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Afghan Election: Antisocial Networking Prompts Calls For Twitter, Facebook Ban

An Afghan demonstrator shouts slogans in support of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul on June 22. With allegations of fraud circulating, some lawmakers feel social media may be fanning the flames of tension surrounding the hotly contested election.

KABUL -- As the political stalemate deepens in Afghanistan, social media has become a stage for hate speech and provocative remarks between supporters of rival candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.

The inflammatory language traded between rival supporters on Facebook and Twitter -- many of them with religious and ethnic undertones -- risks rekindling the type of interethnic violence seen in the country in the 1990s, according to UN officials.

Interethnic friction is a concern, as Abdullah -- who is half-Tajik, half-Pashtun -- has strong support among the Tajik community in the country's north. Ghani is a Pashtun whose main support base lies in the Pashtun heartland, in Afghanistan's south and east.

The fears of interethnic violence have led a handful of Afghan senators to call on the government to ban Facebook, which has around 1 million users in the country according to the Telecommunications Ministry. The senators want the ban to be enforced immediately and last until the current impasse in the election is over and a new president has been sworn in.

Senator Monawar Shah Bahadori, from Herat Province, said on June 22 that the language used on social media "threatens the national interest of the Afghan people" and works against "democratic values." Bahadori said the dangerous language being used could incite violence.

Not all lawmakers agree. Naheed Farid, a female lawmaker also from Herat, has said the "voice of the people should not be stifled," adding that social media has an important part to play in public discourse.

Many on Twitter seemed to concur.

The Afghan government has yet to comment on the calls, but President Hamid Karzai had urged both set of supporters ahead of the June 14 presidential runoff vote to show restraint and maintain a "friendly election environment."

The president's call came as candidates and their supporters began engaging in petty name-calling and exchanging personal insults and threats. Rather than subside, however, the climate has grown nastier since the vote amid claims that Ghani is poised for an upset victory, which have been countered by allegations of widespread fraud.

The anger on the street has been evident at antifraud protests held mainly by Abdullah supporters over the past several days in Kabul. The demonstrations, which attract crowds of several thousand, have so far been peaceful but protesters say they will resort to violence if their demands are not met.

Internet Vitriol

Several violent altercations between Abdullah and Ghani supporters have been reported in Kabul, and come as vitriol -- often spread by high-powered figures -- winds through the Internet.

Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh Province and a supporter of Abdullah, posted a photo on Facebook on June 18 depicting tanks making their way toward the front line during the jihad against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. The accompanying text read: "To become president, Ashraf Ghani has to cross this border. Passing this border is impossible. A second generation of jihad is coming."

Meanwhile, Amrullah Saleh, the country's former spy chief and an Abdullah supporter, has said on Facebook that "resistance" needs to be waged against fraud.

The United Nations has called on both candidates to "take all steps necessary to control their supporters."

Jan Kubis, the head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said in a statement on June 22 that there has been a "disturbing tone in some social media platforms" that "promote[s] divisive ethnic mobilization," including "rhetoric that brings back memories of tragic, fratricidal, factional conflicts in the 1990s that costs the lives of tens of thousands of civilians."

Abdullah, who has alleged widespread fraud in the election, has said the election process is no longer "legitimate" and has refused to accept the results handed down by the country's electoral bodies, which he has called biased and involved in "industrial-scale fraud."

It comes as unofficial results indicate that Ghani, who finished 13 percentage points behind Abdullah in the first round, is set for a major upset. Official preliminary results, which were originally due out by July 2, have been delayed amid the current impasse.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.