Moves by the U.S. Congress to censor Twitter and other social media used by the Taliban are understandable. The dissemination of the poisonous message espoused by the group is unwelcome, and, indeed, Taliban propaganda can harm efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Even so, social media has proven time and again to be a friend of democracy movements. Unless matters of national security are being disclosed, the U.S. should resist the temptation to censor the Twitterverse.
As was so clearly evident during the Arab Spring this past year, social-media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have become catalysts for democracy. The social-media-fuelled revolution provoked a dramatic shift in the Middle East’s political landscape, changes that were unimaginable even months before they happened. It revealed to the world, and notably to the world’s despots, just how powerful these tools are, and just how quickly information can go viral.
Senator Joe Lieberman, chair of the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, has turned to Twitter in hopes of removing terrorist organizations from it. Taliban tweeters have already amassed more than 10,000 followers on the microblogging network. Although these users have a twisted message, one that is at odds with U.S. and allied policy, Western governments should be very cautious about censoring 140-character updates on Twitter, for the simple reason that their example may be used by repressive regimes (in fact, like the Taliban, if they are ever returned to power) to themselves quash dissent.
Twitter has reportedly stood up to the pressure on the grounds that the Taliban is not officially listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. More to the point, the company in the past has been steadfast in supporting free speech.
Freedom is a greater weapon than censorship, and silencing the Taliban’s social-media voice will not eliminate the problem of the Taliban insurgency, nor will it alter the Taliban philosophy, though its voice may be muffled. In the long term, openness in these media may be the greater weapon, and the bravado just a short-term annoyance. Far from being a weapon that aids the Taliban cause, Twitter may yet be the sword that the Taliban will fall upon.