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Taliban measure to enrol women in public medical institutes promoted by bot-like social media accounts

The news that female graduates would be allowed to apply to study in public medical institutes in 11 provinces has been heavily promoted by social media accounts, some of which display bot-like behaviour


28 Feb 2024

Photo: © Afghan Witness, October 2022

On 20 February, the Taliban Directorate of Government Dailies website published an article announcing that female graduates who had completed high school were able to apply to study in public medical institutes in the upcoming academic year. This announcement followed a letter, sent by the Ministry of Public Health to provincial directors of public health in Kapisa, Parwan, Panjshir, Maidan Wardak, Ghazni, Paktika, Logar, Khost, Badakhshan, Bamyan and Paktia, directing them to begin recruiting female graduates of the 12th grade for health institutes; the letter was dated 9 February 2024.


Bot-like behaviour disseminating the news.

Bakhtar News Agency, a Taliban-controlled state outlet, posted about this decision on social media, attracting the attention of numerous pro-Taliban users. Despite the account deleting their initial post about the letter shortly after it was published, its content was still used by dozens of social media users to spread the news. Within the first 24 hours, at least 49 accounts posted the identical text alongside the image initially shared by Bakhtar News Agency across X, displaying bot-like behaviour.

Figure: Examples of two accounts amplifying the news in identical posts, from accounts displaying botlike behaviour on X.

This amplification was also observed on Facebook, with numerous accounts sharing the identical content with their followers. This behaviour persisted throughout the 21 and 22 February 2024, on both social media platforms.


Although it was possible to detect some organic engagement, it was clear the message was being pushed by large numbers of pro-Taliban bot accounts, a behaviour previously observed and reported by AW. In addition to the main message, some accounts added their own mark of approval in the form of “clapping or “100 emojis, as can be seen below.

Figure: Pro-Taliban bot accounts promoting the news with emojis showing approval.

On 19 February, the day before Bakhtar published the announcement, an account claiming to be Sonia Niazi, a female TOLO news presenter, also promoted the decision. The account shared a photo of the decree on X and Facebook, with a message in Pashto that said: “Step by step to solve all problems.” The same content and photos were then observed being copy-pasted by multiple pro-Taliban accounts on X – many displaying bot-like behaviour – in an attempt to amplify the perceived support for the decision. 


Other accounts with female profile pictures that actively share pro-Taliban content were also observed on both on X and Facebook promoting the measure. In addition to “Niazi”, a couple other users claiming to be Afghan female news reporters also shared and amplified the content with their thousands of followers on X. AW note that there is no way to confirm whether these accounts are indeed run by women, or whether they are accounts run by men, using female profile pictures in an attempt to portray a female perspective.


Official Taliban support

Taliban officials have so far remained silent on the issue. Wardak Al-Hafani, an account claiming to work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, posted about the upcoming changes to girls medical education to his more than 104K followers on X. Al-Hafani has consistently supported the image that the Taliban care about girls' education, even prior to the take-over. In December 2020 the account posted: “The IEA is committed to providing high quality education in accordance with Islamic affairs and in accordance with the culture of Afg to all its male & female citizens.” In March and December 2022, when the administration prevented girls from accessing education beyond the sixth grade, and later banned female students from attending university, Hafani reassured his followers that these decisions were only temporary. He said: “Once the issue of specific hijab is resolved,” women and girls will be allowed to study again. AW has been unable to confirm the identity of the person responsible for this account. The profile image shows a photo of Mohammad Naeem Wardak, the spokesperson of the Taliban's Political Office in Qatar. It has been suggested by BBC Monitoring  that the Al-Hafani account is a backup for Wardak. 


Possible reason for the promotion of the new measure

It is possible that the Taliban approved and amplified the measure ahead of the meeting of Special Envoys on Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar, as a move to demonstrate the group was making progress on girls’ education (and to pre-empt the anticipated criticism on the topic).


The UN-led meeting, which took place over 18 and 19 February, brought together envoys from 25 countries, the EU, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, as well as representatives from Afghan civil society, to discuss the evolving situation in Afghanistan, since the Taliban’s takeover, and possible avenues for international engagement with the regime. 


The Taliban did not send a special envoy to the meeting, as the group objected to the participation of other representatives from Afghanistan, claiming that their participation would be “unbeneficial” if the UN did not see them as the sole representatives of Afghanistan. Moreover, the Taliban also demanded a meeting with the UN Secretary-General, which Antonio Guterres claimed would “to a large extent” amount to recognition of the regime, a position the UN was unprepared to take. Instead, a UN undersecretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs met separately with a representative from the Taliban’s political office in Doha. The conference ended with consensus on goals that the Taliban must meet – including women and girls’ right to education – but limited progress on how the international community should engage with Afghanistan’s de facto authorities. 


Another possible reason behind the announcement to allow women and girls to enrol in public medical institutes across 11 provinces was the desire to minimise clashes between differing viewpoints within the Taliban community. In October 2023 a group of Afghans and human rights activists used AI-generated images depicting women and girls being treated my male doctors, going against traditional Afghan customs and sensibilities. The campaign aimed to urge the Taliban to allow women and girls to study medicine, in order to fulfil essential roles and maintain Afghan customs in society. Whilst there were a few vocal opponents, some pro-Taliban users with significant follower counts on X were observed supporting the initiative. 

However, AW note that, despite the recent announcement to permit enrolments in selected provinces, there was no evidence to suggest they could not already do so. On 18 November 2023, Abdul Bari Omar, the Acting Head of Afghanistan National Food and Drug Administration, shared a video clip from his trip to Cologne, Germany, in which he claims that medical institutes remained open for women and girls in Afghanistan. In the clip, he also says that 40 percent of the Ministry of Public Health’s staff members were women. AW has been unable to confirm this statistic.  

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