World War Three: More than a Meme? - This Week in the Social Media News Cycle "This Week in the Social Media News Cycle" Column - Elizabeth Bratton

"This Week in the Social Media News Cycle" is a bi-weekly column where RevNow explores the biggest 'news stories' circulating on social media. RevNow strives to combat social media misinformation by clarifying, elaborating on, and fact-checking the stories you've most likely seen on your dashboard.

January 12 2020

Early on Friday the 3rd of January, the head of Iran’s military was killed in an American airstrike in Baghdad. Qassem Soleimani’s career began in the 1980s, amidst the Iran-Iraq War. While in power, he has provided arms to Kurdish forces, and overseen the Shia army. He has previously been sanctioned by the United Nations, and deemed a terrorist by the United States. The commander was described by President Trump as a “monster”, whose death prevented an “imminent” attack. Soleimani had an approval rating of 82% among the Iranian people, largely due to the part he played in combating ISIS, causing widespread outrage in Iran. Soleimani’s death triggered both panic and satire, with memes about World War 3 and a potential draft circulating across a wide range of social media platforms, despite the fact that no war has been declared. Among the dark humor, a serious question has begun to arise: is the world really in danger? Some would argue so.

Soon after Soleimani’s funeral, Iran launched over a dozen missiles at Iraqi military bases, where US troops were residing. The strikes were deemed a form of retaliation to Soleimani’s death. The USA, Iraq, the UK, Australia, and Canada all announced that there had been no casualties among their staff, with Trump tweeting “All is well!” However, the strikes heightened panic on social media. While some continued to see humor in the situation, others began to seriously consider the likelihood of a military draft. However, The Selective Service, the organization responsible for obtaining data on those potentially capable of serving in the military, tweeted that it is “conducting business as usual,” emphasising the president would have to “pass official legislation to authorize a draft”.

Donald Trump's tweet in response to missiles being launched at Iraqi military bases.//Twitter

Matters became more severe when news of a plane crash emerged, merely hours later. The Ukrainian passenger aircraft was carrying 176 passengers, all of which died in the disaster. 67 of those onboard were Canadian citizens; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that it was indeed an Iranian missile that caused the crash. Despite Trudeau acknowledging that the outcome may not have been the intended one, Ali Abedzadeh, chief of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, claimed that it was “scientifically impossible” for such a grave error to have been made. U.S. officials expressed a “high level of confidence” that Iranian forces mistook the plane to be American, using a surface-to-air missile to bring Flight PS572 down.

America and Iran have exchanged a number of threats since President Trump assassinated Soleimani. Prior to the missile launches, Donald Trump had warned Iran that the U.S. would target 52 of its historic sites, should they retaliate to Soleimani’s death. This would allegedly be to represent the 52 American hostages held captive in Iran between 1979 and 1981. Recently, the President has emphasized that he is “prepared to take whatever action is necessary” should Iran seek revenge. Now that the Iranian government has responded to such an extreme, it is likely that the U.S will react, especially considering President Trump has warned: “should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner”.

Prior to the strikes on military bases, Iran withdrew from the 2015 Nuclear Agreement, and voted to banish 5000 American troops from Iraq, limiting them to “training and advising”. The latter of these decisions could lead to a reduced effort against ISIS, who could actually benefit from conflict between the two countries. The American embassy in Iraq was besieged by pro-Iran protestors, with chants of “Death to America”, while a video of the American and British flag being burnt has emerged. At the same time, a eulogist at Soleimani’s funeral suggested than an $80 million bounty should be placed on the U.S. President’s head, this notion was not reported to have been backed by the Iranian government.

What are the predicted effects of this conflict?

The potential effects of this conflict remain uncertain. However, after Soleimani’s death, there was an initial surge of 4% in oil prices: something we can predict to become increasingly common, should tensions between countries worsen, as access to such resources will become restricted. There is also a greater chance of cyberattacks on the USA, largely due to the ease with which they can be committed - they are less traceable, and there is no risk of personnel deaths. On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning, urging cybersecurity teams to "enhance monitoring of network and email traffic.” The message continued: "Iran has exercised its increasingly sophisticated capabilities to suppress both social and political perspectives deemed dangerous to Iran and to harm regional and international opponents.” On Saturday, January 4th, the first signs of cyber-criminality began to emerge, as the home page of a governmental website was hacked and defaced with pro-Iran messages, alongside a picture of Donald Trump being punched in the face, blood spilling out of his mouth. Authorities are yet to verify whether or not this attack originated from the Iranian state itself.

Will a military draft take place?

The U.S. military is dependent on volunteer corps, however all men between the ages of 18-25 are required to register with the Selective Service Administration, in the unlikely event that a draft should occur. While registration is mandatory to access certain services (such as a driver’s license and receival of federal student loans), if the U.S. were to engage in war, a draft is still improbable. Congress would need to authorize legislation, then to be signed by Trump, granting permission for a military draft in the case of conflict.

Is World War 3 a genuine possibility?

After the attacks on US bases, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote on Twitter: “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,” followed by: “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.” Providing America does not respond with violence to the attacks, and Iran seeks no further vengeance for Soleimani’s death, some are hopeful that this could be a chance for the two sides to seek a resolution. As explained in the Express, for a world war to take place, powers such as Russia and China would have to become involved. While China seems unlikely to do so, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs warned that the killing of Soleimani was an act “fraught with grave consequences for the regional peace and stability.” The British government has sought de-escalation, although Prime Minister Boris Johnson did emphasize that he would not “lament” Soleimani’s death, due to the part he has played in thousands of deaths. Currently, it seems that very few large powers are willing to play a part in the violence, which makes it unlikely that an international war will break out.

As for public opinion in America, people’s thoughts on the matter are mixed. According to a survey, 43% of Americans approved of the initial strike, of which Soleimani was the target. Despite this, 47% do not believe the president has a “clear strategy for dealing with Iran,” and 44% of those surveyed were also of the view that Trump should have sought permission from Congress, prior to launching the missile.

It is uncertain if Iran feels that they have sought sufficient justice for the death of their head of military, or if further action is to be taken. Although there have been a small number of pro-Iran cyberattacks on an eclectic group of websites, they do not seem to have been initiated by government officials. Providing both sides believe that enough damage has been done to each other, the chances of a war appear to be decreasing. However, tensions are likely to remain high for a significant amount of time, with negotiations being far from an easy task.

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Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg