the latest episode of Carreyrou’s podcast covering the trial. “You’re getting into an area that’s privileged,” she told Auletta.

“For the media to become part of the story, that’s less common”

The media both helped build up Holmes and Theranos and then played an important role in revealing what was really happening at the company, Margaret O’Mara, a historian of the tech industry and professor at University of Washington, told CNN Business in an interview this month. Holmes arrived on the scene as a rare female founder claiming to be “doing big things, changing the world … at a time when Silicon Valley is starting to get heat — rightly so — for not having many women at the top.” O’Mara said it was a storyline that Holmes leaned into.
According to Miriam Baer, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School, corporate fraud cases can often involve a charismatic actor who tells a compelling narrative. “It is not unheard of or infrequent for the media to discover fraud,” she told CNN Business. “But for the media to become part of the fraud — or part of the story, if you will — that’s less common.”
Holmes’ interactions with reporters may be put front-and-center if journalist Roger Parloff, a possible government witness, takes the stand. Parloff wrote the Fortune Magazine cover story on Holmes and Theranos in June 2014 — the first of many favorable profiles. In Parloff’s own words, the feature “helped raise to prominence” Holmes, as he later detailed in a column more than a year later titled “How Theranos Misled Me.
“Roger was first [to the story] and felt a tremendous amount of guilt,” said Alex Gibney in 2019; Gibney is the prolific documentary filmmaker whose HBO film, “The Inventor,” chronicled the rise and fall of Theranos. Gibney, who has said his work began with interviewing journalists who felt duped, has called Parloff the “beating heart” of his film. (CNN and HBO share a parent company.)
While Parloff has turned over audio recordings and notes from his interviews with Holmes and Balwani as part of a grand jury subpoena order, he’s objected to a trial subpoena order by Holmes’ defense team, citing reporter’s privilege among other considerations.
According to a recent court filing, Holmes’ defense team is seeking to compel Parloff to comply with the order, asking that he be required to turn over notes and recordings from interviews he conducted with others for his story. This evidence, Holmes’ team believes, will serve to refute the claims that Holmes misled Parloff, and through him, investors. Holmes’ team has called for a hearing on the matter on or around October 6. (According to Baer, “a trial subpoena contains more hurdles to collecting information than there are under a grand jury subpoena,” adding that the outcome of the hearing “may well result in a much narrower field of documents that the reporter has to produce.”)
There’s also a chance Carreyrou will take the stand — with Holmes listing him among her potential witnesses. Carreyrou, in a tweet, said his name appearing on her possible witness list — along with three prosecutors and officials from the FDA and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — indicate to him, “They’re going to argue to the jury that this was a witch hunt.”
In an interview ahead of the trial, Carreyrou said he’d “make a great witness for the prosecution and a terrible one for the defense,” noting that he’s “a bit concerned” about whether it would interfere with his ability to cover the trial through his podcast. He’s yet to be subpoenaed.

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Reviewing Pick-Me-Ups, a Toronto pop-up that uses social media as currency – Varsity

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Reviewing Pick-Me-Ups, a Toronto pop-up that uses social media as currency  Varsity



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Social Media Buzz: Meng Back in China, U.K. Gas Shortage, Huobi – Bloomberg

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What’s buzzing on social media this morning: 

Chinese social media users gave a hero’s welcome to Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co., as she returned to the country three years after her arrest in Canada.

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