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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Afghans find room for debate on Twitter spaces

Shopkeepers in a deserted Kabul shop, checking social media on their phones to pass the time.

By Sharif Hassan

Hundreds listened as the former officials spoke about corruption, waste and theft in the government they once all served. Cabinet ministers, lawmakers and directors threw accusations at former colleagues of stealing public funds while largely absolving themselves.

Then it was Ahmad Ramin Ayaz’s turn.

“If these friends had raised their voice at the time,” Ayaz, a former government spokesperson, said, “we wouldn’t be in this situation now.”

“Unfortunately, anyone who had a government position at the time was involved in corruption as much as they could,” he told the audience last month.

The discussion was broadcast on Spaces, an audio live chat feature on Twitter, which has become a digital debate stage for Afghans recovering from the collapse of the former government and seeking answers on what went wrong and what comes next.

On any given day, Twitter users can find several Spaces hosted by members of the Afghan diaspora, prominent social media influencers, former officials, members of the new Taliban government and their supporters and some Afghans in the country. The debates include issues like who to blame for the current economic crisis gripping the country, how the war was lost and the Taliban’s return and their new policies. There are even chat rooms where audiences can listen to live traditional music, read their favorite poems or talk about their favorite Afghan dishes.

While the more high-profile Spaces regularly devolve into fighting, participants are exchanging words, insults and emojis — not bullets — a marked improvement from only six months ago.

“I wish we had started these discussions 10 years ago,” said Sahraa Karimi, former director of Afghan Film, a state-run production company, who sometimes participates in Twitter Spaces from Italy. She added that these forums provided “an opportunity to talk about issues that were never discussed.”

“This is really good,” she said.

While the demographics of the users are hard to pin down, Afghans participate mostly in forums organized by people with whom they already align: Taliban supporters in one chat, former government officials in another. At times, they are divided by ethnicity.

Naser Sidiqee, a former Afghan government official who has hosted a series of Spaces on corruption, nepotism and incompetency in the former government, said he mostly channeled the debates to focus on scrutinizing the “root causes of the collapse,” to make Afghans “ready for the future.”

“If we don’t learn from history, we will see it repeating itself again and again,” he said from Toronto.

At times, the conversation devolves into threats and harassment, an issue for which Twitter has faced criticism for not monitoring better.

Last month, members of a chat room expressed their anger at a demonstration in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, during which several women had thrown a burqa on the ground and stomped on it in a protest against the head-to-toe covering.

They viewed the protest as an affront to the Taliban’s new hard-line government, which has aggressively rolled back the gains made by Afghan women over the past two decades. The forum quickly gathered about 200 listeners, as speakers debated how the government should react and stop these public displays of disobedience.

“These whores must be contained and shouldn’t be allowed to continue protests anymore,” said Gen. Mobin Khan, who, until recently, was the spokesperson for the Taliban police force in Kabul. (Khan was fired on Jan. 24, although the Taliban said that he was not terminated because of those comments.)

“No one would dare to insult Islamic sanctities from now on,” he said. “I promise you. This was their first and last time.”

The comment sparked a flood of “100” emojis from supporters, and laughing faces from Khan’s opponents.

Later, when four of the women who participated in the protest against the burqa went missing, several women’s rights activists blamed Khan for their disappearance because of his comments, although the Taliban have repeatedly denied that the government detained the women. All four women were released this month after weeks of detention.

Khan did not respond to several phone calls and text messages requesting comment.

Twitter has struggled with the challenges of moderating the live conversations that occur in Spaces, which was released widely only three months before Kabul fell in August. Last year, users and civil society organizations criticized the company for allowing conversations that offered support to the Taliban, or spread hatred over race and religion, to continue on its platform.

In November, Twitter said it fixed bugs in its software that had allowed forums that broke its rules to continue appearing on the platform. This month, the company added a tool that automatically detects Spaces with “toxic” titles in non-English languages and hides them from view.

But for Afghans who have experienced more than four decades of war, just having the chance to hear varying opinions and points of view is progress, said Mohsin Amin, an Afghan policy analyst and researcher who left Afghanistan two years ago. He sometimes hosts his own Space and said he viewed the tool as an “alternative to town-hall meetings.”

Under the group’s first regime, in the 1990s, the internet was nonexistent within Afghanistan, and television and cassette tapes were forbidden. But decades later, the new Taliban government has embraced social media, and has encouraged its officials to participate more in online forums like Spaces.

Mawlawi Ziu-ur Rahman Asghar, a member of the Taliban’s cultural affairs committee who hosts most of the Taliban’s Spaces, said his goal was to bring Afghans together through civil discussions, and to solve the problems of the ordinary people by connecting them with Taliban officials.

“We want to bridge the gap between the government and the people, and convey the voice and demand of the people to the emirate officials,” he said in response to a question on a Space he hosted about a recent visit to Norway by the acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi.

Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s interior minister and the head of the notorious Haqqani network, was recently among Asghar’s guests.

Still, there is a limit to what Twitter Spaces can offer Afghans in the country, where only a small percentage of the population has access to social media. The Taliban have also clamped down on the freedom of speech.

Even more so, some fear that the chat rooms may further divide a polarized nation.

“Everyone goes to the Spaces of their like-minded people, and by doing so, they only reinforce their own past beliefs,” said Nasira Muradi, a Kabul-based psychologist, who is monitoring Afghans’ Spaces and sometimes speaks on the platform. “And when they go to their opponents’ Spaces, they go there only for catharsis.”

Joint Spaces, in which the Taliban and their opponents gather to exchange thoughts, are rare. In one such Space, both sides spent about two hours arguing over women’s rights, women’s protests and verses of the Quran.

Then the Space ended suddenly.

Minutes later, they were divided into two separate groups, each opening their own Space and talking with their own supporters, both accusing the other side of being unable to engage in a civil debate.

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