Afghans hold social media summit
As internet use in urban centres and amongst youth booms, Afghanistan is set to host its first-ever social media summit, with organizers promoting the websites as democratic tools for engaging citizens and communities in the war-torn country.
Called "Paiwand," which means "connection" in the local Dari language, the event is slated for September 22-23 in the capital Kabul.
"Paiwand is a grassroots effort ... to come together and talk about how social media has been used and how it can be used, especially for social good in Afghanistan," said Eileen Guo, the director of Impassion Afghanistan, which organized the event.
"We are trying to support a small but growing community of social media users in Afghanistan."
While the internet penetration is only 3.5 per cent, there are some 18 million mobile phone users in the desperately impoverished country of 27 million.
Last year, Afghanistan introduced 3G mobile internet. Four companies now provide the service.
Some 30 Afghans will speak on topics such as entrepreneurship, social activism, governance and transparency, as well as the upcoming presidential elections slated for April.
Guo said the summit will include a panel discussion with several potential candidates "to speak about the importance of social media in the upcoming polls."
In the 2009 presidential election, technocrat candidate Ashraf Ghani made headlines for having a social media consultant working on his campaign.
"This time, everyone has their own social media campaign. Everyone is getting on Facebook and Twitter," Guo said.
"We also want to change the global perception of Afghanistan," she said. "This is not the country you think of when you talk about social media, technology, innovation. But there are some really interesting things going on here."
With eight million students in school, and upper mobility increasing, more people are getting connected, Guo said.
"This is the right time to start the social media culture to promote the usage of social media."
In Afghan cities, social media is extremely popular and has increasingly become a forum for young people to voice their opinions publicly.
Afghanistan reportedly has some 700,000 Facebook users. Many have started their own social and political campaigns on the site.
Photos and information are often shared on social media before they reach newsrooms, and there have been instances when Afghans were held accountable for their crimes via the websites.
In one case, a video of a policeman being beaten up on a Kabul street by the guards of an Afghan strongman was uploaded to YouTube and shared extensively on Facebook, forcing the government to take action against the perpetrators.
Last week, a video of an Afghan man being tortured by soldiers on suspicion of being a member of the Taliban prompted the security authorities to investigate.
The Taliban too are becoming tech-savvy. In rural areas, they use Bluetooth wireless technology to disseminate their propaganda materials.
During their rule between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban were vehemently against technology, including television, which was officially banned.
Now the insurgent movement, which has been fighting Kabul and NATO forces since 2001, use websites and social media forums to try and attract young people.
Some Taliban sympathizers have created Facebook pages where they discuss the movement's direction while arguing with their detractors.
Last week, a Taliban spokesman took responsibility on his Twitter account for the killing of a senior Afghan election official.