The Taliban Can’t Stop TikTok

All of that seemed jeopardized when the Taliban announced a ban on TikTok in October.

Disruptions to online platforms are not new in Afghanistan. In 2012, the Western-backed Islamic Republic banned YouTube for almost three months to prevent the distribution of an allegedly Islamophobic video. After the 2014 presidential election, the government threatened to ban Facebook, and in 2017 intelligence agencies reportedly pushed for a ban on encrypted messaging apps. In 2020, the government banned PUBG, a popular online game.

But the Taliban, who have themselves become adept at using social media to spread their own messages, have only blocked TikTok and PUBG – “to prevent the younger generation from being misled,” Taliban spokesman Inamullah Samangani told the BBC.

An Afghan media executive currently living abroad says the Taliban are likely to realize that TikTok is mainly used by younger people and believe banning the app could limit their access to new ideas and modern communication methods.

“For years, the Taliban have said they are not just fighting a physical occupation, but also one of the heads,” the executive said anonymously, to avoid reprisals. “TikTok is where young people share ideas, communicate and transmit a culture that the Taliban disagree with, so it’s their way of quickly stamping out any possible anti-Taliban sentiment or culture in the country.”

Wardak suspects the government may have objected to the frivolity on TikTok, but also that the regime has struggled to build its own following on the platform, where it has no official presence. “They don’t know how to use it,” says Wardak. “What would you even post there?”

After the ban went into effect, the country’s five wireless carriers blocked access to TikTok. At first, Sadat and other influencers saw their traffic drop and worried they might have lost years of hard work. But in early December, they saw their views, followers, and comments return to normal.

Afghans had started downloading virtual private networks (VPNs), which route users’ traffic through international proxies and allow them to return to TikTok. Sadat followed the upswing in his analytics and was both stunned and delighted: “I hadn’t even told a follower to install a VPN, they just found it themselves.”

Mobile phone vendors in Kabul, who not only sell and repair the latest Apple and Android devices, but also set up app and play store accounts for millions of Afghans who lack credit cards and online banking access, tell WIRED, that they saw the same thing. Musa, who would only use his first name, works at a cellphone shop in Shahr-e Naw, the Kabul neighborhood full of traditional kabob and rice shops, cafes, shisha bars, steakhouses and clothing stores selling knockoff Gucci and Balenciaga.

“People don’t really ask us to install VPNs for them, they just find the free ones and use them,” says Musa, adding that most of his clients now have VPN apps on their phones.

At the end of January, Najib signed a new contract – to make videos for one of the mobile operators that has technically blocked access to TikTok.

However, the political environment means that Najib and his colleagues always have a sense of fragility. Several YouTubers have been arrested over the past year on charges of insulting Islam or spreading misinformation. A TikToker told WIRED he received threatening calls from unknown numbers saying they knew where he lived and were tracking him down.

Many female social media personalities, including those recruited by Wardak, have been forced to leave the country.

TikTokers who, like Najib, are still in Afghanistan are rarely political, even as the country’s troubles mount. “People have every right to ask us to speak out, but we have to find indirect ways to say these things,” he says.

But while he feels free to post what he likes now, he’s realistic about what the future might hold. “If social media is banned in Afghanistan, we have no choice but to go elsewhere.” The Taliban Can’t Stop TikTok

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