All of this came under threat when the Taliban announced a ban on TikTok in October.
Disruptions to online platforms are not new in Afghanistan. In 2012, the Islamic Republic, backed by the West, banned youtube for nearly three months to prevent the spread of a video he said was anti-Islamic. After the 2014 presidential election, the government threatened to ban Facebook, and in 2017, intelligence agencies reportedly pushed for ban on encrypted messaging apps. In 2020, the government banned the popular online game PUBG.
But the Taliban, who themselves have learned to use social media to spread their own messages, only blocked TikTok and PUBG to “prevent the younger generation from being misled,” Taliban spokesman Inamullah Samangani said. told the BBC.
The Afghan media chief, currently based abroad, says the Taliban are likely to recognize that TikTok is primarily used by young people and believes that banning the app could limit their access to new ideas and modern methods of communication.
“For years, the Taliban have said they are fighting not only against physical occupation, but also against the mind,” the leader said, speaking on condition of anonymity to prevent reprisals. “TikTok is a place where young people exchange ideas, connect and convey culture that the Taliban do not agree with, so this is their way to quickly eradicate 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 create its own followers on the platform where it has no official presence. “They don’t know how to use it,” Wardak says. “What would they even publish there?”
After the ban went into effect, the country’s five mobile operators blocked access to TikTok. At first, Sadat and other influencers saw their traffic drop and worried that they might have wasted years of hard work. But by early December, their views, subscriptions, and comments were back to normal.
Afghans have started uploading virtual private networks (VPNs) that 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 didn’t tell any subscriber to install a VPN, they found it themselves.”
Mobile phone vendors in Kabul, who not only sell and repair the latest Apple and Android devices but also create App and Play Store accounts for millions of Afghans who lack credit cards and access to online banking, told WIRED they saw the same thing. most. . Musa, who will only give his first name, works in a mobile phone shop in Shahri Naw, a district of Kabul filled with traditional kebab and rice shops, cafes, hookahs, steakhouses and clothing stores selling knockoffs of Gucci and Balenciaga.
“People don’t really ask us to set up a VPN for them, they just find free ones and use them,” Musa says, adding that most of his customers now have VPN apps on their phones.
At the end of January, Najib signed a new contract to shoot videos for one of the mobile operators, which technically blocked access to TikTok.
However, the political environment means that Najib and his colleagues always feel vulnerable. Several youtubers were arrested last year on charges of insulting Islam or spreading misinformation. One TikToker told WIRED that he received threatening calls from unknown numbers, saying they knew where he lived and would track him down.
Many social media women, including those recruited by Wardak, had to leave the country.
Still based in Afghanistan, like Najib, TikTokers are rarely political, even as troubles mount in the country. “People have the absolute right to ask us to raise our voice, but we have to find indirect ways to say so,” he says.
But while he’s free to post what he likes right now, he’s realistic about what the future might bring. “If social media is banned in Afghanistan, we will have no choice but to go somewhere else.”