Minutes after Iran launched a barrage of ballistic missiles against U.S. forces in Iraq earlier this month, its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, came out with a tweet, saying that his country did not seek to escalate with the United States.
Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched.
We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) January 8, 2020
And minutes after Zarif’s comment, U.S. President Donald Trump posted a tweet, reassuring the American people that Iran’s attack caused no casualties among U.S. military personnel.
All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 8, 2020
The Iranian missile attack was in retaliation for the killing of top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, who died in a recent U.S. airstrike in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
Tweets and private messages
And while the world was awaiting a major confrontation between the two longtime foes, those Twitter messages from both sides helped mitigate the tensions and allowed back-channel diplomacy to take its course, experts argue.
“The relatively synchronous transmission of tweets, albeit of limited content, allowed both parties to publicly counteract the more strident messages coming via official news agencies and press releases,” said Randall Rogan, professor of communication at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
Such indirect communication on Twitter “effectively allowed both sides to present seemingly contradictory messaging that buffered their respective needs to defend and save face while back-channel messaging was occurring via diplomatic emissaries conveying more fulsome content and sentiment on behalf of both countries,” he told VOA.
Multiple reports said that amid heightening tensions between Washington and Tehran, the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which represents the U.S. interests in the country, was busy conveying messages between both countries.
Experts said the Swiss back-channel, coupled with tweets from U.S. and Iranian officials, was a significant factor in ensuring de-escalation following Iran’s attacks on U.S. military bases in Iraq.
“The private message and the public tweets sent the same thing; they were mutually reinforcing,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank.
He told VOA that, “We’re living in an era of greater connectivity where every message matters, but also receptivity of every message matters,” adding that recent tweets used by President Trump, for example, “were meant to be read and interpreted by American allies and adversaries alike, domestic and international audiences alike.”
Rogan of Wake Forest University agreed.
“Tweets also allowed both sides to effectively measure public sentiment for their posted messaging by tracking reactions to the posts in real-time. And, this medium also enabled the public to weigh in on the issue in support of one side or the other, or both, and thereby further served the needs of both countries,” he said.
Rogan added that throughout the crisis Twitter was an instant polling mechanism and vehicle for enabling both sides to de-escalate with public support for doing so “while simultaneously allowing ‘official’ news reports to maintain a more strident tone to appeal to a more hawkish audience.”
Dlshad Othman, an information technology specialist based in Washington, said that despite President Trump’s excessive use of Twitter in terms of policy-making of delicate issues, with the U.S.-Iran tensions he took his means of communication to a whole different level.
“In the recent incident with Iran, Trump took it to another level as his Twitter exchange with the U.S. public and with Iranian officials was instrumental to calm down the tensions,” he told VOA.
“I was not expecting preventing a war can be that easy in the age of Twitter, but the speed of communicating leaders to each other, and to the public, prevented the war from happening,” Othman added.
Before the advent of Twitter and other social media platforms, experts believe, lack of instant and highly public means of communication contributed to prolonging conflicts and further escalating tensions between nations.
“It is entirely possible that 30 years ago you could have had a crisis like this, and if there was no confluence of messages, nonverbal private diplomatic or military posturing or anything else, if those messages were not aligned, that it is likely that you could have had further escalation,” analyst Ben Taleblu said.
While some Iranian officials were largely seeking to de-escalate the situation with the U.S., at least publicly, an army of Iranian-backed trolls online were beating the drums of war and pushing for a harsh Iranian response against the U.S.
Some experts argue that just as Twitter is imperative in direct communication between leaders in Washington and Tehran, it could also be a damaging tool used by Iran.
Mehdi Yahyanejad, director of NetFreedom Pioneers, a nonprofit organization that promotes digital technology in countries with limited internet access, believes that Iran made certain its online propaganda continued even as it was involved indirectly to calm the tensions with the U.S.
“Iranian trolls online basically amplified threats made by the Iranian government. They kept calling for a harsh revenge, which was actually their hashtag,” he said.
Iran has reportedly employed thousands of online trolls to carry out Tehran’s disinformation campaign in Western countries, including the U.S.
“Even hours before the [Iranian missile] attack, some of them knew it was going to happen. So they started tweeting about it, stuff like ‘this is going to be a big revenge’ and so on. They were able to create an immense propaganda around the attack because they wanted to show that it was something really huge,” Yahyanejad told VOA.
He added that Iran has been paying and training online trolls through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ paramilitary Basij force.
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