The Taliban takeover and the role of misinformation (or bad media coverage)

Virtually any news coverage today is tainted by lousy information somehow. It goes from orchestrated manoeuvres by foreign states to simple partisan media coverage made to appease audiences with enough purchasing power to subscribe to the most comfortable cable channel. But the problem goes way down the waterline. Even narratives without factual lies are still misinformation, like the eyes of a flabbergasted world watching the Taleban march around the country to take down a corrupt, crony government who did little to improve the lives of the average Afghanis. Lying is far from making wrong statements. Looking to the other side can be just as serious.

At the exact moment that a US Air Force started the procedures for takeoff in Kabul three days ago, the whole world could understand how dramatic the takeover of the Afghan capital was, with people hanging from the plane, choosing to die rather than stay in Kabul. Despite the undesired American presence in the country dating back to two decades earlier, the overall coverage from the vast majority of the media failed to spot the real meaning of the return of the Taleban to the “Graveyard of Empires“. How could that happen? What has the Taleban made to reach such a military victory? 

The story began far earlier, maybe even earlier than the American invasion after 9/11, almost 20 years ago. The fake democracy that the West imposed on the country never had a chance to survive because there is little money to be made there. Foot-on-the-ground reports pointed to endemic corruption and bribery in government-controlled areas. The problem was so severe that drivers had to pay several times, while at Taleban areas, there was a fairer scheme. Gun movement in the areas closer to the Pakistan border never stopped, and Taleban has not, for a single minute, been defeated. They were just dormant, waiting to bring another empire down.

The blame game is increasing, and most media are preferring their partisan facts. Trump “celebrated” the Biden’s fiasco, so did his TV pundits all around, forgetting to mention that he signed the deal in the first place, allowing the Taleban to plan their strategy. On the other side, Democrat-aligned media tries to argue that Biden had no choice, that Trump had signed the deal, that the US spent US$2 billion trillion and lost thousands of lives, but are lenient with the shocking decision to leave with little to no notice.

You will hardly hear about this awful media coverage as misinformation, but bad journalism is misinformation by definition. The journalists in Kabul have been, for years, aware that the country could not hold itself alone for a minute without external aid, that the citizens outside the larger cities would not bear arms against the Taleban, that Pakistan had been a safe haven for Taleban and so many other things. 

Unfortunately, digitisation has thrown journalism under a bus, with Google and Facebook earning one of each four dollars of advertising money. Hostages of the audience, big media preferred to follow Donald Trump buffoonish moves until Covid-19 stole the scene – this time, at least logically. All this lack of attention were welcome for the Taleban, who will not behave as a good child from now on, but realised that PR is vital to avoid more trouble. Women will still be underclass citizens (to say the least). Taleban Sunni zealots will target Shia Muslims in silence. Universities will shut or become madrasas to teach the bent version of the Koran that serves their purposes.

Disinformation has also been an extra burden for the poor media coverage that made the Taleban advance a surprise. Imagine how many journalists in the world now have the job to decide if a given piece of information is authentic or not. Not only the task is impossible (because the truth is a social construct, not a natural property), but each journalist fact-checking is a journalist less in the field to uncover the stories that everybody should know (even if they prefer to spend time with superficial stuff). 

The last issue that distorts the media role is the cult of personality, something I mentioned before. Journalists became so obsessed with their own followerships that they forget they live in a world that isn’t theirs. Journalists are too often characters in the stories when they should not. More often than not, stories have some kind of self-reference like, “what I did this morning”, “while I was waiting”, “I always thought”, and so forth. The aggregated value of this is less than zero. It would be zero if it caused no harm, but they do because they help lose focus on what really matters, which does not always bring more likes, RTs or fans, just like the case in Afghanistan.

Cassiano Gobbet