By Miriam Arghandiwal
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's intensifying war by social media has stepped up a notch with free speech activists launching a campaign using Twitter and Facebook to fight wide confusion over competing NATO and Taliban claims, as well as looming government media curbs.
Foreign troops and insurgents have for years sparred on Twitter over the extent of victories against one another, while Afghan journalists are locked in a row with their government over press freedoms and new media laws.
"Social media is a free tool to use to transfer information without the influences of the government, warlords, or Talibs," said Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, executive director of Afghan media advocacy group Nai, launching the new campaign on Sunday.
"But right now there's the problem of having an audience," said Khalvatgar, pointing to the limited uptake of new media in the war- and poverty-racked country. Just 2 million of Afghanistan's 30 million people have Internet access.
While Afghans have enthusiastically embraced improved access to phones and communications since the 2001 ousting of the former Taliban government by U.S.-backed Afghan troops, a majority continue to live in simple homes, often made of mud brick. Only one in three have electricity.
The austere Taliban banned Internet use to stop people viewing what they derided as vulgar, immoral and anti-Islamic material, although they are now among many groups using social networking to communicate and promote their messages.
While Internet cafe use has sprouted in towns and cities, particularly among young people, the use of social media has mainly been confined to combating conservative cultural norms like limited women's rights, which are more difficult for mainstream media to confront without provoking a backlash.
"Where traditional media are weak, that is where social media step in," Khalvatgar said.
Nai, he said, was launching its campaign to encourage government officials, rights groups and aid organizations to widen the use of social media and combat negative conceptions of the Internet among some Afghans.
Some Afghan families forbid women to have social media accounts, either due to interpretations of Islam or for fear of shaming family honor. When women do have accounts, they often refrain from posting pictures or real names.
"Facebook is popular among women, they can obtain information and express their opinions, and privacy settings make it easy for them to do so," said Zahra Furmoly, 23-year-old female adviser at Nai.
And with the government mulling a media law to tighten its grip over the fledgling but lively Afghan press corps, Nai hoped social media could help safeguard political and social freedoms, as occurred during the wave of uprisings across the Middle East.
"If we increase the number of social media users, we increase dissemination of knowledge. By giving people voices on social networks, you give them hope," Khalvatgar said.
(Editing by Rob Taylor, Ron Popeski and Kevin Liffey)
(This story was refiled to add dropped word 'combat' in the ninth paragraph)