At a glance.
- Not Taliban 2.0, just a group that learns and whose influence ops adapt.
- A Ghostwriter update.
- Tracking authoritarian state media.
The Taliban's influence operations.
An essay in the New Atlanticist gives the Taliban high marks for the way it handled influence operations online:
"The Taliban insurgents who conquered nearly all of Afghanistan in just two weeks counted social media among their weapons. They deployed Facebook and WhatsApp to help prevail over their opponents on the battlefield. They issued hundreds of premature declarations of victory via Twitter—using spam to amplify their messages and create a sense of inevitability. Their smartphones proved just as handy as their rifles when they entered Kabul on August 15, enabling them to film the first propaganda footage of their occupation."
The group's savvy use of social media in particular has led some observers to see a radically new Taliban, "Taliban 2.0," one whose new-found propaganda capability arguably suggests that the group itself has become more moderate, more modern, altogether more millennial. But this, the New Atlanticist piece argues, is fundamentally mistaken. There's been an evolution in the Taliban's technique, not a fundamental departure, and indeed there's far more continuity than discontinuity on display.
The group's goal has always, the New Atlanticist essay argues, always been power in Afghanistan, not an overarching, global jihad. "For a generation, the Taliban clearly articulated the purpose of its propaganda regime. This information strategy helped the Taliban seize power in Afghanistan. It will likely continue to guide Taliban actions in the months ahead."
The Taliban's online strategy falls into three distinct but clearly related stages. The earliest, "Going digital," ran from 2002 and 2009. In this period the group focused on gaining legitimacy, particularly in the rural areas that were its effective strongholds. This phase was characterized by the creation of content closely tailored to its audience, and that content was initially not primarily digital. Letters and cassette tapes were best adapted to this audience. The period also saw the Taliban experiment with various forms of propaganda (including propaganda of the deed), evidence of a disposition to learn from the best. Observing the attention al Qaeda achieved when it beheaded prisoners, for example, the Taliban did likewise, until it recognized that the attention for the most part took the form of revulsion as opposed to fear or admiration. Then the Taliban reverted to executing its enemies by shooting.
The first official website of the insurgency went online in 2005, and it continued the Taliban's focus on achieving power in Afghanistan. The remainder of the "Going digital" phase was marked by centralization of control and messaging. The second phase of the group's digital evolution, "Harnessing social media," lasted from 2009 to 2017. As the name suggests, this period was marked by the deliberate, systematic cultivation of social media as a vehicle of amplification. The Taliban was aware that it typically got bad press, and sought to counter what a Western spin doctor would call "media bias" by establishing alternative modes of delivering news and opinion. "Those journalists who are committed to human dignity, liberation, and justice," that is, those sympathetic to the Taliban, "should form Mujahideen Support Groups. [They must] wage an unwavering and constant campaign against the black propaganda launched by the colonialists.” The Taliban joined YouTube in 2009; by 2011 it maintained a regular presence on Facebook and Twitter. During this period the group also learned from the ISIS experience in Syria. While no friend of ISIS (indeed, fighting between the Taliban and the local ISIS affiliate has long been, and continues to be, bitter) they did learn from ISIS propaganda successes while profiting from the operational security lessons to be learned from Syria. The notoriously chatty ISIS operators gave its opponents a wealth of target indicators that were put to lethal use on the battlefield. The Taliban would prove more careful.
We're now in the final phase of that evolution, "Winning the information war," which began in 2017 and continues through today. It's been quick, sophisticated, and superficially more reasonable (the Taliban called, for example, for a criminal investigation of the anti-Muslim attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, not the bloody retaliation ISIS and al Qaeda called for). But the goals remain the same. As the essay concludes:
"The beliefs and objectives of the Taliban militants who streamed into Kabul this August are little changed from those held by the members of the group who fled the city twenty years earlier. Instead, what has changed is their willingness to use modern technology to realize their medieval ends.
"Today’s Taliban understands how to disseminate its propaganda at scale and speed. It has come to appreciate how its English-language propaganda can be used to disarm and distract the international community—projecting a “moderate” face that helps obscure the massacres and violent retribution that have already begun under its reign."
Other groups might follow the Taliban's template. After all, the Taliban itself showed how after action reviews and a willingness to learn can enable even the most unprepossessing groups to develop an effective influence campaign.
An update on Ghostwriter.
UNC1151, a Russian threat group whose activities are tracked as "Ghostwriter," has been determined to have a much larger infrastructure and more extensive operations than previously believed. Security firm Prevailion, which announced its findings yesterday, says that it's unclear whether UNC1151 is a single organization, but that its infrastructure and the Ghostwriter campaign appear to have "an overarching theme and direction." Prevailion found eighty-one malicious domains "clustered with the activity" that had hitherto gone unremarked, which would make UNC1151's infrastructure about three times as large as earlier reports had reckoned it.
Ghostwriter has so far tended to concentrate on targets in Central and Eastern Europe. Its approach has typically been through phishing, and it’s been known to engage in influence operations. Mandiant researchers noted, in July, that Ghostwriter's successful compromise of websites enabled it to insinuate Russian messaging into media channels that might have known better:
"Many, though not all of the incidents we suspect to be part of the Ghostwriter campaign, appear to have leveraged website compromises or spoofed email accounts to disseminate fabricated content, including falsified news articles, quotes, correspondence and other documents designed to appear as coming from military officials and political figures in the target countries.
"This falsified content has been referenced as source material in articles and op-eds authored by at least 14 inauthentic personas posing as locals, journalists and analysts within those countries. These articles and op-eds, primarily written in English, have been consistently published to a core set of third-party websites that appear to accept user-submitted content, most notably OpEdNews.com, BalticWord.com, and the pro-Russian site TheDuran.com, among others, as well as to suspected Ghostwriter-affiliated blogs."
A resource for tracking the sources of influence.
The Alliance for Securing Democracy has an interesting resource, Hamilton 2.0, that tracks Russian and Chinese state-sponsored media. The dashboard's "Authoritarian Influence Tracker" currently sees six-hundred eighteen events, four-hundred-twenty-nine of them Russian, one-hundred-eighty-nine Chinese.