How fake media accounts in Afghanistan are used to push Taliban propaganda

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.

>> Read more on The Observers: How to investigate a Twitter account or suspicious tweets

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.

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