The world has changed since the Taliban last controlled Afghanistan 20 years ago. One major difference: the rise of social media. The extremist group now has a major, public-facing presence on the internet, presenting companies like Google and Facebook with a dilemma about how to regulate — or not regulate — their output. On the latest Pivot podcast, Kara Swisher and guest co-host Casey Newton discuss how the tech giants are thinking about this problem.
Kara Swisher: The Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan could have implications for big tech, as companies and users scramble to protect their data and services. The Taliban is likely in possession of biometric databases compiled by the previous Afghan government that might include fingerprints, facial recognition, and scans, according to Human Rights First. There are concerns that the Taliban could use the data to track down previous government employees, international workers, women’s-rights activists, and educators. They also are trying very hard to stay on these platforms. Facebook has kept the Taliban off of Facebook. Twitter has let them stay on as long as they don’t break the rules. YouTube has kept them off of it based on U.S. government sanctions laws. You’ve written quite a bit about this. So what do you think about what’s happening here? Again, it’s these social-media companies smack in the middle of an international crisis as always.
Casey Newton: Yeah. I mean, the first thing to say is what an absolutely heartbreaking situation. It’s hard not to see the stories over the past few days and not just feel constantly in pain over all the human suffering that we’re watching unfold. For the platforms, this is such a no-win question, because up until now, most of them have said, based on our interpretation of U.S. law, we’re not going to keep the Taliban and their posts up.
Swisher: Not Twitter.
Newton: Well, so Twitter is a weird one and I have reported that out a little bit. And basically, I think the reason that the Taliban has not been off Twitter is that they are not on this list that the State Department maintains called the Foreign Terrorist Organizations List. Twitter says, for whatever reason, we’re going to allow them to be on.
But I actually think that six months from now, most platforms positions will look a lot more like Twitter. Then it’s going to be the other platforms that are going to have to backtrack, because — I mean, even in the recent Biden interview — you sort of get the impression that the Taliban is going to get some kind of recognition from the international community, at which point they probably are going to have a Facebook page and a Twitter account and all of that. But yeah, I mean, this goes right to the question of, well, is this a town square, where no matter who is the mayor, you got to have an account? Or do the platforms say, you have committed war crimes and atrocities and human-rights abuses, and you’re not welcome on the platform.
Swisher: I think one of the things that’s interesting is it begs the question of what happens if President Trump returns to office. What does Twitter do?
Newton: Well, I will go into hiding. I’m going to catch the next Jeff Bezos rocket to space, I think, if that happens. And then humans will be on their own.
Swisher: Okay, Casey, but in any case, what is Twitter going to do? That’s the thing.
Newton: Facebook suspended him for two years. If Trump becomes president again, I do believe that Facebook would reinstate him.
Swisher: Unless he misbehaved, right?
Newton: Yeah. If he broke the rules again, they would get rid of him. And the thing is he would break the rules again — he’s incapable of not breaking the rules. I actually think if they had to make the decision today — if one of these demented QAnon fantasies came true and Trump became president tomorrow — Twitter would still keep him off the platform. Everyone I’ve talked to at Twitter has said that he is permanently suspended, like there is no avenue for appeal.
Swisher: There’s no avenue for appeal. That’s right. It still will be an interesting question if he rises back to power. But getting back to the Taliban, one of the most ironic things is that one of the spokesmen for the Taliban was sort of calling out Mark Zuckerberg. It’s like, “He believes in free speech and yet he censors us?” He sounded very much like the Trump administration and Republicans or Ted Cruz.
Newton: Yeah. I mean, it got a lot of pick up, but I thought it was kind of a dumb deflection, because the question that he got asked was, like, “Are you going to permit free speech in Afghanistan?” Which is a very good and important question. He was like, “Free speech? Why don’t you go ask Facebook about free speech?” Which is a very Don Trump Jr.–level burn.
Swisher: Yes it was. It was strange.
Newton: And Donald Trump Jr. did approvingly quote-tweet it, by the way.
Swisher: Of course he did. But in any case, the more serious issue is that they’re getting all this data because the U.S. government pushed for and funded programs to capture Afghans biometric data during the occupation. What is going to happen here with their ability to use all this data?
Newton: I don’t know exactly what data is on which devices. My understanding is that they have collected a lot of biometric data about citizens. There are stories that, in the past, the Taliban has gotten access to similar data and used it in essentially terror campaigns against Afghani citizens. So we do have to assume that that is going to happen again. I hope it doesn’t happen. I also hope that people who make this kind of hardware and these kinds of services take this as a lesson that they need to build in fail-safes for when their products fall into the wrong hands, because they will fall into the wrong hands. There’s this company, Clearview AI — they’re scraping every face they can find on the internet and putting it in a database and selling it to governments.
It is not hard to figure out that this is all going to be used against us. To your point, what happens when a Trump-like figure comes back into power? Well, I think they’re going to use a database like that to harass us all and to punish dissidents and journalists, and God knows what else.
Swisher: Well, they did do that with immigrants.
Newton: Yeah, absolutely. If you’re coming into this country as an immigrant, all of a sudden you have to show your social-media handles, right? It’s a climate-change-like problem, because the creep is slow and no one thing makes it feel like a crisis. And then you turn around five or ten years later, and you realize that your freedoms have been dramatically reduced. So I do hope people pay attention to this one.
Pivot is produced by Lara Naaman, Evan Engel, and Taylor Griffin
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.