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US anti-vaxxers are coming out in support of the Taliban

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. In this edition: American anti-vaccine advocates find strange bedfellows in Afghanistan

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If you are in Afghanistan at the moment, trying to flee or figure out how to survive, it is safe to assume that you have bigger things than the pandemic to worry about. 

But the Taliban did make time for Covid-19 last week. On August 12, just a few days before the group completed its rapid advance on Kabul, it banned vaccinations at Paktia regional hospital, in the east of the country. Reportedly, notices reading “Vaccinations are banned” were nailed to walls and no accompanying statement was made. 

Amid the chaotic collapse of America’s 20-year long military involvement in Afghanistan, that didn’t get much attention — not even there. In English, it was covered only by the local outlet Shamshad News, which ran a tiny story. Almost immediately, it was picked up by one group of people in the US: anti-vaxxers.

With lightning speed, the news birthed a set of perverse conspiracy theories across social media platforms. According to one, the Taliban’s takeover was timed to coincide with the U.S. rollout of a coronavirus vaccine booster shot. “They want to use the crisis in Afghanistan to draw attention away from vaccine passports/masks,” wrote Midnightstrike3625 on Reddit.  

“I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but this rise of the Taliban comes right in time. Finally, you see the bad guys who are against vaccines. Conclusion? All anti-vaxxers are the bad guys…” chimed in another user

“There are no coincidences,” said someone else. 

Taking it even further, users of Twitter and Gab, a platform popular with far-right users, praised the Taliban: 

“I support their idea to ban gay marriage and abortion and the vaccines,” commented Rodoz1 on Gab.

“Can they liberate us?” asked @baptistboomer on Twitter. 

Banned from Twitter and more recently from the streaming platform D-Live (read our piece here), the far-right activist Nicholas Fuentes addressed his audience on Gab: “The Taliban is going to ban abortion, vaccines, and gay marriage… maybe we were fighting on the wrong side for 20 years.”   

I compared notes about support for the Taliban from U.S. antivaxxers with author and defense expert Dan Kaszeta

“When people get to the point of extremism on specific single issues, some of them get very odd ideas into their heads about who their allies might be,” he said.

COMMON GROUND

by Caitlin Thompson 

Elise Thomas, an open source investigator with the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said the conversation about current events in Afghanistan differs between mainstream social media platforms, such as Facebook, and apps like Telegram. 

“There’s a bit of a split between people saying, ‘Oh, even people as bad as the Taliban recognize that the vaccine is terrible,’ versus people who are saying, ‘Maybe the Taliban aren’t as bad as we thought,’” she explained.

“It’s almost organic, community-wide A/B testing,” she added, referring to a method often used in marketing to determine which messages are most effective. 

At first glance, the Taliban and U.S.-based anti-vaxxers seem unlikely bedfellows. But, according to Matt Motta, an assistant professor in political science at Oklahoma State University,  their suspicions come from the same place.

“There is this common anti-government — distrust in government scientists, distrust in government authorities — element that underlies both what the Taliban is doing, as well as what anti-vaxxers here are doing,” he explained. 

The Taliban has historically characterized vaccines as being part of a Western plot. It’s not completely without justification. In the early 2010s, the CIA used a fake hepatitis B vaccine drive to gather the DNA of children, in an attempt to find Osama bin Laden. 

In the U.S., anti-government views are also a strong predictor of anti-vaccine beliefs. 

In the past, the Taliban leadership has stated that vaccination drives were an American conspiracy to sterilize Muslims. The idea that vaccines are a form of population control has also been prominent in the West, throughout the pandemic. 

Still, seeing Americans afraid of government overreach praise a decision made by a repressive, violent group is “jarring” to Motta.

“What this episode reflects is that motivated reasoning, the tendency to see the world the way you want to see it knows no bounds,” he said.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

It is a deep irony that the Taliban could prove to be too liberal for U.S.-based anti-vaxxers.

Apart from the news from the Paktia regional hospital, there has been no clarity on how Afghanistan’s new regime will handle the country’s already disastrous public health situation. It’s not just Covid-19, either Afghanistan, despite vast amounts of international aid, remains riven with infectious diseases.

The World Health Organization says that it is “extremely concerned” that the unfolding humanitarian disaster will trigger outbreaks. 

One international health worker in Kabul, who didn’t want to be named, told me that the humanitarian community is hoping to appeal to the Taliban’s pragmatic side. 

This calculation is based, partially at least, on Taliban’s recent track record. Earlier this year, as the disease swept through the group’s ranks, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Reuters that it would “support and facilitate” vaccination efforts. When Afghanistan started rolling out doses of the AstraZeneca and Sinopharm shots in February, the Taliban didn’t stand in the way. 

“We just don’t know what will happen next. But public health is a huge issue that no one is talking about right now,”  an Afghan ministry of health worker told me, speaking from Kabul. 

She couldn’t say much more: “It’s too crazy right now, I am trying to get out of the country. But, if I do, let’s talk.” 

Coda Story’s Mariam Kiparoidze contributed reporting to this edition of the Infodemic. Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

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