The Twitter War With the Taliban

By: Charley Keyes, CNN, Posted by Ralph Hipp
By: Charley Keyes, CNN, Posted by Ralph Hipp

AFGHANISTAN (CNN) -- Bits of information - not just bullets and bombs - are in the thick of the fighting in Afghanistan.

U.S. forces feared they were losing the information war to the Taliban and now are fighting back with Twitter - using those brisk 140-character messages to get out the other side of the story.

"The Taliban were just constantly putting out false information and propaganda," said Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings. "Some of it was so wrong we finally had to start engaging, and backing up our information with the facts"

This new reliance on all social media is quick and cheap.

"It allows us to keep our followers dynamically informed while also keeping the enemy's statements in check," Cummings said in an e-mail exchange with CNN.

It is easy to see this play out on any day. A Twitter account that frequently puts out news reports favoring the Taliban, , trumpets information of a major battlefield success. "Mujahideen bring down US helicopter in Kunar," says the tweet.

But over at International Security Assistance Force headquarters, the social media experts are on the case on the ISAF Twitter account. "We have no reports of any missing helos. Take any Taliban reports with a block of salt," their tweet answers. And later, "Reports of a shoot-down are false."

Cummings jokes that the Taliban keep up a steady stream of wildly inflated reports. "The usual is every day we lose 20 tanks and 30 people, if you follow the Taliban. We pick and choose what we come back with."

And the turning point came just last month, with the attack on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul.

"Our guys were telling us about what the Taliban was posting," Cummings recalls. In addition to false claims about U.S. fatalities, the Taliban-leaning sites called the Americans cowards and invaders. "It was so false. It dawned on us, we have to engage, to get the facts out."

Cummings says he and the other members of the public affairs team work in a big room together at the headquarters of the International Assistance Force. When one of the tweets comes in from the other side there is a group discussion on how to react and then the two military personnel who are totally dedicated to social media type a response and hit the send key.

"Being able to reach out and inform a younger generation is a key," Cummings said. "The younger generation here is one of the cornerstones to the future success of Afghanistan."

But some experts take a more skeptical view of the keypad duel between U.S. forces and their enemies.

Georgetown University's Martin Irvine says these "micro-community communications" can be hard to evaluate. "There is so much noise on Twitter, it is difficult to know if any of that information is going to get through," Irvine said from his Washington office. He is associate professor in Communications, Culture and Technology and wonders how many people in Afghanistan have cell phones or internet-enabled computers.

ISAF claims more than 14,000 followers on its Twitter account, including, of course, the Taliban, local journalists as well as regular people. And this hourly, if not minute by minute competition between U.S. forces and their enemies is just warming up, providing lessons now that can be brought to the next conflict.

"We believe so far we have been successful with our increased social media activities," Cummings said. "ISAF (NATO's International Security Assistance Force) will continue to grow and improve in this part of our communication realm."

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