If you thought things on Twitter were getting a bit weird since Elon Musk took over, buckle up. The strangeness continues this week. There has been quite a debate taking place over Musk’s decision to revamp the “verification” system and sell checkmarks of various colors to anyone who requests one and is willing to fork over a small monthly payment. Plenty of people have been taking advantage of that offer, gaining some amplification of their tweets and other user options not available to the hoi polloi. So perhaps we shouldn’t have been all that surprised to learn that high-ranking officials from the Taliban have gotten in on the action, but it still certainly sounds disturbing at first glance. (BBC)
The Taliban have started using Twitter’s paid-for verification feature, meaning some now have blue ticks on their accounts.
Previously, the blue tick indicated “active, notable, and authentic accounts of public interest” verified by Twitter, and could not be purchased. But now, users can buy them through the new Twitter Blue service.
At least two Taliban officials and four prominent supporters in Afghanistan are currently using the checkmarks.
One of the terrorist officials who now has a blue check is Hedayatullah Hedayat, the head of the Taliban’s department for “access to information.” He is definitely on Twitter with more than 180,000 followers and he tweets regularly. But I don’t see a checkmark of any color by his name.
— هدایت الله (هدایت) (@Hedayatullah111) January 17, 2023
(Rough Twitter translation: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has started signing and implementing important areas during the past.”)
It took a while to find Hedayatullah Hedayat’s account. That name appears to be roughly as common in Afghanistan as John Smith is in America, but he is indeed on the platform. I checked a couple of others on the list and they seem to be active users as well. So what are we to make of this?
One of the (many) complaints we heard about Twitter in the pre-Musk days was the fact that a world leader like Donald Trump had been banned while so many other, far-worse figures from autocratic, tyrannical governments continued to tweet as they wished. It was a fair question to ask, but it’s often been reasonably argued that high-ranking public and political figures have voices that need to be heard in public debates, no matter how admirable or noxious you may find them personally.
Any regular readers already know that I’m not here supporting the Taliban. They are murderous terrorists who are destroying the people and the fabric of the country they overran after America’s disastrous withdrawal. But for better or for (very much) worse, Hedayatullah Hedayat is a government official in Afghanistan and his office specifically deals with information accessibility. If we’re going to shut down his account, what’s to stop us from once again shuttering the platforms of Donald Trump or even Joe Biden?
Should these people have checkmarks by their names? That’s another debate entirely and I won’t go through it again today. If we were still in the era when having a checkmark meant that your identity had been verified and that you were a person of at least some public interest, then yes. Hedayatullah Hedayat would seem to qualify. And under Musk’s new rules, anyone with eight or twelve dollars per month to spare can have a checkmark, provided they don’t peddle kiddy porn or break the other rules. So I suppose this account has to be treated the same.
As I said at the top, it’s a strange situation to be sure, and the optics are terrible, at least from a western perspective. But it’s the “digital town square of the world,” as we are frequently reminded. Not everyone with a soapbox is going to be a good person. But they still get the chance to speak.