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Afghan influencers go dark on social media after Taliban takeover

AFP/Hong Kong
Filed on August 20, 2021

Youngsters fear that their online posts could endanger their lives.

Sadiqa Madadgar's social media looked much like any other successful young Afghan influencer's until Taliban militants stormed into Kabul and upended her dreams.

The return of the hardline group has sent a shockwave through Afghanistan's social media. Prominent influencers have gone dark or fled, while residents and activists are scrambling to scrub their digital lives.

A former contestant on the reality singing competition Afghan Star, Madadgar amassed a huge following with her stunning vocals and down-to-earth, girl-next door-persona. She spent her days uploading videos that transfixed Afghan youngsters, winning her 21,200 subscribers on YouTube and 182,000 followers on Instagram.

In one video, she giggles as she struggles to cut open a watermelon. On another, the 22-year-old is singing a haunting folk tune in a cafe while a friend plays guitar.

On a recent trip to the city of Kandahar, she filmed herself sharing a pizza with girlfriends.

On Saturday, Madadgar posted her first overtly political post on Instagram.

"I don't like to express my pain online but I'm sick of this," she wrote.

The following day, Taliban seized Kabul, and Madadgar stopped posting.

Millions of Afghan youngsters fear that what they once put online could now put their lives in danger.

Few can forget the first time the Taliban imposed their ultra-conservative laws on Afghanistan between 1996-2001.

Women were excluded from public life, girls could not attend school, and entertainment was banned.

Ayeda Shadab was a fashion icon for many young Afghan women with 290,000 followers on Instagram and 400,000 on TikTok. Each day she would model the latest outfits that were stocked in her upscale Kabul boutique.

In one of the most recent videos from her range, she posed in an asymmetrical sheer ball gown as Dua Lipa's infectious dance track Levitating played in the background.

But she had no illusions about what a Taliban regime would mean for fashionable women entrepreneurs like her.

"If the Taliban take Kabul, people like me will no longer be safe," she told German broadcaster ZDF in a recent interview.

She was so terrified of the Taliban's return that she had to flee, telling followers recently that she had relocated.

Other prominent celebrities and influencers who remained in the country have scrambled to follow in her footsteps.

Aryana Sayeed, one of Afghanistan's most prominent pop stars, posted a selfie on Wednesday taken on a US military evacuation flight.

"I am well and alive after a couple of unforgettable nights," she wrote. Others have not been so lucky.

Zaki Anwari was a promising footballer who played for Afghanistan's youth team and often posted fashionable self-portraits on social media.

On Thursday, Afghanistan's sports federation confirmed the 19-year-old was one of those who fell to his death after trying to cling to a US plane airlifting people out of Kabul.

Following recommendations from activists, journalists and civil society groups, Facebook announced new security measures allowing users in Afghanistan to quickly lock their accounts.

The company, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram said it had also set up a special operations centre "to respond to new threats as they emerge".

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