Watching the internet react to US-Iran relations has been quite the trip. With each new development comes a refreshed sense that we may soon be in another protracted war. President Donald Trump is escalating tensions time and again while directly appealing to his most fortified base — Americans who view him as a strongman defending a nation under siege. Accordingly, his administration and supporters have employed several disinformation tactics to justify US aggression toward Iran.
The recent assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani has bolstered the conviction of most Iranians, who want an end to the US military presence in the region. Imagery circulating on Iranian social media paints a picture of embattled opposition. Having historically garnered little sympathy from the West, many Shia Muslims rally around the words of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who warned that any invading American troops would “arrive vertically and leave horizontally.” His two-handed T-shape gesture appears in artwork, photos, and videos as a symbol of self-defense. Another popular design depicts a man’s shoe with one lace pulled upwards by a missile. The text in this particular tweet states that “This only avenged Soleimani’s shoelace,” referring to Iran’s retaliatory strike on a US military base in Iraq, which by design claimed no casualties.
Confusing resistance with extremism is textbook US foreign policy, a longstanding bipartisan tradition of justifying interventionism. Trump consistently props up a false image of altruistic concern, which he then projects onto US economic endeavors and military actions. After Iran admitted to accidentally downing a Ukrainian passenger jet, Trump tweeted in Farsi to express support for anti-government demonstrations in Tehran and on university campuses. The media gives these protests plenty of coverage, portraying Iran as a country in dire need of reform. While freedom of speech is indeed suppressed in Iran, this is nonetheless an imperialist push to weaken and potentially overthrow its government. US officials have built on this for years, disguising their true agenda behind appeals to nebulous notions of “human rights” — conveniently ignoring their uncritical support of countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Ideological warfare trickles down to American civilians, who rationalize intervention in bad faith. Implying that women were more free before the Islamic Revolution, as right-wing entrepreneur Michael Choudrey did, promotes a false image of Muslim cultures in Iran and enforces Western stereotypes of beauty. In reality, Iranian women were largely illiterate and less politically active before 1979. Concurrently, internet bots and MAGA supporters popularized the #IraniansDetestSoleimani hashtag to discourage Americans and Europeans from sympathizing. Unlike in the past, however, Twitter users have been readily available to shut down the spread of such astroturfing efforts.
In an election year, questioning the governance of a majority-Muslim country feeds into Islamophobia and American exceptionalism. Casual racism from ordinary Americans receives sharp-tongued criticism from Iranian civilians who have lived through decades of Western abuse. While Soleimani’s supporters organized the region’s largest funeral in recent history, Americans cracked jokes about a World War III draft in myriad posts. It’s clearly a laughing matter in the States, while Iranians grieve the loss of a national icon and hundreds of unintended casualties.
Iranian citizens and government officials are proving to be far more adept and quick-witted than the US president and his revolving door of henchmen. Just look at the embarrassingly lo-res American flag that Trump tweeted after the killing of Soleimani. Compare it to Tehran official Saeed Jalili’s image of the Iranian national flag, in high resolution, posted after Iran’s missile retaliation. The original Trump tweet received well-deserved ridicule for its sloppiness and irresponsible jingoism. In the coming weeks, we will surely see more bizarre Twitter theatrics and sniffling speeches aiming to control the narrative and drum up support for military intervention. Trump’s incompetence will continue to play out as tensions wax and wane, while Iranian civilians remain caught in the middle.