All of that seemed in jeopardy when the Taliban announced a ban on TikTok in October.

Internet platform outages are nothing new in Afghanistan. In 2012, the Western-backed Islamic Republic banned YouTube for nearly three months to prevent the spread of videos it said were anti-Islamic. After the 2014 presidential election, the government threatened to ban Facebook, and in 2017 intelligence agencies reportedly pushed for a ban on encrypted messaging apps. In 2020, the government banned the popular online game PUBG.

But the Taliban, which have themselves become adept at using social media to spread their own messages, have only blocked TikTok and PUBG to “prevent the younger generation from being misled”, Taliban spokesman Inamullah Samangani told the BBC.

An Afghan media official who is currently abroad says the Taliban likely understand that TikTok is used mainly by young people and believe that banning the app could limit their access to new ideas and modern communication methods.

“For years, the Taliban have said they are fighting not only a physical occupation, but also a mental one,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to prevent reprisals. “TikTok is a place where young people go to share ideas, communicate and transmit culture that the Taliban don’t agree with, so this is their way of quickly rooting out any possible anti-Taliban sentiment or culture in the country.”

Wardak suspects that the government may have objected to TikTok’s frivolity, but also that the regime is struggling to build a following on a platform where it has no official presence. “They don’t know how to use it,” says Vardak. “What would they even put there?”

After the ban went into effect, five of the country’s mobile operators blocked access to TikTok. At first, Sadat and other influencers saw their traffic drop and worried that they might have lost years of hard work. But by early December, they saw their views, followers, and comments return to normal.

Afghans have begun downloading virtual private networks (VPNs) that route user traffic through international proxy servers, allowing them to return to TikTok. Tracking the rebound in his analytics, Sadat was both stunned and delighted: “I didn’t tell a single subscriber to install a VPN, they just found it themselves.”

Mobile phone sellers in Kabul, who not only sell and repair the latest Apple and Android devices but also set up App and Play Store accounts for millions of Afghans without credit cards or access to online banking, tell WIRED they’ve seen the same the most. . Musa, who would only give his first name, works in a mobile phone shop in Shahr Naw, a district of Kabul filled with traditional kebab and rice shops, cafes, hookah bars, steakhouses and clothing stores selling knockoffs of Gucci and Balenciaga.

“People don’t really ask us to install VPNs 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 create a video for one of the mobile operators, which technically blocked access to TikTok.

However, the political environment means that Najib and his colleagues always feel fragile. Several YouTube users have been arrested over the past year on charges of insulting Islam or spreading misinformation. One TikToker told WIRED that he had received threatening calls from unknown numbers saying they knew where he lived and would track him down.

Many female social media personalities, including those recruited by Vardak, had to leave the country.

TikTokers still based in Afghanistan, like Najib, are rarely political, even as the country’s troubles mount. “People have an absolute right to ask us to raise our voices, but we have to find indirect ways to say these things,” he says.

But as long as he is free to publish what he likes, he is realistic about the future. “If social media is banned in Afghanistan, we will have no choice but to go somewhere else.”

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