Iran, China Use Twitter to Bash U.S. for Protest Hypocrisy

(Bloomberg) -- As American cities convulse with protests, U.S. adversaries are taking advantage of the situation on social media to advance their agendas and rebuke U.S. government officials, according to a report released Wednesday.

In one instance, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter along with an annotated version of a U.S. State Department release that criticized Tehran’s suppression of protests. Zarif tweaked the document to apply those same criticisms to Washington’s handling of the protests on U.S. soil.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, tweeted a photo of a U.S. protester facing four police officers and included a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. -- deflecting “American words back at the White House,” according the report published by Graphika Inc., which uses artificial intelligence to analyze data from social networks.

President Hassan Rouhani, who’s been on the receiving end of Donald Trump’s tweets in the past, also issued terse criticism at a cabinet meeting in Tehran, calling the U.S. president “shameful” for wielding the Bible and threatening to deploy troops against protesters. Earlier this week, Iran finally issued a death toll for November’s anti-government demonstrations.

Chinese officials and state media have used social media to push the idea of a U.S. “double standard,” the report said. In one example highlighted by Graphika, China’s deputy foreign minister retweeted comparisons of protests in the U.S. and Hong Kong, including one by the editor of a state media outlet: “I want to ask Speaker Pelosi and Secretary Pompeo: Should Beijing support protests in the US, like you glorified rioters in Hong Kong?”

Along with Russia, China and Iran are using the U.S. protests to “further their existing narratives,” Graphika concluded. Iran seized the moment to pillory U.S. criticism of Iran’s human-rights record and denounce U.S. sanctions, while China’s main goal is to use the protests to undermine U.S. support for Hong Kong demonstrators, according to the report.

Disinformation and propaganda have spread online as protests rage across the U.S. after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of the police. Graphika hasn’t found any large-scale, covert interference campaigns like the one Russia waged in the U.S. to stoke division during the 2016 presidential election. However, Russian media has covered the U.S. protests as part of its “practice of highlighting genuine grievances and protests in the West,” the report said.

In their social media propaganda, China and Iran have incorporated the phrase “I can’t breathe,” which Floyd uttered while a police officer knelt on his neck and which has been adopted as a rallying cry by protesters, according to Graphika.

China used the phrase to troll a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department and to criticize U.S. moves to withdraw from the World Health Organization. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, said in a statement to the U.S., “Stop violence against your people and let them breathe,” according to the report.

Pro-Iranian accounts tweeted support for the protesters and criticisms of the U.S. with the hashtag #IranWithGeorge. Twitter followers of Iranian state outlets used hashtags that were trending in the U.S., including #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd, Graphika found.

Russia, China and Iran also amplified each other’s narratives. “Russian state voices echoed the Chinese argument of hypocrisy vis-a-vis Hong Kong. Russian outlets also echoed Iranian narratives, and Chinese officials amplified Russian claims,” Graphika wrote in its report.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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