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Conflict between the U.S. and Iran may have been avoided thanks to a shadow disinformation effort

Iran’s air strikes on bases containing American and Iraqi soldiers last week caused no casualties, which led to what seems for the moment to be a temporary de-escalation of the conflict between the U.S. and Iran. On social media, though, posts full of misinformation claiming that the strikes caused dozens of American casualties have been widespread, according to a new report from BuzzFeed News. The posts on Twitter and other platforms claim that the attacks were so successful that they have led to American troops withdrawing from Kuwait.

According to BuzzFeed News, the point of the misinformation is to convince the restive Iranian public that the response to the American assassination of the Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani was more substantial than it actually was. Therefore, no further military action is needed, and the government can ratchet down from the edge of a military conflict that could be extraordinarily bloody and costly.

In short, it’s apparently an exercise in saving face. “If you tell your people, ‘Hey, we killed 80 Americans and wounded 200,’ it means you don’t need to do anything else, right?” David Patrikarakos, an Iran expert, told BuzzFeed News.

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There is no definitive proof that the misinformation on Twitter in question is coming from the Iranian government or other actors. Twitter itself told BuzzFeed News that it couldn’t determine yet whether the posts are state-backed. Still, the government seems like the likeliest culprit, especially considering that it has already posted false information regarding the strikes. Last week, CNN reported, the state-backed Fars News Agency posted doctored photos that appeared to show a missile being fired at targets in Iraq. In fact, the photo was from 2017. Likewise, posts across social media used outdated or doctored photos of explosions and missile launches to play up the scale of the attack. In one case, a doctored image appeared to show the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei overseeing a missile launch; the photo was actually from 2014.

The reason the Iranian government would feel the need to present this narrative is simple: Their people are furious, and not just about the death of Soleimani. Riots have erupted across the country in recent days in the wake of the government acknowledging that it accidentally downed a Ukrainian passenger jet filled with mostly Iranians, believing it to be a possible American missile. The admission came after several days of denial on the part of the Iranian government.

People have routinely poured into the streets of Tehran to protest Iran’s poor economy and living conditions in recent years. These protests kicked into a higher gear in the months preceding Soleimani’s death; between November and December of last year, Iranian police reportedly killed almost 200 protesters after gas prices rose. In an embarrassing public blow, The New York Times reported Monday that the country’s only female Olympic medalist has defected in protest of the government’s “hypocrisy, lies, injustice, and flattery.” Iran’s government is not in a place right now where it can afford to be perceived as weak in the face of American aggression; neither is it likely to achieve anything from open conflict with the U.S. other than massive expense and loss of life. It is stuck between a rock and a hard place. That’s why it’s so plausible that the only way out was to create a false reality.

The reason the Iranian government would feel the need to present this narrative is simple: Their people are furious, and not just about the death of Soleimani.

The Iranian government’s alleged turn to misinformation is an indicator of the future of conflict. War takes place in the physical world, where bombs and guns and death happen. Its implications are far more abstract in the virtual realm, however, where perceptions of who is winning or losing at a given moment can be easily shaped by a misleading Tweet or an outdated photograph.

With something as emotionally volatile and complicated as war, expect to see a lot more countries following Iran’s playbook when it comes to proclaiming victory. To date, most fake news social media campaigns that have received major media coverage have involved negative attacks, whether against minority populations or political candidates. This may be one of the first examples of a social media campaign trying to create the illusion that something positive happened (at least from the Iranian government’s perspective).

Of course, fake news about military victories is nothing new — and Americans might know this best of anyone. Remember “Mission Accomplished?”