Who won the framing competition over Afghanistan? A Twitter Analysis

In 2012, Craig Hayden published one of the first research papers on digital diplomacy. Focusing on the emergence of social media, Hayden stated that the audiences of diplomacy were fragmented into networks of elective exposure. Some individuals learned about the world by following diplomats on Twitter, others turned to trusted bloggers while still others followed the Facebook profiles of activists and civil society organizations. This fragmentation necessitated that diplomats also migrate to social media in order to comment on world events, narrate their foreign policies and help global publics make sense of events ranging from attempted coups to multilateral negotiations.

Indeed, over the past decade, more than 90% of UN member states have created some form of digital presence, many of them turning to social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and TikTok. Yet diplomats soon learned that social media were competitive framing arenas as diplomats, activists, news organizations, bloggers and multilateral institutions all compete over the attention of social media users, while hoping to shape public perceptions. This framing competition was increasingly evident over the past week following the collapse of the Afghani government and the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan. In this post, I identify how a range of actors framed unfolding events, with each actor offering a different frame of narrative. The post highlights the number of sources that can shape the perception of online publics while illustrating the intense competition that diplomats face on social media.

US President Joe Biden’s Frame: Mission Accomplished

One day after the fall of Kabul, President Biden delivered an address to the American people. This address was also tweeted from his official account. In a series of tweets Biden redefined America’s mission in Afghanistan saying that the US focused narrowly on counterterrorism and not nation building. This assertion implied that the Taliban’s conquest was not a US defeat, as the US never sought to refashion Afghanistan in its image. Rather it sought to capture those terrorist groups that attacked the US in 9/11. Second, Biden stated that he would not commit US troops to fight in a civil war that the Afghan people themselves refused to fight. Biden went on to say that he had stayed true to his pledge to end the war. Finally, Biden identified a new American goal: evacuating its personnel, citizens and allies from Afghanistan. By defining a new mission, Biden may have sought to negate equations between the fall of Kabul and the collapse of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. This time, America would honour the commitments it made to its allies and would come to the aid of those who worked with the US over the past 20 years.  

US Secretary of State Blinken’s Frame: America is Not Alone

Like the President, America’s chief diplomat also took to Twitter. Yet unlike Biden, Blinken’s tweets focused on America’s ongoing engagement with its allies around the world. His frame was that America was not alone in defeat but rather that through its alliances, America would continue to build a better future for the people of Afghanistan. One tweet detailed Blinken’s consultations with global allies including the EU, NATO and Turkey. The Secretary thanked regional allies for helping the US evacuate its citizens from Afghanistan. These tweets suggested that America was existing Afghanistan, but not the region as a whole and that it still had close allies in the region. Finally, Blinken shared a joint statement on the need to secure human rights under the rule of the Taliban. This statement was issued on behalf of more than 90 nations reiterating that America was not alone in defeat but rather had the support of allies from Cabo Verde to Paraguay and Yemen.

Russian Diplomats’ Frame: Multilateralism

Blinken was not the only diplomat to take to Twitter. Russian diplomats also turned to social media in order to offer their own frame. On the one hand, Embassies were quick to tweet that Russia’s diplomatic corps was conducting its business as usual, having communicated with the Taliban and establishing channels of communication. This may have been attempted to demonstrate calm and decisive action at a time when many on Twitter were describing chaotic scenes at foreign Embassies in Kabul. This frame also suggested that Russia could serve as mediator between the world and the new Taliban government. In addition, Russian diplomats stressed the need for multilateral action to secure national reconciliation in Afghanistan, be it through the UN or by working with Afghanistan’s neighbours. This frame suggested that the era in which the US alone dictated the reality in Afghanistan was over.

Embassies in Kabul’s Frame: Boots on the Ground

Notably, the Ambassadors of the US, the EU, France and the UK all turned to Twitter in order to squash reports that Western diplomats had fled Kabul leaving their allies at the hands of the Taliban. One by one, Ambassadors and Charges D’affaires tweeted images of their work in central Kabul or in Kabul’s airport, the scene of pandemonium as Afghan nationals sought to flee the country. All these Ambassadors noted that they would not leave Afghanistan until all nationals, diplomats and allies were evacuated from the country. Through this frame, Western diplomats may have sought to negate the framing of events as a colossal defeat to the US while also demonstrating a commitment to carry through on promises made to the people of Afghanistan.

NATO’s Frame: No One Left Behind

In the age of social media. Ultra-national entities also circulate frames. NATO was quite active on Twitter given the fact that it was heavily invested in the War in Afghanistan and had actually helped train the same Afghan forces that collapsed within less than a week. As was the case with the US, NATO stressed the fact that it was helping to secure the airport in Kabul and that it would ensure the safe passage of all allies and co-workers who wished to leave Afghanistan. Unlike US leaders, NATO’s Secretary General also tweeted that the fall of Kabul requires that NATO learn from its mistakes and avoid making them in the future. NATO’s frame was thus both positive, leaving no one behind, and personal, indicating a need to come to terms and learn from failure. The somber picture of the Secretary General was a powerful framing device used to deliver NATO’s personal framing of events.  

Journalists’ Frame: Failure and Chaos

As is now routine, individual journalists also used Twitter to frame the collapse of Afghanistan. US reporter Andrea Mitchell shared a link to an interview with Leon Panetta, former head of the CIA, who stated clearly that the US had failed in its mission and that Afghanistan would once more become a training ground for terrorists. One journalist focused on the actions of Dutch diplomats who apparently fled their Embassy in Kabul overnight without even parting from their local staff. Other individual journalists shared images of chaos throughout the country as large crowds sought refuge from the Taliban. These journalists shared images and videos that would go on to be viewed by millions of Twitter users. The frame disseminated by these individual journalists was that of abandonment and human suffering and contrasted vividly with the framing of US officials and Ambassadors on the ground in Kabul.

News Organizations’ Frame: Assigning Blame and Long-Term Consequences

The New York Times used a similar frame describing chaos, violence and mayhem following the collapse of the Afghan government. However, the newspaper’s frame clearly stated that the fall of Kabul was not equitable with the fall of Saigon and that ultimately, it was Afghan leaders who failed their people, not the US. The New York Times thus assigned the blame on the Afghan’s themselves.

Thought the British BBC also highlighted the chaotic situation in Afghanistan, unlike the New York Times it also framed events as a personal failure of President Biden while identifying the most vulnerable population left behind – women who might soon be subject to strict laws enacted by the Taliban, the same group that denied women basic human rights in the past. The BBC thus offered a moral frame, one that highlighted the long-term consequences of Biden’s failure.

State Owned Media’s Frame Humiliation and Promise

In addition to independent media channels, state owned media organizations also Tweeted events. Russia Today, for one, depicted America’s failure as a great humiliation by quoting comments made by former President Trump. The Qatar owned A-Jazeera network tweeted promises and assurances made by the Taliban regarding human rights and civil society. Together, these two new organizations offered a very different frame using the term humiliation and suggesting that the Taliban’s rule may be a suitable replacement for the US-funded Afghan government.

Individuals’ Frame: IMHO

The frames reviewed thus far were all published by recognized actors that use social media to shape public perception of events- world leaders, diplomats, Embassies, International Organizations and media institutions. Yet individual Twitter users also framed events with some of them reaching millions of users. One notable example was France’s former Ambassador to the US who suggested that the Biden administration remained true to Trump’s vision of an “America First” foreign policy, putting America First and Afghanistan last. Though he no longer represents France, the former Ambassador may have a real impact on public perceptions being a former foreign policy expert and having attracted many influencers to his Twitter account.

A US Professor shared a video of Afghan forces fleeing to Iran in fear of the Taliban. Here again, an authority figure used Twitter to frame events unfolding in real-time suggesting that America’s failure was actually the failure of the Afghan army that refused to fight the Taliban.

A Pakistani Professor shared a video watched by thousands of users depicting inept Afghan soldiers undergoing US training. His frame suggested that the US had squandered more than a Trillion dollars on building an army of inept soldiers that collapsed within hours. This frame both mocked the US for its state-building efforts and lambasted the crumbling army it had set up.   

Other individuals shared a horrific video which supposedly depicted people falling from a C-17 US aircraft. According to one individual, these were Afghans who had held onto the US plane with hopes of escaping the Taliban. This video, in turn, led to a meme that equated America’s conquest of Afghanistan with its departure. The only difference was that in 2001 the US dropped bombs on Afghanistan, while in 2021 it dropped human beings.

Conclusion:

For Western diplomats, the fall of Kabul was another dent in a dilapidated shield. The so-called ‘liberal world order’, attacked by populists and nationalists, had failed yet again. Though Western diplomats turned to social media to frame events in a more positive light, emphasizing a continued commitment to Afghanistan’s future and their allies over the past 20 years, they faced intense online competitions from other diplomats, journalists, media organizations and individual Twitter users. Only time will tell who won this competition.  

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