30 September 2023

Analysis: Social media posts about Afghanistan — From False to Verified

Annie Lab delves into three unverified social media content about Afghanistan in turmoil.

Photo from the U.S. Department of Defense, taken by Marine Corps Sgt. Isaiah Campbell.

As people tried to flee Afghanistan in the middle of August, following the departure of the U.S. troops from the country and the subsequent takeover by the Taliban, unverified social media posts about the situation on the ground widely circulated on the internet, causing people to raise questions about their veracity.

Annie Lab looks into three trending claims in this article:

  1. A Taliban soldier holding the Arabic version of the book ‘Xi Jinping: The Governance of China’ indicates Xi’s influence on the Taliban’s action — False: The image was manipulated.
  2. A U.S. ‘military dog’ was found on a passenger seat on a flight leaving Kabul — Verified: The photo is authentic.
  3. A photo of a jam-packed cargo aircraft shows Afghans leaving the country in chaos — Misleading: the photo in question shows Filipinos evacuating from a typhoon in 2013.

1. False: A Taliban member was not holding a book about Xi Jinping

A Facebook post on Aug. 19 claimed a Taliban soldier was photographed while holding a book titled “Xi Jinping: The Governance of China” in Arabic. However, the image was manipulated.

Through reverse image search, Annie Lab found the original Reuters photo taken by Mian Kursheed in Afghanistan in 2001.

According to its caption, the soldier was actually holding a grenade launcher, which is still visible in the manipulated version, although it is partially covered by the digitally-added book.

Screenshot of the photo from the Reuters website.

A keyword search with the book title in Arabic “حول الحكم والإدارة شي جين بينغ” led to a photo posted by the State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China in 2015.

In this picture, it is not a Taliban soldier who is holding the book. It was Yu Fuwen, a person in charge of the book exhibit at the 2015 China-Arab States Expo tour, according to this article from the government body.

This 2015 photo was flipped and added to the 2001 photo to create a false image.

The same book was also used in another misleading claim. This tweet came with a Chinese sentence that reads “the fatal weapon that Taliban soldiers used to defeat the U.S.backed Afghan soldiers,” and had a photo of a man holding the book.

Screenshot of the tweet. The same book cover (encircled in red) can be seen in one of the images included in the tweet.

The man in the photo is Mohamed Ghareeb Al Hosani, the vice president of investor relations at the Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi, or KIZAD.

The picture was posted on China Jiangsu International’s website that said the book was given as a gift by the China-Arab (United Arab Emirates) Production Capacity Cooperation Demonstration Park at the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China.

Screenshot of the photo from the website of China Jiangsu.

The other image uploaded by the same tweet showing  Shahabuddin Delawar, a spokesperson of Taliban, holding up a book of Mao Zedong, was also doctored and later fact-checked by AFP.

[Added on Aug. 26] Another tweet also used the same doctored image and claimed that “terrorists are studying” the book.

Misleading tweet

2. Verified: A US dog was indeed on a passenger aircraft leaving Kabul

An image showing the passenger cabin of an airplane with a pair of dog’s ears peeking out from a seat has gone viral on social media as the U.S. evacuated its diplomatic personnel and military members from Afghanistan on Aug. 15.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted the photo and wrote in English,  “#American First. Indeed” on Aug. 17 while juxtaposing it with a photo of Afghans leaving the country in jam-packed cargo aircraft.

Her tweet was liked over 3,000 times and retweeted more than 600 times as of this writing. Some people, however, questioned the authenticity of this image. For example, a user commented on Hua’s tweet saying, “posting fake news again?”

Viral image showing a pair of dog’s ears peeking out from a seat on a flight leaving Kabul.

Another user said in the same thread, “… this juxtaposition of photographs sadly does not seem to make much sense. Kindly check & try again or provide a little explanatory caption to explain the point being made!!”

However, Annie Lab can confirm that the photo in question was taken by a journalist in Afghanistan at that time.

This CBS News report attributes the image to Phillip Walter Wellman, a U.S. journalist at Stars and Stripes. We found Wellman’s tweet with the same image uploaded on Aug. 16, to which he subsequently posted three tweets, clarifying what the photograph shows.

Wellman’s clarification on the image posted on his Twitter account.

In the thread he wrote, “The dogs did have seats reserved for them on the evacuation flight,” and “As far as I’m aware, there were no empty seats when we took off. All the seats were occupied by people (predominantly U.S. embassy staff) or dogs.”

He also said the dogs on board may not necessarily be military dogs.

Another photo taken by Wellman showing a helicopter leaving the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul on the same day confirms that he was in Kabul reporting on the evacuation.

3. Misleading: This photo of a jam-packed cargo aircraft was not taken recently in Afghanistan; it was taken in the Philippines in 2013

Cao Changqing, a Chinese American political commentator, tweeted a set of photos on Aug. 16 and claimed, when translated to English, one picture shows “800 Afghans swarmed the U.S. C-17 cargo and transport aircraft, sitting on the floor without seat belts.”

However, this photo of the overcrowded aircraft was not taken in Afghanistan.

An image search has led to this archived article from the Public Affairs Department of the U.S. Air Force reporting about the evacuation of more than 670 Filipinos from the city of Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in mid-November 2013.

The photo in the misleading tweet (right) can be found in the U.S. Air Force’s website (left), showing Filipinos inside C-17.

This photo has also been fact-checked by others such as Social Media Hoax Slayer and AFP. Mohammed Zubair, a fact-checker based in India, also pointed out that the photo is not new or about Afghanistan on Twitter.

In response to users’ comments, Cao later updated his tweet by replacing this photo with an authentic one taken in Afghanistan.

Cao said he updated the collage but could not edit his old tweet and replace it.

According to Defense One, a news media reporting on U.S. defense and national security, the new photo shows “the inside of Reach 871, a U.S. Air Force C-17 flown from Kabul to Qatar on Aug. 15.” Some 640 Afghans boarded the aircraft, the article said.

The other two photos in the original tweet seem to be screenshots from two different videos related to Afghanistan’s current situation. The upper one appears to be captured (0:08) from a video posted on Twitter by Asvaka, an Afghan news agency. The post says, “two people are thrown from a plane.”

The lower image is a screen capture from a BBC report (6:42) on Aug. 16 discussing how Afghans were trying to leave the country by taking commercial flights.