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