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Taliban violence drives Afghans to delete social media profiles

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While the Taliban retain control of Kabul, residents across Afghanistan are trying to delete photos from their cell phones and social media accounts that they somehow share with people from Western nations, international human rights groups, the Afghan military, or the recently collapsed Afghan government Could bring connection.

Three people in Kabul told NBC News they had deleted documents and photos from their phones that could provoke the anger of the Taliban, including photos with Afghan officials, pictures of the Afghan flag and photos with foreign counterparts. Much of the deleted content is most likely hosted on social media platforms like Facebook.

All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were afraid of being visited by the Taliban.

One student said her relatives were stopped on the way from Mazar-e-Sharif to the capital Kabul and asked by the Taliban to hand over their phones. Her uncle, who has mental health problems, lied that he had his phone with him and when Taliban commanders discovered it, they tried to beat him, she said.

“They asked my uncle if he was a military commander,” she said, adding that eventually one of her relatives was forced to step in and explain that he was mentally ill. “I’ve deleted some stuff too, just in case they’re trying to check mine.”

Deleting content from social media quickly is a challenge for some Afghan users. Digital security experts from human rights organizations in neighboring countries, who work 24/7 to help people in Afghanistan clear their digital footprint, say social media companies have been too slow to help Afghans achieve theirs Safely remove profile content and help pages in Pashto and Dari. to translate the two main languages ​​in Afghanistan.

“Indeed, you currently cannot access guides and resources in local Afghan languages ​​on social media,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, director of Asian policy and senior international lawyer at AccessNow, a non-profit advocating the international protection of digital rights begins. “There is no guarantee that you will receive a help article from Facebook or any other service in all Afghan languages. That has to happen immediately. “

In Kabul, many who fear being targeted by the Taliban are calling on their friends and family to start working their digital lives outside the country. Facebook, for example, allows users to remove friends one by one and delete entire photo albums, but there is no quick way to delete all photos or contacts en masse other than delete their entire account. In the “Manage Activities” section of the app, Facebook allows users to delete all of their old posts at once.

Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, announced new security features for Afghan users on Thursday, including a quick account lock button that prevents people who are not yet friends with the users from downloading their profile picture or seeing their posts. Nathaniel Gleitcher, security chief of Facebook, shared the news on Twitter.

“We have also temporarily removed the ability to view and search the ‘Friends’ list for Facebook accounts in Afghanistan in order to protect people from attacks,” said Gleitcher. Facebook has not made it clear whether these new security features or the associated help pages will be translated into local languages.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the government banned music and banned women from going to school or leaving their homes unaccompanied by men. In 2001, the US overthrew the Taliban leadership and set up a democratic government that aimed to protect the rights of women and minorities. However, the Taliban retained control of parts of the country and continued to launch attacks against the US-backed government in Kabul, which included officials who were often viewed as corrupt. The fighting in Afghanistan has resulted in more than 100,000 civilian deaths and injuries since 2009.

According to a United Nations report, the Taliban were responsible for nearly 40 percent of civilian casualties in the first six months of this year, more than any other party to the conflict in Afghanistan. The group’s leaders have denied attacking civilians.

Now, there are fewer women on the streets in some areas, according to sources in the country speaking to NBC News, and many are unsure whether they can return to work and fear with work, friends, family or co-workers from the west, adding to the urgency of many in deleting information from their phones, computers, and social media profiles.

Human rights workers outside Afghanistan operate telephone helplines to help Afghan residents protect their digital identities and data, including that stored on their phones and social media pages, and quickly remove information and links to anyone they rule Taliban could endanger.

A Pakistan-based Digital Rights Foundation helpline has been set up to work with Pakistanis who have been victims of online harassment or violence and to escalate their cases to social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter that are taking action to end it can take hold of the online abuse.

In the past few days, the hotline has also been expanded to people in Afghanistan, according to Nighat Dad, an internet rights attorney and activist who is the executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation and a member of Facebook’s governing body.

Papa said the helpline has received a steady stream of calls from people in Afghanistan looking for ways to quickly clear their online identities and recommendations for installing a virtual private network (VPN), a tool that will help to hide a user’s browsing history and location. The helpline is mainly run in English, Urdu and Punjabi, but is also supported by volunteers who speak Pashto and Sindhi, two languages ​​spoken in Afghanistan.

Dad says she has received many digital security requests from women and journalists who fear for their lives.

“I get requests from activists and computer engineers and people in civil society organizations to secure and delete their data. Most of them try to leave the country too, but their online life is kind of a lifeline for them too, ”she says.

Dad also said the Internet Archive, a nonprofit group that regularly takes snapshots of the Internet that can be easily searched in the event that content is deleted, must take action.

“It’s not just social media platforms; it’s on the internet too, ”Dad said. “The internet archive really needs to be strengthened and work with the international civil society groups that are already in contact with the local Afghan population.”

The internet archive did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Another hotline operated by AccessNow was also busy taking calls from Afghans who are rushing to delete their digital footprint. Human rights workers from AccessNow and the Digital Rights Foundation can help escalate user concerns about social media companies, but many people in Afghanistan in need of assistance may not know these hotlines exist, Dad said.

“I think the challenge with platforms is that sometimes they don’t want human rights defenders tools to be widely available quickly,” said Chima of AccessNow.

Still, stakeholders such as AccessNow and Human Rights First have worked to translate and distribute digital security guides into the local Afghan languages.

Social media content aside, people in Afghanistan delete apps from their phones and data from their computers to protect themselves in the event their devices are searched and seized.

A person who recently traveled to Kabul from Herat said he deleted his Yahoo, Gmail and Skype apps to make sure the Taliban couldn’t find out who he worked for or who he talked to.

Another person in Kabul said he burned every document that linked him to the Western world, including his résumé, and asked friends to change the name of a WhatsApp group that was discussing refugee visas.

“My résumé has no meaning in this emirate of the Talibs,” he said.

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