What Iranians are saying on social media can help us better understand their perspectives on the killing. Drawing upon a long-term project collecting all Farsi-language tweets worldwide, we zoomed in on what was happening on Iranian Twitter in the hours after Soleimani’s death, when Iranians were tweeting at quadruple their typical rate. Iranian Twitter users have historically been opposed to the regime. Nevertheless, we find that they reacted overwhelmingly negatively to the killing of Soleimani.
Here’s how we did our research — and what we learned about Iranians on Twitter
Despite extensive online censorship and an official ban on many social media sites, Iranians are technically savvy and digitally active, with almost 70 percent of the country having access to the Internet. Nearly 50 percent of Iranians have Facebook accounts, and Farsi ranks as the 11th-most-used language on the Internet. All major Iranian political figures, including President Hassan Rouhani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are active Twitter users.
Since September, we have been collecting all Farsi-language tweets in real time from Twitter’s streaming application programming interface, or API, by searching for all instances of the individual letters of the Persian-Arabic alphabet used in the Farsi language, within the subset of tweets classified as in Farsi. This technique allows us to capture essentially all tweets in the Farsi language worldwide; on average, that’s 760,000 tweets per day. In all, we have observed 820,000 distinct users, roughly 1 percent of the total Farsi-speaking population.
As the vast majority of Farsi speakers are Iranians, these tweets should be primarily from two groups: Iranians within Iran and those in the Iranian diaspora. Distinguishing between the two is challenging. Because Twitter is blocked within Iran, Iranians there turn to circumvention techniques such as virtual private networks, or VPNs, effectively masking their origin.
However, from Nov. 16 to 21, after protests sparked by gasoline prices, Iran all but shut down access to the Internet. Traffic dropped to 5 percent of normal activity. This scorched-earth policy rendered workarounds such as VPNs moot. Our collection of Farsi-language tweets dropped by 75 percent, telling us that the bulk of Farsi-language tweets originate from within Iran.
Note that these users are not a representative sample of Iranians and that their activity should not be treated as polling data. However, since they are risking imprisonment and actively resisting the government by circumventing its controls, this group should be the least likely to support the regime.
This was certainly true during the November protests. The most popular hashtags supported the protests. We found no identifiably anti-protest hashtags in the 50 most-used hashtags. Outside the protest period, half of the top hashtags are about Korean pop music, suggesting that this group pays attention to international influences and events. This population would be most likely to respond positively to Soleimani’s death.
What was the reaction to Soleimani’s death?
Immediately after the announcement of Soleimani’s death, Farsi-language tweets dramatically spiked to quadruple their typical rate, a figure that held steady throughout the day. These tweets overwhelmingly focused on Soleimani, with his name appearing in 1 in 4 tweets and variations of his name appearing in 5 of the top 10 hashtags. To put these counts in perspective, only about 1 in 30 American tweets mention the Super Bowl on Super Bowl Sunday.
Only two of the top 25 hashtags overtly supported the killing: No. 6 is #TnxPOTUS4Soleimani and No. 12 is “Qasem Soleimani Went to Hell” in Farsi. In contrast, the top hashtag of the day was “Vengeance” (in Farsi) by an enormous margin, appearing in 1 in every 13 tweets. The most shared image was the Iranian flag.
Retweets mirrored these sentiments. The top retweets almost entirely criticized the attack, declaring Soleimani a martyr and calling for revenge. A tweet from Rouhani, liked over 40,000 times, promised, “The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime.” And the most retweeted tweet? Mohsen Rezaee, a senior Revolutionary Guard Corps officer and former conservative presidential candidate, posted it in English and Farsi, with the Farsi hashtag “Vengeance/Hard Revenge.”
How reliable are these tweets?
Are the results being driven by bots or a coordinated campaign by pro-government accounts? To find out, we looked only at tweets from the 19 percent of accounts that also posted pro-opposition hashtags during the November protests. The results do not significantly change, except for the fact that “Vengeance” slips to No. 2 behind Soleimani’s name, showing that even the most anti-regime posters are reacting negatively to Soleimani’s death, in solidarity with the regime.
Reaction from outside the country was more mixed. Accounts active during the November shutdown (which means they’re outside of Iran) were more likely to post in favor of the killing, with hashtags such as #FreeIran2020 emerging. Among this group, the hashtags #TnxPOTUS4Soleimani and “Qasem Soleimani Went to Hell” jumped to No. 3 and No. 7. Most of the supportive hashtags tweeted by Farsi speakers from outside the country were in English, despite the rest of the tweet being in Farsi — perhaps suggesting who was seen as the intended audience. Users outside Iran, then, appear to support the killing much more than those inside it — with expatriate accounts responsible for 33 percent of pro-killing hashtags — even though those accounts made up only 15 percent of the users who posted the day of the killing.
What does Twitter tell us about Iranians’ reaction to Soleimani’s death?
Even though Iranian Twitter is dominated by people opposed to the regime, Farsi-language tweets about the Soleimani killing were overwhelmingly negative. Any thought that this killing would galvanize opposition to the Iranian government appears to have been wrong. Soleimani’s killing may have unified many, but only in condemning the United States’ actions.
Layla M. Hashemi (@tokyomay) is a policy PhD candidate at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, managing editor of the Journal of Civil Society and a graduate researcher at GMU’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC).
Steven L. Wilson (@slloydwilson) is assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada at Reno and a project manager for the Digital Society Project and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute.
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