The Taliban: terrorists with Twitter accounts

The Taliban is a terrorist organization that emerged in the 1990s and overtook the Afghanistan government by force.

It was driven out for a period of time, but recently overtook the government once again. The Taliban also has a Twitter account. Many governments, and indeed many individual terrorists and extremists, have Twitter accounts, but the Taliban is infamous. It  is a terrorist organization most people know by name. Twitter, an app that claims to ban terrorist and extremist groups, you would certainly expect to ban the Taliban; however, Twitter does not ban “state or governmental organizations,” even if they meet all the other criteria for a violent group. And so, the Taliban stays.

I do not write this to make an argument that the Taliban should or should not be banned from Twitter. That is an important conversation to have, but not the one I intend to discuss today.

I find the fact that the Taliban has a Twitter account deeply disturbing. If the Taliban were broadcasting propaganda on a radio or TV, I would obviously hate it and be enraged, but would I feel the same kind of disturbed? I doubt it. Twitter as a platform is part of what is disturbing. The discomfort I feel comes from the ability to respond.

When my favorite musician posts a video of them talking on their Instagram story, I feel thrilled. I get to listen to them pretend to talk casually, to walk around their house without makeup as if they did not rehearse the video ten times. I feel like they are talking to me. What enhances this feeling even more is that I can respond to the video in real time. I could even send them a video response back if I wanted to. Then I could pretend that we were talking, that they might open my response and reply to me. Really, there is no guarantee they will not do that. On Twitter, celebrities post their random, casual thoughts. Anyone can make a public reply, and no one can guarantee the celebrity will not read that reply. This set-up fosters a sense of closeness that a radio or TV does not foster in the same way. Feeling close to the Taliban, having the ability to say something they could hear, is what I find disturbing. It closes the space between myself and a violent extremist group, between myself and violence.

As previously mentioned, the Taliban is not the only dark group a person might feel an uncomfortable proximity to on the internet. Other terrorist groups and individual terrorists find a voice on the internet, and so do entire subcultures that propagate violence.

The pro-anorexia subculture that encourages harm against oneself and Q-Anon believers that encourage violent crime to topple shadow governments are two subcultures that come to mind.

One can find these groups on almost every social media site, waxing and waning in visibility depending on what the public is interested in at the moment. Either group is easy to stumble upon. One can imagine how being into beauty and fitness culture could lead them to accidentally discover pro-anorexia accounts, or how liking true crime, politics and the occasional conspiracy theory could cause one to hear about Q-Anon. And then, what does one do when they discover these things?

Most of the time, you can leave a comment, express disgust, anger or confusion. You could try to have a healthy dialogue, or you could report the content, but interactions with strangers on the internet will not convince people to stop advocating for the subculture they are involved in. Even if it did, the sheer amount of violent content a person can easily stumble across on the internet makes it impossible for them to address all of it.

There is something to be said about the amount of violence one encounters on the internet. Violence has always followed close to humans, but the amount that is easily available for consumption today is unprecedented. No longer is one limited to hearing about violence through the news, whatever they personally become involved with and what they actively seek out.

Today, there is the added pressure of the internet, where companies know that violence and tragedies catch and hold peoples’ attention. It is easy to scroll on TikTok and find videos about atrocities occurring across the world interspersed with videos of dances and skits. On Tumblr, between aesthetic posts and jokes, people ask for money because they cannot afford rent. There is far too much violence for a single person to address all of it, and with it being interspersed with content designed for entertainment and relaxation, one is forced to tune most of it out.

Needing to tune out so much causes desensitization. This is something people have to do to remain stable in the age of the internet.

Is desensitization so bad? The internet is not going anywhere, and as long as violence exists and is profitable to companies and creators, people are going to encounter a lot of violence on the internet. If desensitizing oneself is what we need to do to survive, we should not feel guilty about being forced to make that decision. This opens a conversation about who is forcing this decision upon people; however, it is not singular people, or even a group of companies, that is responsible for the relaying of such violence. It is a system of standards companies and creators use that they know works, and it is part of our own psychology to consume this violence even if it forces us to become numb to it.

The long term effects of this constant bombardment of violence through digital means can not be fully understood yet. Despite this, it is a topic that needs to be constantly open for discussion.

Who, if anyone, should regulate violent and tragic content on the internet, and how that content would be regulated is new territory mixed up with issues of choice and free speech. Mistakes will be made in searching for answers, but it must be addressed.