The Taliban Can’t Stop TikTok

Najib says 85 percent of his followers are between the ages of 18 and 35, and 90 percent are based inside the country, according to the analytics he receives from the app. He thinks that over the past couple of years, local businesses have realized that sponsoring TikTok influencers is an effective way to reach this demographic. “If a business spends $100 for a Facebook ad, they may get around 50,000 views, but our videos can easily get 100,000 to 200,000 views,” he says.

All of that seemed to be at risk when, in October, the Taliban announced a ban on TikTok.

Disruptions to online platforms aren’t new in Afghanistan. In 2012, the Western-backed Islamic Republic banned YouTube for nearly three months in order to prevent the spread of a video it said was anti-Islam. In the aftermath of the 2014 presidential election, the government threatened to ban Facebook, and in 2017 the intelligence agencies reportedly pushed for a ban on encrypted messaging apps. In 2020, the government banned PUBG, a popular online game.

But the Taliban, which has itself become adept at using social media to spread its own messaging, has only blocked TikTok and PUBG—to “prevent the younger generation from being misled,” Taliban spokesperson Inamullah Samangani told the BBC.

An Afghan media executive, currently based abroad, says the Taliban likely recognizes that TikTok is mainly used by younger people and believes that banning the app can limit their access to new ideas and modern communication methods.

“For years, the Taliban have been saying they’re not just fighting a physical occupation, but also one of the minds,” the executive said, speaking anonymously to prevent reprisals. “TikTok is where young people go to trade ideas, to communicate, and to pass on a culture the Taliban doesn’t agree with, so it’s their way of quickly stamping out any possible anti-Taliban sentiment or culture in the country.”

Wardak suspects that 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,” Wardak says. “What would they even post on there?”

After the ban came into affect, the nation’s five mobile carriers blocked access to TikTok. At first, Sadat and other influencers saw their traffic fall off and worried that they might have lost years of hard work. But by early December they saw their views, follows, and comments return to normal.

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

Mobile phone sellers 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 they’ve seen the same thing. Musa, who would only give his first name, works in a mobile phone shop in Shahr-e Naw, the Kabul neighborhood packed with traditional kabob and rice shops, cafés, shisha bars, steakhouses, and clothing stores dealing in knockoff Gucci and Balenciaga. 

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