Imagine you are the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and you’re woken to be told that the head of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Qassem Soleimani, has died in a US drone attack, that #WorldWarThree is trending on social media, that Donald Trump just threatened on Twitter to destroy Iranian cultural sites, “perhaps in a disproportionate manner”, and that the US House Foreign Affairs Committee has started an acrimonious constitutional dispute with Trump on Twitter, about which branch of the federal government has the legal power to declare war.
Each of these events is unquestionably a source of grave concern, but all together they may well signal the beginning of a major international crisis. The big question is, of course, what to do. In order to answer it you first need to make sense of what is going on. Social media may be able to provide some help if one knows what to look for.
The first approach would be to focus on the viral potential of the crisis across social media, especially its reach and intensity. Virality analysis is a good first step of crisis sense-making, especially when the unfolding events are ambiguous, information is scarce, and the “dots” between potential risks and consequences cannot be easily connected.
It allows us to draw preliminary conclusions about whether the crisis is about to morph into something more serious. It is, however, important not to overstate the significance of social media storms. They do not tend to last long, as they need fresh controversies to keep the conversation going and to compensate for the terribly short tweet half-life. That being said, high levels of reach and negative sentiment form an ominous combination that needs to be taken seriously.
As it turned out, the WWIII hashtag soared in the aftermath of the Soleimani’s death, driven by hard negative emotions — but by the end of the next day it almost vanished. The other two related topics of conversation, #Soleimani and #HardRevenge, have been much more limited in scope. However, measures of online sentiment show clearly that public anger continued to rise, rather than dissipate, in the following days.
It is also possible to identify signals that may shed light on the possibility of the crisis to escalate. Signalling analysis requires a careful assessment of the statements made by the main participants in any given crisis or situation, with the goal of spotting critical nuances in their positions.
Signalling theory, developed initially in economics and biology and more recently applied in communication studies, claims to do exactly that: to differentiate between unreliable and “honest” signals by assessing whether the costs of producing the signal outweigh the benefits. In other words, the more resources are “wasted” on producing the signal, as suggested by the handicap principle, the more reliable the signal is.
Crisis escalation will therefore be associated with signals that could make leaders lose significant political capital if they fail to follow up on their statements (hence the “handicap” idea). Key messages posted by Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, when he referred to the legal basis — as he saw it — for Iran to lift the restriction on its use of centrifuges to enrich Uranium, and also the UN Article permitting retaliatory attacks in order to “safeguard ourselves against aggressions,” do not fit well this pattern.
They are quite moderate in tone, coached in legal not political language, and sufficiently elastic to cover possible reversals. In short, they are unlikely to create any political handicap for the author.
It is also instructive to consider the broader implications of the crisis. More specifically, contagion analysis seeks to determine whether the crisis has prompted other countries to declare their support or opposition to the position of the conflicting parties in a way that could lead to crisis escalation. Again, there is little to support this idea, as most of the actors with a direct or more remote stake in the security of the region, including China and Russia, have asked the two parties to take steps to de-escalate.
Perhaps a more interesting question would be whether the crisis could have a “long tail”, by bringing about a geopolitical realignment between the US and its European allies. As a single event, this sounds unlikely, but as a node in a series of similarly critical events, things could start to look quite different. Complex contagion theory suggests that multiple sources of activation do trigger behavioural change, including in politics. What is more difficult to figure out is the threshold at which such complex contagion could become successful. That is a matter for another day, and one that requires a more elaborate discussion.