For people on Twitter, the six days since Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, was killed in an airstrike near Baghdad's international airport have felt like the beginning of World War III.
Not only are users readying themselves tweet-by-tweet for annihilation, but they’ve also been tearing themselves apart over accusations of elaborate foreign psychological warfare, coordinated disinformation campaigns, and manipulation from bots. The site is awash with false or unconfirmed information.
“Be aware that we are experiencing a stunning volume of troll & disinformation activity on Twitter,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted Tuesday night as Iran fired a dozen ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq that house US troops. “We are witnessing coordinated informational warfare regarding #IranAttack spreading false information designed to create confusion and division.”
On Facebook, though, everything is fine.
If engagement metrics are any indication, it’s a completely different reality on the world’s most popular social network, where the most-viewed Facebook posts about Iran don’t come from the mainstream media or even right-wing news sites. They’re written directly by pages run by President Donald Trump. This suggests that, for a sizable chunk of the country, it’s not just pro-Trump media that is shaping how they understand what’s happening right now — it’s Trump himself.
The days of the fireside chat are long gone. Instead, the president is sending fire straight to our News Feeds.
So far, the most viral hoax to trend since Soleimani’s death wasn’t some shady psy-ops orchestrated by 4chan. It was started by NBC News Tehran bureau chief Ali Arouzi. On Tuesday night, he falsely claimed on MSNBC that up to 30 US service members had been killed in Iranian rocket attacks, citing Iranian media. (No Americans were killed in the attack.)
The fact the inaccurate death toll was reported on a liberal-leaning network like MSNBC was not lost on right-wing publishers, who urged their readers to stay away from crooked mainstream media.
Fears of coordinated misinformation from international sources are legitimate. BuzzFeed News discovered a pro-Iranian campaign this week on Instagram meant to intimidate Trump supporters. And Iran has disinformation networks it has activated in the past. Iranian accounts were removed from Facebook and Instagram as recently as October 2019. Volunteers on Reddit found an Iranian disinformation campaign on the site in 2018. It is likely that if things continue to escalate, the country will begin trying to manipulate Americans online again.
There’s also evidence that the popular #IraniansDetestSoleimani hashtag was amplified by inauthentic accounts made by Trump supporters. Right-wing and independent publishers had huge viral hits on Facebook this week pushing a misleading story about Iran raising a “red flag of doom" and declaring war on the US.
However, the bulk of Facebook content about the conflict appears not only to be genuine, but it's also coming directly from the president. And on the president’s Facebook page, there aren’t any of the issues you see on Twitter — no fighting, no fake news, no paranoia — just lots and lots of happy commenters.
There hasn’t been a comprehensive survey of the political alignment of Facebook’s user base since 2015. The company typically refuses to share the data that would help us understand exactly what the party makeup of the site’s users is. But we know that the platform is extremely popular with baby boomers and that its user base more and more resembles a Trump coalition — older, less educated, and more Republican.
And while liberal and left-leaning users are still on Facebook, right-wing influencers and publishers have been the most successful at creating a self-sustaining reality inside the social network. This filter bubble came into the national spotlight during the impeachment inquiry, as House Republicans spouted internet ephemera ripped from their News Feeds and designed for their supporters to spread.
This Trumpian content eclipse has continued into the Iranian crisis. Both native Facebook content and third-party links on the platform are either overwhelmingly pro-Trump or posted directly by Trump. Eight of the ten most-interacted-with posts containing the keyword “Iran” published to Facebook in the last month were posted by Trump’s personal Facebook page, according to social metrics site BuzzSumo.
“Iran is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets as revenge for our ridding the world of their terrorist leader who had just killed an American, & badly wounded many others, not to mention all of the people he had killed over his lifetime, including recently hundreds of Iranian protesters,” Trump’s Facebook page posted on Jan. 4.
At 147,000 comments, 133,000 shares, and 635,000 reactions — most of them likes, hearts, and laughing faces — it’s the most-interacted-with native Facebook post about Iran on the platform. Including links to third-party sites, Trump’s status update is the fourth-most shared piece of content containing the word “Iran.”
The next most-engaged status update from Trump reads: “The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way...and without hesitation!”
It got close to 100,000 shares, 180,000 commenters, and 600,000 reactions.
“Just hope you're surrounded by some good guys & this isn't a set up to take you out & blame it on Iran.”
Wrapping your head around the scale of the engagement Trump’s Iran-related Facebook posts have received since Dec. 31 is difficult. Collectively, they’ve seen over 4.1 million interactions. The only Democrats publishing content about Iran to get even close to Trump’s numbers seem to be Robert Reich, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and former US labor secretary, and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, each of whom has had posts receive 10,000–20,000 shares. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the ocean of Trump’s Facebook content.
At the same time as the president’s pages were pumping out organic content, the Trump reelection campaign has also been on a massive ad spend. Just three days after the death of Soleimani, it began to run hundreds of ads praising Trump for ordering the killing. (Facebook has taken down a few dozen of the ads, some of which appeared to be in violation of the site’s policy against using fake buttons in ads.) As of this week, the campaign has spent $2.3 million on more than 33,000 ads over the past 30 days, according to the Facebook ad library report.
Trump’s Iran content hasn’t slowed down just because tensions between the two countries lessened on Wednesday. He’s uploaded several videos about the crisis to his Facebook page Thursday. “We had the chance to take out a monster, and we took it,” his caption on one of them reads.
In the first three hours since it was published, it has been shared 500 times, received close to 2,000 comments, and 12,000 — mostly positive — reactions.
“[Democrats] are trying to convince the public that you just decided to start a war when clearly your decision to act, like with every President, was based on information & warnings from intel agencies,” one of the top comments reads. “Just hope you're surrounded by some good guys & this isn't a set up to take you out & blame it on Iran. Praying for your safety.”
Underneath that, even more commenters have hit the like and heart buttons, cheering on the president. One wrote, “Thank you for doing your job. Were you suppose to wait for everyone to get back from vacation to get permission? It isn’t like you made the decision completely by yourself.”