Ranked: Twitter Wars That Came a Little Too Close to Real Wars

When Twitter fingers could be trigger fingers

A journalist records a video from screen as Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate with U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University.
Carlos Barria / Reuters

A fun new feature of 2017 is that Twitter is getting a lot more dangerous. With Donald Trump leading the charge, individuals who control actual armies have started shooting from the hip on social media. We are yet to see a real war come out of a Twitter war, but at the rate we’re going, it won’t be long. Here are five instances in which politicians ratcheted up global tensions in 140 characters or less.

5. Iran menaces Obama. In 2015, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted an image of a man resembling Barack Obama holding a gun to his head: “We welcome no war, nor do we initiate any war, but...” The threat falls into the category of calculated menace: aggressive, to be sure, but given the intense focus by all sides on the state of U.S.-Iran relations, it would be hard for words to spill over into large-scale actions. At least, it’s been hard under the Obama administration. 2017 may be different.

4. Greece snaps at Turkey. In the midst of a diplomatic uproar after Turkey shot down a Russian plane flying missions in Syria, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras—or someone with access to his Twitter account—decided to escalate matters further. In a series of soon-deleted tweets, Tspiras alluded to shooting down Turkish planes that violated Greek airspace: “Fortunately our pilots are not as mercurial as yours.” The Turkish leader, apparently having enough on his hands with the Russians, all but rolled his eyes and urged a focus on the positive agenda. The path from tweet to war is a long one in this case, but when your neighbor is actively shooting down airplanes, it might be wise not to stick up your hand and say, “Me, too!”

3. Turkey-Iraq erupts. Tensions spiked last fall when Baghdad started to vigorously protest the presence of uninvited Turkish troops in northern Iraq. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in characteristically undiplomatic style, chose to respond by insulting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, insisting that the Iraqi is “not on my level.” Abadi responded on Twitter: “we sure are not your equal, because we liberate our land with men not via Skype.” That low blow referred to the video call Erdogan made at the height of last summer’s coup attempt against him, when he was trying to rally his supporters. Compared to U.S.-Iran relations, the danger is more real here, as Turkey-Iraq tensions could more easily escalate. Though the dispute remains unresolved, the two have opted to take their arguments offline and have since spoken by phone.

2. Pakistan threatens Israel. Late last month, Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, apparently read a fake news story alleging that Israel would nuke Pakistan if Islamabad sent troops into Syria. Ignoring the absurdity of the premise, Asif took to Twitter to warn his Israeli counterpart: “Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too.” The Israelis wrote back attempting to de-escalate, and Asif ultimately thought better of it and deleted his tweet. But the danger in this type of incident is particularly acute: Unlike Khamenei’s calculated aggression, in the Pakistani case, someone in power reacted online without thinking. That’s how accidental escalation happens.

1. Trump goes nuclear. 2017 is shaping up to be a year of resurgent nuclear politics. Exhibit A is this recent Trump tweet: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Though Trump’s precise meaning is in dispute—arguably, he could be referring to modernizing the nuclear arsenal—political scientists will tell you it doesn’t matter. If states with nuclear weapons, and those that aspire to join the club, perceive that an arms race is likely, they have incentives to join the race so to avoid being left behind. Plus, the president-elect’s words alone force the U.S. national security community to focus on nuclear weapons. Is it too late to suggest that we #nevertweet?

This article has been adapted from Matt Peterson’s weekly newsletter for Eurasia Group, Signal.