Taliban violence causes Afghans to delete social media profiles

While the Taliban maintain control of Kabul, residents across Afghanistan are vying to delete photos from their mobile phones and social media that could somehow connect them with people from Western nations, international human rights groups, the Afghan military or the recently collapsed Afghan government. .

Three people in Kabul told NBC News that they had deleted documents and pictures from their phones that could provoke the anger of the Taliban, including pictures of Afghan officials, pictures of the Afghan flag and pictures of foreign colleagues. Much of the deleted content is most likely hosted on social media platforms like Facebook.

Everyone spoke on condition of anonymity because they were afraid of being approached by the Taliban.

One student said her relatives were stopped on their way to Kabul, the capital, from Mazar-e-Sharif and asked to hand over their phones by the Taliban, who said they were looking for pictures of the Afghan army or with army officers. Her uncle, who suffers from mental health issues, lied about wearing his phone, and when Taliban commanders discovered it, they tried to beat him, she said.

“They asked my uncle if he was a military commander,” she said, adding that one of her relatives was eventually forced to intervene and explain that he was mentally unwell. “I’ve also deleted some things if they’re trying to check mine.”

Rapid deletion of content from social media is a challenging proposition for some Afghan users. Digital security experts at human rights organizations in neighboring countries working around the clock to help people in Afghanistan scrub their digital footprints say social media companies have been too slow to help Afghans safely remove their profile content and translate help pages into Pashto and Dari , the two primary languages ​​of Afghanistan.

“In fact, you can not access guidance and resources in local Afghan languages ​​on social media right now,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asian political director and senior international lawyer at AccessNow, a nonprofit organization working for international digital rights protection. . “There is no guarantee that you will receive an article in the Help Center from Facebook or from other services in any Afghan language. It must be done immediately.”

In Kabul, many who are concerned about being targeted by the Taliban are urging their friends and family to start editing their digital lives, but stop deleting their entire social media profiles, which also serve as a crucial channel for family and resources within for and outside the country. Facebook, for example, allows users to remove friends on an individual basis and delete entire photo albums, but there is no quick way to delete all of one’s photos or enemies en masse, except to delete their entire account. In the “Manage activity” section of the app, Facebook allows users to delete all their old posts at once.

Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, on Thursday announced new security features for Afghan users, including a button to quickly lock an account that prevents people who are not already friends with the users from downloading their profile picture or viewing their posts. Nathaniel Gleitcher, Facebook’s security chief, shared the news on Twitter.

“We have also temporarily removed the ability to view and search the ‘Friends’ list for Facebook accounts in Afghanistan to help protect people from being targeted,” Gleitcher said. Facebook did not clarify whether these new security features or their related help pages will be translated into local languages.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the government banned music and prevented women from going to school or leaving their homes without male escorts. In 2001, the United States overthrew the Taliban leadership and installed a democratic government aimed at protecting the rights of women and minorities. But the Taliban retained control of parts of the country and continued to carry out attacks on the US-backed government in Kabul, which included officials often considered corrupt. Fighting in Afghanistan has led to more than 100,000 civilian deaths and injuries since 2009.

According to a UN report, the Taliban were responsible for nearly 40 percent of civilian casualties in the first six months of this year, more than any other party to the conflict in Afghanistan. The group’s leaders have denied attacking civilians.

Now fewer women are seen on the streets in some areas, according to sources in the country who spoke to NBC News, and many are unsure whether they will be able to return to their jobs and fear being linked to some work, friends , family or associates from the West, nurturing the urgency many feel about deleting information from their phones, computers and social media profiles.

Human rights workers outside Afghanistan run telephone guides to help Afghan residents protect their digital identities and data, including what is stored on their phones and social media, and quickly remove information and links to people who could endanger them under the Taliban. the board.

A Pakistan-based Digital Rights Foundation-based helpline was set up to work with Pakistani people who are victims of online harassment or violence, and to help escalate their cases to social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter, which can take steps to stop the abuse online.

In recent days, the helpline has been expanded to also serve people in Afghanistan, according to Nighat Dad, a lawyer and Internet rights activist who is the CEO of the Digital Rights Foundation and serves on Facebook’s supervisory board.

Dad said the helpline has received a steady stream of calls from people in Afghanistan looking for ways to quickly scrub their online identities and recommendations for setting up a virtual private network (VPN), a tool that helps hide a user’s web browsing history and location. The helpline is run primarily in English, Urdu and Punjabi, but also has the support of volunteers who speak Pashto and Sindhi, two languages ​​spoken in Afghanistan.

Dad says she has received many requests for digital security assistance from women and journalists who fear for their lives.

“I have received inquiries from activists and computer engineers and people in civil society organizations about the security and erasure of their data. Most of them are also trying to find ways to leave the country, but their online life is also a kind of lifeline for them, “which is why few people want to delete their profiles completely, she said.

Dad also said that the Internet Archive, a nonprofit group that works on a regular basis to capture snapshots of the Internet that can be easily searched whose content is being deleted, needs to act.

“It’s not just social media platforms; it’s online too, ”said Dad. “The Internet archive really needs to go up and work with the international civil society groups that are already in contact with Afghan people on the ground.”

The Internet Archive did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Another guide powered by AccessNow has also been busy calling from Afghan people in a hurry to clean their digital footprints. Human rights workers at AccessNow and the Digital Rights Foundation can help escalate concerns about social media companies from users, but many people in need of support in Afghanistan may not be aware that these guidelines exist, Dad said.

“I think the challenge with platforms is that sometimes they do not want to make tools generally available on a fast-track basis for human rights defenders,” Chima from AccessNow said.

Nevertheless, advocacy groups such as AccessNow and Human Rights First have been working on translating and distributing digital security guides in local Afghan languages.

In addition to social media content, people in Afghanistan delete apps from their phone and data from their computers to protect themselves if their devices are searched and seized.

A person who recently traveled from Herat to Kabul said he had deleted his Yahoo, Gmail and Skype apps to make sure the Taliban could not find out who he was working for or who he had spoken to. with.

Another person in Kabul said he had burned any document linking him to the Western world, including his resume, and asked friends to change the name of a WhatsApp group where refugee visas were discussed.

“My CV does not matter in this emirate of the Taliban,” he said.

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