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Did Twitter anti-diplomacy prevent war with Iran?

January 9, 2020 - 6:07pm

The Iran-US conflict seems to have cooled down already, with the Islamic Republic doing the equivalent of firing over its opponent’s head by deliberately avoiding US troops in their retaliatory attack.

If it had led to widespread conflict (and I don’t think it ever was going to), then it would have been caused, or at least aggravated by, social media.

Qassem Soleimani had been an enemy of the United States for many years, but things heated up after the Iranian general posted a message on Instagram message threatening the US, leading the deranged American president to respond with an all-caps tweet:  “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”

After this Soleimani posted a mocked-up picture of himself outside an exploding White House in a rather Boratesque-looking movie of his imagination, leading Trump to tweet a Game of Thrones-themed pic of himself with “Sanctions are Coming”.

The relationship between the two enemies had deteriorated so badly by last summer that the Iranian government publicly suggested that “The White House is afflicted by mental retardation”.

If this all sounds like a childish playground dispute almost led two countries to war, then the converse argument is that social media helped prevent the conflict escalating.

Media can be even benevolent or malevolent in terms of reducing or increasing conflict between peoples. Television, although blamed for lots of things, has almost certainly widened the “circle of empathy” and allowed people to see once-distant humans as people they can look in the eye. For example, a study found that former East German provinces exposed to western television (because the geography allowed homes to pick it up) showed lower levels of xenophobia.

In contrast radio played a large part in the Rwandan genocide and was also very effectively used by early 20th century dictators to whip up hatred against the out-group. Further back Anglo-German relations were hugely damaged by the Kaiser’s 1908 interview with the Daily Telegraph and before this nationalism — later to be extremely murderous — was spread through central Europe and the Balkans by literacy and newspapers.

More recently Facebook use has been linked to genocide in Myanmar, while it is arguable that Twitter use increases political out-group hatred in the English-speaking world, something Trump has been able to exploit.

Among his many skills, Trump is the master practitioner of social media anti-diplomacy, using Twitter to goad and taunt his enemies. It’s a disconcerting new trend used by a range of figures including the godawful Russian Embassy account and EU bigwig Guy Verhofstadt. Trump’s mastery, though, is hardly surprising when you consider his association with American wrestling.

In fact, his public spat with the late Iranian general resembles one of the wrestling promo videos from my teenage years, with Million Dollar Man or Ravishing Rick Rude taunting their opponents (as you may have guessed, I’m slightly out of touch on this subject). In fact the most positive argument about social media is that it allows these absurd world leaders to play out a performative battle against their opponents, cheered on by their fans, in a vaguely entertaining way that prevents it from becoming a “real” war.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable


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