Cathy Sun | January 31, 2020
Responding To: U.S.-China Relations in the Social Media Era
A Brand New Battlefield for International Relations
“The world’s largest imperialist country, together with the world’s largest clerical theocratic republic, is at a tangled diplomatic fight on Weibo, a social media platform in the world’s largest socialist country -- using standard mandarin.” Not a joke, the comment made by Guancha Video web quickly stood out, and became widely cited in the Iran-related topic on China’s Weibo platform.
Ever since Iran’s Major General Soleimani was killed on 3 January 2020 by missiles shot from an American drone, the daily update ratio for the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Weibo account has gone through a sharp increase: from as low as once per week to several posts a day. The most quoted post reads: “End of malign U.S. presence in West Asia has begun”, followed by Iran’s national flag as the post picture. Within 10 days, the post received over half a million likes. Of the over 34,000 comments, the majority stands on the Iran side and applauds for its deed. Further, the followers of the Iranian Embassy account rose from around 30,000 to nearly 300,000, a ten-times increase in just 10 days. The U.S. Embassy’s Weibo account, as a response, also released many posts related to the Iran issue, claiming Soleimani has been exporting terrorism and violence in the past decades, causing thousands of deaths. The comments, however, are mostly against the U.S. government. It was not until Iran admitted to shooting the civilian aircraft mistakenly that some of the comments start to support the United States. Despite the acknowledgment from Iran, the majority are still against the United States.
Even though Chinese media platforms, including Weibo, are monitored and censored by the government on certain topics, the discussion of international politics is fully allowed. Ironically, such discussion is not allowed to happen in the United States, a country that has been trumpeting itself for “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the press”. Instagram and its parent company Facebook, told CNN that they “are removing posts that voice support for slain Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani to comply with U.S. sanctions”. Instagram, as one of the few social media platforms not blocked in Iran, suspended General Soleimani's account in April 2019 and has been removing major Iranian accounts, including institutional accounts such as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps affiliated Tasnim New Agency, as well as at least 15 individual journalist accounts, according to the International Federation of Journalists. As a result, Chinese Weibo may become one of the few international social media platforms left that Iran can use to make its statements freely.
The battle between the two embassies on Weibo is just a microcosm of today’s communication between states, as well as states and citizens. The nature of social media not only changes the rules of communication, but the rules of international relations as well. Common citizens, for the first time, get empowered the same as large institutions, and get the chance to air their views. Thanks to the growing number of citizen journalists and online activists, information becomes no longer constrained within authorities: anyone with a mobile device can share what is happening live anywhere. To respond to the rapid changes in the way of communication, the once superior institutions start to swallow their pride and behave in a friendly way. When the spokesman of China’s Ministry of Defense read out various account names for the lucky winners of a retweet lottery including “zwzwzwzwz” during a serious press conference, netizens all burst into laughter due to the sharp contrast. Back to the international relations field, small countries, like Iran, can make themselves heard to the public with an equal chance of disclosure, provided that no censorship has been conducted. Therefore, social media has become a battlefield that none of the political leaders and diplomats would like to lose.
Of course, social media is never perfect, apart from the censorship mentioned above. Strict word limit, instant interactive response, fragmented information: all these features push people to abandon the old way of treating writing and public announcement seriously. People no longer think twice and polish every word carefully: once clicking the push button, those emotional sentences are out. U.S. President Donald Trump, an active user of twitter, is the most notable example. When Trump referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, as “little rocket man”, North Korea responded with the words “heedless and erratic old man”. It is true that these colloquially(even childish) words indeed make the information more accessible, but they also weaken the authority of leaders to the general public. Therefore, for official institutions and political leaders, the balance needs to be maintained when delivering the message.
In today’s interconnected world, the landscape of international relations is changing rapidly, the same way social media is changing our individual lives. Thanks to social media, we are now able to access information from high-level authorities more easily, and are even able to get our views heard by the masses. The social media platform is never neutral, and in fact, it shouldn’t be: censorship on hatred and false information may be necessary, but only to a certain limit. In this battlefield, both authorities and politicians are trying hard to win. For the common public, we should keep a clear mind, make sure to maintain our judgment, and try not to get fooled.
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