The Taliban once smashed TVs. Now it fosters YouTubers to promote its image.

KABUL — The Taliban-run government is fostering a thriving community of YouTube influencers and video bloggers in Afghanistan, seeking to shape a positive narrative about the country by rewarding those who have welcome viewpoints with access to stories that can draw millions of views online.

The Taliban, which smashed televisions and burned films in the 1990s during its first stint in power, is now using modern video technology in its radical campaign to remake Afghanistan. The regime grants influencers coveted broadcasting licenses that put them on an equal footing with TV networks and radio stations, and threatens to withdraw the licenses of those who break official rules. Influencers whose work is seen as benefiting the regime have been allowed to embed with government ministries and showcase their achievements.

Meanwhile, videos that are critical of the Taliban have largely disappeared from platforms such as YouTube over the past two years as a result of Taliban pressure and self-censorship, according to interviews with 10 content creators in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. The government has tightly restricted what can be said and worn in online appearances, and two influencers said they were detained and interrogated after running afoul of the Taliban’s rules.

Often, however, relations between influencers and the Taliban are mutually rewarding. The most successful influencers can earn thousands of dollars in foreign advertising revenue per video, say Afghan owners of YouTube channels, a striking figure in a country where a monthly salary of a few hundred dollars counts as good income. To bypass Afghanistan’s banking system, which is under international sanctions, some Afghan YouTubers have hired associates in the United States or Europe to receive payments and pass them on.

One of the top channels, “Our Afghanistan,” with over 350,000 YouTube subscribers, has focused on a widely known backer of the Taliban named General Mobin, often shown distributing donated winter clothing, talking to soldiers or visiting hospital patients. Some channels, such as “Dostdaran Kabul” with over 40,000 subscribers, focus almost entirely on urban development under the Taliban.

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Others, such as Milad Azizi’s “Kabul Lovers,” mix scripted entertainment videos with content featuring Taliban officials. That approach has made “Kabul Lovers” one of the country’s most successful YouTube channels over the past two years. Azizi, 23, has hired about 20 employees and rents space in a high-rise building.

His channel recently drew more than 2.6 million views with a series in which his video team embedded with morality police from the Ministry of Vice and Virtue as they searched for what they said were suspected witches. In one of the videos, a woman being investigated for alleged sorcery looks anxiously into the camera. “Why are all you men here today?” she asks, apparently fearing arrest. She later confesses to investigators on camera that she practiced magic.

Asked for comment, the ministry confirmed past “connections” with Azizi’s channel “to educate the public.”

Although officials have decided against letting the team join possible future witch-hunting operations, Azizi said, other collaborations with the government are being planned. “It helps them a lot,” he said.

Camera salesman Mohammad Mujib Nabizada, 20, said he has seen so many influencers rise to fame after frequenting his store that he is considering launching a channel himself.

“When they start off, they usually only come here to buy cheap microphones,” he said. “But soon after, when the money starts pouring in, they return to buy the big cameras.”

Internet speeds and mobile data allowances remain limited in Afghanistan, so influencers here primarily target the estimated 6 million Afghans living abroad as migrants or refugees. (Most of the content is in Dari, the country’s most widely spoken language.) They account for about 90 percent of visitors to some of the most popular Afghanistan-based YouTube channels, with most views coming from the United States and Europe, content creators said. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid unwanted scrutiny from the government.

Afghans abroad are often eager to watch videos about how their country is changing under the Taliban. Kabul-based YouTuber Amir Mohammad Yaqobi, 24, said he gets the most views with videos about new roads and other construction. “It’s good for my channel,” he said.

More than 140,000 people watched a recent 38-minute video, on a channel called “Afghanistan Streets,” in which a presenter praises the quality of concrete in a tunnel construction project overseen by the government. “It will help the tunnel last forever,” the presenter says in the video.

In other clips, presenters accompany Taliban government officials as they burn expired food, crack down on drug dealers, or — in a video titled “An Afghan dream is coming true” — build a major canal across the north of the country.

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Making sure viewers get the point, an Islamic scholar on a channel focusing on social issues called “Kabul Show,” with 80,000 subscribers, urged at a recent conference, “We should value our current government.”

Some Afghans in Kabul say they have begun getting calls from relatives abroad asking if the country is really on the rise under the Taliban, as YouTube content suggests.

Influencers who successfully navigate the Taliban’s rules may still run afoul of YouTube itself. The company said it had terminated a number of Afghan channels for posting “content that glorifies or promotes violent tragedies.” After operators reactivated several of these channels, including “Afghanistan Streets” and “Our Afghanistan,” YouTube again terminated them in recent days for violating the company’s terms of service, according to Jack Malon, a spokesman for Google, which owns YouTube.

Asked about the activities of YouTube channel owners in Afghanistan, Malon said, “YouTube is committed to compliance with all applicable sanctions and trade compliance laws, including U.S. sanctions against the Afghan Taliban. If we find an account believed to be owned and operated by the Afghan Taliban, we terminate it. Further, our policies prohibit content that incites violence.”

Before the Taliban takeover in August 2021, Afghan social media was on many days dominated by clips of the aftermath of bomb blasts and shootings. But for urban Afghans, it was also a space where they felt they could express themselves freely.

Afghan YouTube has changed dramatically since then. The Taliban-run government has banned music in videos and mandated that female presenters wear a headscarf and a mask over their mouth for modesty, several content creators said.

A 20-year-old female YouTuber in Kabul said she began publishing videos after the Taliban closed schools and universities for women. She primarily uses her channel to read poems or share recipes that are popular among her minority Shiite Muslim community, and she has largely flouted the Taliban’s rules on how to dress in videos, hoping officials will be unable to identify her.

But a growing number of viewers have responded angrily to her uploads or threatened to report her to the authorities. “I won’t stop,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of drawing the attention of officials. “I love doing this.”

There are signs the government intends to further tighten its grip on influencers who do not play by its rules. It has already blocked mobile internet access to TikTok, saying the platform wastes the time of young Afghans and raises moral concerns.

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Although some Afghan video creators have used YouTube’s geo-blocking tools to hold back their most sensitive content inside Afghanistan, Afghan officials now appear to be using VPN to see what is being published outside the country, according to the owner of a major Afghan YouTube channel.

Many YouTubers have in recent weeks received warnings over alleged violations or been asked by the government to cooperate with it more closely, several influencers said.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban government’s spokesman, confirmed that warnings are being issued to all channels that “violate the rules,” and that serious violations can result in legal charges. YouTubers can work freely in the country, Mujahid said in a series of WhatsApp audio messages to The Post, but added: “If they only present the negative side, it doesn’t serve the country.” What serves the country better, he said, is a focus on “development, progress, unity, brotherhood and peace.”

Ajmal Haqiqi, a well-known male fashion YouTuber, held such optimistic views when the Taliban took power. He decided to stay in Kabul to keep publishing videos. But he soon faced a growing number of threats and was eventually detained for allegedly mocking the Quran.

“I wanted to serve my country,” said Haqiqi, who recently moved to Pakistan. “But all I achieved was going to prison for six months.” Yet even in prison, his YouTube fame earned him envy; guards and inmates came up to him to say: “Lucky you, you must be rich.’”

Azizi, the highly successful head of “Kabul Lovers,” was arrested in 2022 for a video that included criticism of the Taliban. He acknowledged that he, too, is now facing more hurdles, such as demands from officials for more paperwork, even though, he said, “we never say anything against them.”

Lutfullah Qasimyar and Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.

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