Soleimani and US-Iran escalation: How big is the story online?

Al Jazeera analysed data to measure global reaction to the most significant confrontation between US and Iran in years.

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    The US killing of Qassem Soleimani heightened tensions between the US and Iran [Lefteris Pitarakis/AP]
    The US killing of Qassem Soleimani heightened tensions between the US and Iran [Lefteris Pitarakis/AP]

    Qassem Soleimani, the chief of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps overseas forces, was assassinated by a US air strike in on January 3 in Baghdad, triggering a dramatic escalation in tensions between the United States and Iran.

    On January 8, Iran retaliated by firing missiles at two Iraqi military bases hosting US military personnel. The strikes caused no casualties, and President Donald Trump later signalled that the US would not respond militarily to the missile strikes amid signs of de-escalation from both sides.

    Soleimani's assassination and the events that followed it raised fears of a full-blown conflict and generated intense public interest.  In order to quantify the magnitude of this latest US-Iran escalation, we used Google Trends, the world's largest repository of real-time search results - providing a window into the trillions of Google searches people around the world do each year.

    We analysed seven days of Google Trends using search terms in multiple languages for worldwide trends, and then separately for 12 nations.

    For each country, most of the search terms used were in non-English, local languages - except in cases where the term was more popular in English e.g. Iran, Facebook.

    The charts below illustrate the trends of how Soleimani's assassination and the US-Iran escalation story compared to other popular search terms (worldwide and country-specific) between January 2-9.

    Worldwide

    Keywords: Iran, Soleimani, Trump, football, Facebook

    During the designated time frame, "Iran" was a major trending topic across the world. In comparison to other popular terms such as "football" and "Trump", Iran consistently trended above the two topics of interest, but below the social media website "Facebook".

    But on January 8, after Tehran's missile strikes, the number of people searching for Iran showed a significant spike, trending higher than Facebook.

    The term "Soleimani", which initially garnered some interest immediately after the commander's killing, steadily declined during the week.

    United States (English)

    Keywords: Iran, Soleimani, Trump, football, Golden Globes

    In the US, more users searched for "Iran" than "Soleimani" at the time of his assassination, matching trends for the two terms worldwide.

    Interest in the story remained constant throughout the week and peaked sharply following Iran's retaliation on January 8, beating out other popular keywords including "Trump" and "Facebook". A spike in interest can also be seen in searches related to "Trump" around the time the US president addressed the nation following Iran's missile strikes.

    "Though America and Iran have been engaged in a kind of shadow war for some time, this week, they neared the threshold of war," Arif Rafiq, president of Vizier Consulting, a New York-based political risk advisory company, told Al Jazeera.

    "The potential ramifications for Americans are quite considerable, despite Iran posing no conventional military threat to the American homeland," Rafiq noted, adding that the conflict would "involve the deployment of thousands more US troops to the region, impacting just as many households".

    The latest escalation between Washington and Iran is rooted in Trump's 2018 decision to withdraw from a landmark deal signed in 2015 between Iran and world powers that restricted Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief, and reimpose punishing sanctions against Tehran.

    Iran (Farsi)

     Keywords: Iran (ایران), Soleimani (سلیمانی), Trump (ترامپ), Facebook (فیس بوک), America (آمریکا)

    In Iran, the term "Soleimani" spiked significantly on the day of his killing. "Soleimani" searches continued to outperform searches for "Trump", "America" and "Facebook" for most of the week.

    Soleimani was a revered figure in Iran whose killing brought huge crowds to the streets of multiple cities to pay their respects to the slain commander. 

    Iraq (Arabic)

    Keywords: Iran (ايران) , Soleimani (سليماني), Trump (ترامب), Muhandis (المهندس), Facebook (فيسبوك)

    Similar to Iran, "Soleimani" was a heavily searched topic in Iraq, with significant interest in the former Iranian commander for many hours after his killing.

    Interest in the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was killed in the same attack that targeted Soleimani, also notably increased

    For several days, interest in both men was greater than "Facebook", which towards the end of the week, regained top spot.

    Al-Muhandis was the de facto leader of Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi) and a top aide of Soleimani. 

    Israel (Hebrew, English)

    Keywords: Iran, Soleimani (סולימאני), Trump (טראמפ), Netanyahu (נתניהו), Facebook(פייסבוק)

    In Israel, searches for "Soleimani" also peaked on January 3, surpassing searches for "Facebook". However, during the week, interest in Soleimani's death or Iran dissipated considerably. Nevertheless Iran's retaliatory attack on US bases in Iraq on January 8 renewed interest in the story, surpassing that of the other four terms for several hours.

    Tensions between Israel and Iran have existed for decades since the Iranian revolution in 1979. Israel, like the US, has accused Iran of developing nuclear technology.

    Iran has previously called Israel a "cancerous tumour" established by Western nations to advance their interests in the Middle East region. Iran has also financially and militarily supported Palestinian groups such as Hamas.

    Lebanon (Arabic, English)

    Keywords: Iran, Soleimani (سليماني), Trump, Nasrallah (نصر الله), Facebook

    In Lebanon, searches for "Soleimani" peaked twice shortly after his death, with interest in the story slowing down over the course of the week. There was a slight spike on January 5, around the time Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah made a speech regarding Soleimani’s killing.

    Hezbollah has been a recipient of Iranian military and financial aid, helping the group in its ongoing tensions with Israel.

    Soleimani is said to have had a leading role in the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war that ended in an impasse.

    "Lebanon has been affected by the developments between the US and Iran ... and due to the ongoing political and economic crisis in Lebanon, the country does not want to be dragged into a broader conflict, Denijal Jegic, a Beirut-based political analyst, told Al Jazeera. 

    "Many Lebanese see Soleimani as a hero and understand Iran as a crucial ally. Soleimani was mourned by many, particularly within the Shia community which has been notably targeted by US foreign policy," he added.

    Saudi Arabia (Arabic, English)

    Keywords: Iran , Soleimani (سليماني), Trump (ترامب), Salman (سلمان), Facebook

    People in Iran's regional rival Saudi Arabia also showed immense interest in Soleimani's killing and Iran's subsequent retaliation later in the week, with the two terms beating searches for "Facebook" on both occasions.

    However, similar to other Middle East nations, Soleimani's assassination garnered far more interest than the subsequent attack on the Iraqi bases hosting US troops.

    Syria (Arabic, English)

    Keywords: Iran (ايران) , Soleimani (سليماني), Trump (ترامب), al-Assad (الأسد), Facebook

    Like Lebanon, a similar trend was seen in Syria, with significant interest in Soleimani's killing and Iran's retaliation. At the time of the Iranian response, a slight increase in searches for "Trump" was also recorded.

    Iran has been a major ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the country's war, and the Soleimani-headed Quds Force has played a key role in helping the Syrian government regain control of most of the country from rebel groups.

    Bahrain (Arabic)

    Keywords: Iran (ايران) , Soleimani (سليماني), Trump (ترامب), Khalifa (خليفة), Facebook(فيسبوك)

    Bahrain was the only Middle Eastern nation which saw near-equal interest immediately after the commander's killing and Iran's missile strikes, easily out-competing searches for the likes of "Facebook" and "Trump".

    In fact, throughout the week, there was greater interest in "Iran" than "Facebook".

    Turkey (Turkish, English)

    Keywords: Iran (İran), Soleimani (Süleymani), Trump, Erdogan (Erdoğan) , Facebook

    Turkey was the only Middle Eastern nation analysed where interest in Soleimani's killing did not gain significant interest, failing to beat out "Facebook".

    Interest in "Iran" was also low throughout the week, with a significant uptick at the time of Tehran's retaliatory attack.

    Pakistan (English)

    Keywords: Iran, Soleimani, Trump, Cricket, Facebook

    In Pakistan, Soleimani's assassination and the events that followed it did not garner the same interest as in countries in the Middle East. While a spike can be seen on the day the commander was killed, it remained fairly low through the rest of the week. However, searches for "Iran" consistently beat out searches for cricket, the most popular sport in the South Asian country.

    "Pakistan is a neighbour of Iran and both the government and society have concerns that a US-Iran war could have ramifications on their own soil," said Rafiq, of Vizier Consulting, explaining why the story mattered to Pakistanis.

    "Pakistan also has a sizeable Shia population that looks to Iranian figures for religious, and to a lesser extent, political leadership," he added.

    Hence, Rafiq said, the prospect of a war between Pakistan's southern neighbour and a superpower was "a pretty compelling story". 

    Russia (Russian)

    Keywords: Iran (Иран), Soleimani (Сулеймани), Trump (Трамп), Putin (Путин), VK social network (ВКонтакте)

    In Russia, Soleimani's death hardly raised any interest. During the week, searches for "Iran" picked up, with interest in the subject peaking on January 8.

    Russia has been a close ally of Iran for decades, with the two nations in recent years working closely to help al-Assad hold on to power in Syria.

    Social media website VK was the most popular search terms throughout the week, consistently outperforming all other topics of interest.

    India (English)

    Keywords: Iran, Soleimani, Trump, JNU, Facebook

    Similar to Pakistan and Russia, interest in India around "Soleimani" did not garner much attention. However, searches for "Iran" steadily increased after the commander's killing.

    The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) story was of greater interest to Indians between January 5 and January 6 than Iran, after a right-leaning group attacked students on campus for several hours.

    Interest in "Iran" peaked around January 8 after Iran's missile strikes, while searches for "Trump" also increased on the same day. However, neither of the four terms surpassed searches for "Facebook".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News