The image is striking and heartbreaking. It captures a young teenage boy at the height of his grief. A tear streaks his cheek, his mouth drawn into a grimace and his eyes are swollen from crying. "Thank you USA And World For Killing My Complete Fmily and Helping My Tears to Shed [sic]," is the message written across the image in bright yellow letters. The internet meme of Afghan youth mourning the loss of family and neighbors after 17 Afghan civilians were murdered in Panjwai district on March 11 allegedly by U.S. Army Staff Sgt Robert Bales spread rapidly on social media networks among Afghans in and out of the country. It encapsulated the frustration of a generation that has grown up during the 10 year war that is finding its voice albeit, on the internet.
"For me, as an Afghan, I was really angry. I could have done anything if I had seen an American soldier that day. But I knew how to use Facebook and I did. People were posting angry comments about what had happened, about the children being killed and about the Koran burnings," an Afghan graphic designer from Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity, tells TIME. "This is the new way. This is the peaceful way. Not just going out and killing each other like happened during the Koran protests. Online social media can be used the same way here as it was during the Arab Spring. I think Afghanistan is becoming something like that. People are commenting on posts by friends and acquaintances. It's connecting people," the graphic designer says.
The killings and the meme generated a level of emotional connection and angry reaction on Facebook in particular that far surpassed anything seen by this correspondent in two and a half years in Afghanistan. Unlike the Koran burnings which sparked violent street protests across the country that left around 30 dead protests over the killings in Panjwai district were almost solely on the Internet, involving few public demonstrations.
"The killings in Panjwai were no different from other mass civilian killings like with misguided airstrikes," says an Afghan in Kandahar who spoke on condition of anonymity. The conventional perception among the majority of Afghan civilians is that NATO routinely kills civilians either intentionally or accidentally and so the deaths in Kandahar were nothing out of the ordinary. On the other hand, the burning of the Koran was the defamation of a sacred book held in high esteem in Afghanistan. Swept up by religious fervor or the mob, protests over the Koran burning were carried out by mostly poor and illiterate people. The online reaction to the Kandahar massacre however points to a interesting divide: social media is the protest sites of choice for a relatively affluent, urban segment of society that has access to the Internet and information.
"There is a big divide in education and between the literate and the illiterate. Generally there's a large divide in terms of information flow. You can see this if you look at what kind of stuff people discuss and are interested in," says Jes Kaliebe Petersen, the director of business development at Paywast, a mobile phone-based social networking service that is Afghanistan's largest social network. "Literacy makes it much easier for people to access facts and get balanced information. That's partially why you're seeing what you're seeing."
Right now, Petersen says only 3% to 4% of people have Internet in Afghanistan, while 50% have mobile phones. The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology claims that Internet penetration grew from 0.25% in 2005 to 10% in 2009 while the usage of mobile phones grew from 3% to 16% over the same period. Most likely, Paywast's numbers are closer to the truth. The U.S. government estimates a current population of around 30.4 million Afghans.
Petersen says people use Paywast in the same way they use Facebook voicing thoughts and opinions. "When something like this happens they talk about it in the same way they talk about things on Facebook," Petersen says. But, if Facebook is any indication, anger ran higher about the Kandahar massacre among urban, educated Afghans the very segment of the population it seems would be most supportive of NATO since many are employed by the government or non-governmental organizations or by NATO itself.
Another meme drew a similar deluge of angry comments on Facebook. This one showed the same youth next to an image of President Barack Obama over images of children killed in Panjwai. Written in English, the text read, "You! Killed Usama, removed Mulla Omar from black list, started negotiation with Taliban and handed over Bagram jail... Tell me WHAT WAS MY SIN??? Your whole United States can't compensate my complete family loss... Thanks to your civilization, democracy and Human Rights for gifting me such..." The image garnered 885 likes, 510 shares and 340 comments with the most recent comment on Monday, two weeks after the killings.
Some of the comments just showed straight anger and rage. One Afghan wrote, "Shame on you, America. Soon you will be destroyed, God willing." Another wrote, "I wonder if the F------ Americans are satisfied and happy with their army? God willing they will all burn in Hell!" Other comments were less incendiary - though no less angry. Some, though, called for action. "We have to do something, only talking aint gonna change anything," wrote one. Another wrote, "This is the time to unite," adding that Afghans should get together to have the issue brought before the UN and the international community. "So please unite. I am afraid we will lose everything. I swear, you cry in Kandahar and I cry in London." The posts are mostly in English or in Dari or Pashto written in English script.
But the Afghan graphic designer says that while the growth of Internet usage is mostly a good thing, he also sees some drawbacks. "It's a good thing, but there could be problems as well. It can be good for public awareness, but if I want to spread propaganda, most people won't think about whether it is true or not. If people use it for public awareness and to fight for their rights, then it will be a good thing, but if it is used for propaganda, it will be bad for society."
Regardless, as the 2014 date for the withdrawal of foreign troops looms along with possible Taliban rule, the Afghans TIME spoke with fear that the freedom of expression and the life they have created online may be constrained as it is in China and Iran or disappear altogether. "I think the Internet itself will remain as important as it is now, but it won't be as easy to find Internet connections. It will be controlled. In Iran, they have fast Internet connections, but people are not allowed to access too many outside websites," says the graphic designer.
An Afghan journalist, who also asked not to be named, is worried about the decline of social media. "If the Taliban come to power in 2014, they will not come in like they did ten years ago. They will come back and be a bit more moderate in their government. But for social media and the press, we are so worried because the Taliban, they have such radical thinking, they don't believe in press freedom, in the media."
But an Iranian media professional working in Kabul feels that, like life, the Internet will find a way. "People's ambition will not end, but their access to it might. I'm sure that Afghans will find a way to get around it. It's one of the only ways to state what you feel, to feel that you exist," she says. The sentiment is echoed by Petersen, who tells TIME, "Afghans are looking at what is going on everywhere in the world, 3G, Smartphones, etc, a lot of cool stuff; and if you take that away from people, its not going to be taken lightly. People would get very, very upset if you tried to take these things away from them."
But the graphic designer has a gloomier, and possibly more realistic outlook. "I believe if the Taliban comes back then it'll be like Iran. It will be an Islamic, Talib Internet."