The South Asia Channel

A Double-Edged Sword: Social Media and the Afghan Election

For about five short minutes in June, everyone sitting around my lunch table in Kabul thought the Afghan government had shut down Facebook. Attempts to load news feeds were met with an abrupt, uninformative "network error" message, so, naturally, two of us jumped on Twitter to break the news. The others, also expatriates, but less ...

SHAH MARAI/AFP/GettyImages
SHAH MARAI/AFP/GettyImages

For about five short minutes in June, everyone sitting around my lunch table in Kabul thought the Afghan government had shut down Facebook. Attempts to load news feeds were met with an abrupt, uninformative "network error" message, so, naturally, two of us jumped on Twitter to break the news. The others, also expatriates, but less swept up in the politics of the moment, continued eating, though no doubt they were somewhat dismayed at the prospect of their window to life back home being shuttered.

It was less than a week after millions of Afghans had commuted to polls around the country to vote in a runoff election, the second round in 2014’s historic, if protracted, presidential race. Heralded as the country’s first democratic transition of power, the election process had taken an ugly turn. And social media followed suit. When former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah accused election officials and then-President Hamid Karzai of coordinating ballot stuffing in favor of his opponent, former economic minister Ashraf Ghani, Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with progressively violent and inciteful rhetoric from both sides. Unsurprisingly, the factions largely split along ethnic lines — Pashtuns versus Tajiks — the same antagonists of Afghanistan’s four-year civil war in the 1990s.

"Pashtuns, wake up!" was a popular slogan that circulated among Ghani supporters on Facebook. More ominously, warlords like Atta Mohammad Noor — the governor of Balkh province, a former mujahideen commander, and a heavily armed Abdullah supporter — took to their Facebook pages to inflame the nation’s passions — such as when Noor posted a photo on June 18 likening a potential Ghani presidency to the Soviet invasion in 1979. The caption read: "A second generation of jihad is coming." On July 8, Noor went so far as to proclaim for his supporters their own "legitimate government" led by Abdullah.

But, of course, that parallel government was never created. Instead, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Kabul to help broker an extensive vote audit and power-sharing agreement between the two candidates. Now, Afghanistan has a new president, Ghani, and a new chief executive, Abdullah. There was no outbreak of violence. And the government never shut down Facebook.

Though Kabul officials did contact the California-based company looking to disable accounts that were "insulting people and posting against the national interest and national sovereignty," according to the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, and an Afghan senator declared jihad against social media, the Afghan National Security Council stopped short of blocking the site. It turns out the "network error" I so hurriedly tweeted about was a global 20-minute site failure.

In mid-July, when news broke of the critical — albeit fragile — reconciliation deal between the candidates, the Facebook and Twitter feeds that had been vicious battlegrounds were suddenly flooded with odes to national unity. People like Afghan freelance journalist Mujib Mashal, who had argued it would be better to let people fight online than in the streets, were vindicated. And just like that, the positive-negative balance of social media’s role in the election process appeared to have been restored, if only momentarily.

Indeed, the story of social media and the Afghan election prior to mid-June was overwhelmingly one of warm and fuzzy feelings. On both election days, April 5 and June 15, stirring photos of Afghan men and women, young and old, urban and rural, lined up to vote with their heads held high swept across Facebook and Twitter. The digital perspective, curated by viral appeal, showed Afghan youth flipping the bird to the Taliban with fingers stained by ink from voting, alongside others with severed fingers, a gruesome punishment meted out by the militants against voters in the past. Share after share, the process was recorded, like a visual archive of Afghan democracy. 

But some believed that social media could actually tangibly help make the election more of a success. Months before the first round of voting, and again weeks before the runoff, civil society groups and political parties launched online campaigns urging Afghans to register and turnout to vote, and calling on their fellow citizens to defy the Taliban by going to the ballot box. Both candidates also employed social media strategies of their own. Within days of the first vote, when the pleasant surprise of participation levels twice that of most American elections inspired unusually positive international headlines, it seemed social media use had, in its own right, become a subplot of the election.

As has been the case in much of the developing world, despite immense infrastructural deficiencies, high illiteracy rates, and a host of other obstacles, Afghanistan has seen a boom in social media use over the past few years; a boom largely propelled by its exceptionally young population and the cheapening cost of smartphone technology. Seventy percent of those with access to the Internet via computer are said to be on social media, but they make up less than 10 percent of the country’s 30 million people. In contrast, there are an estimated 22 million mobile phone users. Of course, when it comes to the full picture of social media use, there is insufficient data — an all too frequent problem in Afghanistan.

It is presumed that Internet use is still heavily concentrated among urban elite. But some, like Eileen Guo, the founder of Impassion Afghanistan, the country’s first digital media agency, maintain that what little data exists suggests activity is more widely dispersed than most would think. "We have several social media clients — different embassies, international organizations — who we manage different pieces of social media for, and when you actually look at Facebook Insights [the data metrics and analysis provider], they’re not just coming from the major cities," Guo told me in late June as we sipped tea in her new Kabul office. "The data is there; they’re coming from Lashkar Gah, Kunduz, and Gardez, and in really remote areas."

In September 2013, Guo, just one year out from graduating from Tufts University in Boston, helped organize Afghanistan’s first social media summit after answering a Response for Proposal put out by the U.S. State Department, which she described as "very interested in promoting civic engagement on social media." It was at that summit, with participants from 26 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, that Guo planted the seeds for the project that has consumed her attention over the past year: Paiwandgah, meaning "place of connection" in Dari. The idea was to build a network of capable, engaged citizen journalists and social activists around the country. "We’re trying to empower people to speak up, to feel like their voices are important, and then let them loose to talk about whatever is important to them," she said.

But Guo already knew what would be most important in the near term: the presidential election, something Paiwandgah’s backers at the U.S. Embassy were also emphasizing. So she and her team planned to run phone-, text-, and social media-based reporting on Election Day, utilizing a map-based data visualization model inspired by the "activist mapping" of Ushahidi, a website created in Kenya in early 2008 to track election-related violence through citizen journalism. Guo and her co-workers hoped their own crowdsourcing initiative would help bolster transparency during the Afghan election, which many expected to be bedeviled by the same improprieties as the country’s last vote in 2009.

Encouragingly though, when both election days rolled around, Paiwandgah found itself on the frontlines of a broad-based grassroots anti-fraud offensive waged across social media. While the reports Guo and her team collected were submitted to the election commissions, a swell of young Afghans took to Twitter of their own accord to report and amplify news of fraud, ballot shortages, and security threats. Umer Daudzai, the minister of the interior and head of the Afghan police forces, even responded to some of the reports. When Afghan journalist Harun Najafizada tweeted about ballot stuffing in eastern Kunar province, for instance, Daudzai asked for the specific sites. Shortly after he received their district names, he confirmed following up on the report.

Even beyond the polling days themselves, the use of social media for purposes that directly or indirectly augmented accountability and transparency in the process was a constant. At the height of tensions between Abdullah and Ghani following the runoff vote, the second-most powerful Afghan election official, Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail, resigned from his post after an audiotape purportedly showing him planning electoral fraud was released. On the recording, which made the rounds on social media after being publicized by the Abdullah campaign, the act of ballot box stuffing was allegedly referred to as "stuffing the sheep." This, in turn, played right into the hands of the comics, to an extent likely only possible in a place like Afghanistan, with its rich tradition of pastorally themed humor (some clean, some not). Soon, different combinations of "Amarkhail" and "sheep" became the punch line of every joke. And the memes ensued.

To be sure, the impact of the efforts of Paiwandgah and others to combat electoral malfeasance through social media should not be overstated. The fact remains that this year’s election process saw pervasive fraud, and much of it on an institutional level, the full scale of which will probably never be known. (Guo said she didn’t find out what came of the reports she submitted to the election commission.) In the end, despite conducting the largest vote audit in world history, disputes over fraud compelled election officials — with the blessing of the United Nations — to withhold numerical results from their announcement of Ghani’s victory. And thanks to weaknesses in the Afghan judicial system, which was listed as the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International in 2013, a very small number — if any — of the thousands it took to pull off the fraud will face legal repercussions.

Beyond the integrity of the polling process, as the Afghan government’s consternation over how to deal with Facebook during the election crisis would suggest, social media’s role was a tale of two platforms. It facilitated more inclusive discourse, public transparency, and accountability. But it also enabled slander, vitriolic clamor, and conflagration between groups with historic animus. Ultimately, social media proved to be a melting pot of some of the best and worst Afghanistan has to offer.

Looking ahead, there seems to be little doubt that social media use will continue to proliferate in Afghanistan, though at what pace remains to be seen. What is certain is that the experience of this year’s election provides a testament to the potential social media has for enhancing the integrity, vibrancy, and reach of the democratic process. Moreover, it demonstrated that while foreign aid can be leveraged to help meet such potential, popular backing is both preferable and possible. The example of this year’s election also stands as a sobering reminder that as a free medium, social media presents a double-edged sword, a role, for better or worse, defined by the character of its users.  

Sam Schneider is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. He worked in Afghanistan as the manager of online news for TOLO News after finishing his bachelor’s degree in Government at Georgetown University in 2013. He has also contributed to the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @samtschneider.

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