The world has been on alert since the United States killed Iran’s revered military general Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad earlier this month.
- Iran and American embassies in China have been sparring on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform
- Various Chinese users have cheered and condemned Iran in equal measure
- Facebook and Instagram are removing pro-Iranian content, owing to US sanctions
For the moment, it appears as though Tehran and Washington will not be coming to armed blows in the immediate term, but that has not stopped the countries from trading barbs in the virtual sphere — in places largely unexpected.
In recent days, tensions between the US and Iran have been playing out on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform available to Chinese citizens.
“The end of the evil forces of the United States in Western Asia has begun,” read one Weibo post from the Iranian embassy in China.
“Qassem Soleimani has been supporting terrorism and inciting sectarian violence for decades, resulting in thousands of deaths … and supplying arms to militants acting for the Iranian regime in six countries, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and Afghanistan,” reads the US embassy’s Weibo post in reply.
The US embassy also released posts claiming that General Soleimani was responsible for “exporting” terrorism and sectarian violence, “killing thousands”.
It has also released posts quoting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has praised US President Donald Trump for the decision to kill the Iranian general.
In parallel moves, the Iranian embassy released Weibo posts quoting Iranian officials on the tensions, including the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“If the United States retaliates against [Iranian forces], it will surely get the strongest retaliation,” another Weibo post from the Iranian embassy read.
The Iranian embassy has also been taking screenshots of tweets from its Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and reposting them on Weibo with Chinese translations.
Major Western online platforms, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are blocked from the Chinese internet, however, some users are able to get around this with the use of virtual private networks (VPNs).
Instagram wipes pro-Soleimani views, while Weibo doesn’t
Like everywhere else on the Chinese internet, content on Weibo is heavily censored by censors who take down information deemed critical of the ruling Communist regime, such as details about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre or the global condemnation of Beijing’s internment of Uyghur Muslims.
But presently, it appears as though China’s censors are letting Iran and the US go at each other in full view of the Chinese internet — a situation that is ironically, not mirrored on some US social media platforms.
Instagram and its parent company, Facebook, told CNN on Friday that it would be censoring posts that voice support for General Soleimani to comply with US sanctions, in addition to posts that voice support for Iranians currently under American sanctions.
Various Iranian officials and industrial sectors of the country are currently subject to US sanctions, which were intensified after Iran’s missile strikes on US military assets in Iraq.
@AliRabiei_ir tweet: In an undemocratic and unashmed action,Instagram has blocked an innocence nations' voice protesting to the assesination ofGeneral #Soleimani,while the real terrorists have been given an open voice.The stick behind the democracy and media freedom is displayed in the nick of time
In April, Instagram suspended General Soleimani’s account after Washington designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organisation.
Instagram is one of the few Western social media platforms allowed on Iran’s state-censored internet, though users can access Facebook and Twitter through VPNs.
But in recent weeks, it has become clear that Instagram has removed major Iranian accounts, rather than just individual posts.
@maasalan tweet: IRGC affiliated Tasnim News Agency ( @Tasnimnews_Fa ) has its Instagram profile removed following Soleimani’s assassination. Unclear if because of Soleimani’s terrorist designation and their coverage of him. Semi-official @FarsNews_Agency remains live, with commemorative posts.
Consequently, numerous Iranian journalists, human rights activists, news organisations and influencers have seen their accounts shut down in recent weeks, according to Coda, an investigative journalism website.
“Every person I saw that posted about Soleimani on Instagram, almost all of their posts have been removed,” Amir Rashidi, an Iranian internet security and digital rights researcher, told Coda.
“The only platform where we could freely express ourselves was Instagram … And now Instagram is censoring us.”
Among Chinese social media observers, the online tiff between the Iranian and American embassies has been dubbed “the battle over Liangma Bridge”, as the respective embassies are about 1.5 kilometres apart, separated by the Liangma River in central Beijing.
Under the embassies’ respective posts, there are a variety of views reflected.
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“Where there is oppression, there is resistance. Great Iranian people, add oil! To expel the fascist America from West Asia!” one Weibo user, Liu Yan Fei Yu, wrote.
Weibo users who wrote posts in support of Iran received a special shout-out last Thursday.
“At this very moment, we deeply feel the warmth from the messages from Chinese netizens,” the post read.
However, Chinese users who were praised for submitting pro-Iranian views last week had shifted their tone, after it was revealed a missile fired by the Islamic Republic struck a Ukrainian commercial airliner, killing all 176 people onboard.
“Iran, an evil country, is a threat to all mankind if it stays on the Earth,” wrote another user.
“If it strikes the United States, it will also notify in advance, but it will strike the flight with their own people in it for real!”
Presently, it is unclear if these Beijing embassies will be drawn into more virtual sparring, but in Iran’s case, Chinese social media might be one of the few places the Islamic Republic might have left to state its case abroad.
@DabuekDumbrill tweet: Twitter banned the president of Syria and an Iranian leader. Now an Iranian & American ambassador are arguing with each other on Weibo… In Chinese. The Chinese internet has become the most uncensored environment for international political discussions. #irony
On Saturday, the Weibo account of Iran’s embassy in China said Iran reserved “the right to take further appropriate countermeasures” against Washington, and would “continue to maintain communication and coordination with partners in and outside the region, especially with China”.
For other Weibo users, the irony of Chinese social media — and the Chinese language — becoming the place for an online US-Iran fight, has not been lost.
“Here’s the world’s largest imperialist country and the world’s largest theocratic republic, on a social media platform of the world’s largest socialist nation, using Standard Chinese to engage in a fierce diplomatic fight,” another user wrote.