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Provocative Social Media Overheats in Afghan Elections

Some Afghans have distanced themselves from hostile social media that they fear may incite violence, but others see it as a force for good.

by Ali M Latifi
Jul 2 2014, 3:59pm

Image via AP/Rahmat Gul

For days, Ramin Rastin whiled away the hours in front of his computer and smartphone feverishly checking for updates on the contested second round of Afghanistan’s presidential election.

Sitting at his laptop with his phone by his side, the 29-year-old waited for any hints that a resolution between former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was near. But as he scrolled past minute-by-minute updates and commentary, he found himself in disbelief at the accusatory and combative rhetoric that was flooding his social media feeds.

Soon, the increasingly negative tone of the Facebook and Twitter conversations got to him. Disappointed by the actions of the two frontrunners and the hostility espoused by their supporters, Rastin began to withdraw. Even his friends noticed his mood changing.

For Rastin, who has lived in Kabul his entire life, the tone of online debate and the candidates’ statements themselves showed that, even for educated urban youth, the personal and political continue to intertwine in a manner that seems to play directly into attitudes that have been such an integral part of the last three decades of Afghan conflict.

Afghan electoral official resigns amid charges of voting fraud. Read more here.

“I used to think that once these old men die, things will be better, but we see now that even the most educated young people are also susceptible to these regional and ethnic biases," Rastin told VICE News.

After days of feeling down, it only took a few minutes of talking to a doctor to see what was wrong with Rastin. The physician told him: “You need to take a break from the elections, no more news, and no more social media.” Rastin isn’t alone, however.

Members of the small but active Afghan social media scene — both at home and abroad — have had to distance themselves from online discussions at one time or another.

'A lot of people took these things personally, if you supported their candidate you were their friends. Otherwise, you were susceptible to their abuse online.'

As an ethnic Pashtun originally from the eastern province of Laghman, 27-year-old Mohammad Modaser told VICE News that he has found himself on the receiving end of criticism and complaints for openly questioning Ghani, the Pashtun candidate.

“My own friends on Facebook have criticized me for posting about the fraud claims against Ghani," he said. "As a Pashtun, they expect me to automatically support Ghani and ignore any issues with his campaign.”

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Abdullah has accused Ghani’s campaign of orchestrating “widespread fraud” in the second round polls. But both Modaser and Rastin said they found themselves in the minority among their friends for not taking sides in the election.

Rastin, who studied at Kabul University when Ghani was the chancellor, said he has never hidden his concerns about either candidate. “I like Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai as a person, but not his team. Dr. Abdullah is also from the north, but I like neither him nor his team,” he explained.

Modaser said many people seemed to take his neutrality as an affront. “A lot of people took these things personally, if you supported their candidate you were their friends. Otherwise, you were susceptible to their abuse online,” he said.

Though all of the candidates ran what could be considered tame campaigns, largely devoid of the kind of mudslinging and personal attacks that US elections have come to be known for, their supporters seem to have picked up that mantle.

Modaser believes that many Afghans took advantage of internet anonymity to take out their hostilities on individuals, rather than the system as a whole, while there was little discussion of the reported fraud in the initial April 5 ballot. “Rather than criticizing the process of elections for non-transparent voting, people chose to criticize and insult individuals, ethnicities and tribes,” he said.

Yet that problematic rhetoric isn’t limited to just local supporters — even high-profile endorsers have joined in on the fight.

Shortly after Abdullah severed his ties with the nation’s election bodies, the governor of the northern province of Balkh, Atta Mohammad Nur, posted a photo of tanks during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s on his Facebook page. He added the caption: "To become president, Ashraf Ghani has to cross this border. Passing this border is impossible. A second generation of jihad is coming."

Amrullah Saleh, the former intelligence chief who endorsed Abdullah in the second round of campaigning, called for a “resistance” against fraud on his Facebook page.

When mixed with statements by citizens themselves, some fear that these calls for resistance — whether armed as Nur refers to or the civil disobedience Saleh hoped to incite — could lead to ethnic conflict in an election that pits the Pashtun Ghani against the half-Tajik, half-Pashtun Abdullah.

This fear of online barbs leading to real-life violence has led several senators to call for a temporary ban on social media until the outcome of the election is determined. But some Afghans say the focus on social media being detrimental to the democratic process ignores the real issues.

'Facebook, a threat? It's the other way around. Facebook is the only unofficial media tool that reveals the official intentions of both candidates.'

Tahmina Khaliq, an Afghan-American studying at UCLA, told VICE News: “I believe the biggest threat to Afghanistan and Afghans is the massive fraud that took place during the second round of the elections, not Facebook. If raising your voice against fraud and injustice is a threat to a country, then that country has no right to exist.”

Arash Yarmand, a 33-year-old engineer based in Kabul, told VICE News that he agrees. “Facebook, a threat? I see it the other way around. Facebook is the only unofficial media tool that reveals the official intentions of both candidates,” Yarmand said.

For his part, Abdullah told VICE News that he does not condone any rhetoric that would incite violence, but that spirited online discourse is a sign of a healthy democracy.

“I can understand the feelings and emotions, but… using guns and things that will lead to inciting violence I don’t advocate and I do condemn,” the candidate said. “People can express their views as long as it's not an insult to someone and does not intrude with somebody's private life.”

To Abdullah, online discussion represents an important outlet for the Afghan people to express a level of freedom of speech that is much higher than many of the nation’s regional neighbors. “In a larger context it is important that the democratic space is there for the citizens,” he said.

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Ahmad Shuja, co-founder at Impassion Afghanistan, the nation’s first digital media agency and host of an annual social media summit, told VICE News that despite all the criticisms, people must remember what social media has fostered in this election cycle. "Many people used social media to exemplary positive effect,” Shuja said.

Shuja pointed to "get out the vote" campaigns, websites to find the nearest polling centers, and posts coming in from around the country on citizen journalism platforms like Impassion’s own Paiwandgah project.

All this, said Shuja, gave the country a “national sense of joyous achievement, something so rare and genuine, it may be termed Afghanistan's first social media-induced mass euphoria."

Those who continue to stigmatize social media use, Shuja said, should perhaps look within the society itself for answers as to why the tone has become so hostile.

“What we saw on social media, then, was a reflection of sentiments that exist in the real world. Singling out social media and targeting it for being a reflection of society is like breaking the mirror because you don't like what you see."

Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye