Reckoning with the war meme in wartime


Russia Starts Large-Scale Attack On Ukraine
People look at the exterior of a damaged residential building hit by an early morning missile strike on February 25, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. | Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Is it ever okay to meme at a war?

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on Wednesday night, so did the livetweets. And then came the inexorable social media cycle: the war memes, the backlash to the war memes, the backlash to the backlash to the war memes, and more war memes.

The memes themselves were utterly predictable. There were the World War III memes. The 2022 memes. The geopolitical memes. The draft memes. The Wordle memes. The accidental memes. The memes referencing other memes. The memes about memeing. You know the score. We’ve been here before.

But unlike previous instances when “WWIII” memes took over the internet, this round of social media discourse has been tinged with grim reality. This is no abstract threat. War is already occurring, and that leads the act of meme-making in a time of crisis to feel much, much different.

For starters, most major social media platforms have become increasingly political in recent years, as various political crises have engulfed communities from Instagram to TikTok to fandom Twitter. The days when you could self-isolate from the political conversations around you simply by retreating to your preferred social media haven are long gone. While it’s natural for many people to continue treating those hubs as their personal space to post whatever they want, they’re likely to get an increased amount of backlash from others on the platform for performing their social activity as though it’s business as usual.

This lack of distance also leads to deeply paradoxical reckonings with what it means to meme through a war. Take Ukraine’s official Twitter account, which has spent the previous months sharing darkly humorous memes about its political plight, even engaging in something like political shitposting — only to pivot following the invasion and use a very meme-like political cartoon of Hitler and Putin to remind us… not to meme-ify the invasion.

Ukraine’s confusingly contradictory approach prompted a whole side discussion about political cartoons, and whether mistaking them for memes is somehow devaluing them, revealing your ignorance of history and the important sociopolitical commentary they provide. It would be equally ignorant to assume that memes don’t also provide important sociopolitical commentary — but the Twitter discourse machine hasn’t been kind to Ukraine memes, and plenty of other social media users have been less nuanced about what they see as the bad taste behind meme-making in the moment.

One widespread sentiment that emerged in the hours after the invasion began is that so-called “gallows humor” only works if you’re the person facing the gallows; otherwise, it’s just callous. But despite the widespread backlash to the war memes as they proliferated across social media, coping with a crisis through humor is an entirely expected form of human response.

It doesn’t take a huge feat of empathy, after all, to recognize that even though you may not be the person impacted by a crisis today, you could be impacted by it or a similar crisis later on. And it’s human to crack jokes as a way of relieving some of your very real anxiety.

In a 2020 phone interview, Saleem Alhabash, who studies memes and social media at Michigan State University’s media psychology department, told me memes are as valid a response as any other to overwhelming events beyond our control. “These memes, the way that people are communicating, could be a reflection of the general feeling that people are having,” he said. “This uncertainty about what is going to happen, and how severe this trend is. So while they might appear humorous or [dismissive] of the seriousness, they can reflect [public] sentiment.”

But the meme discourse quickly forestalled the obvious defense that humor is a coping strategy, with many noting that the people using “humor” to “cope” are the people (Americans) safely ensconced in their (privileged suburban) homes, far away from the danger.

There is definitely an element of privilege and safety behind the impulse to meme instead of staying glued to the news. Part of the meme response is about “not realizing what war really is and what it means,” Alhabash said. “So, dealing with it in a laissez-faire kind of way.”

Alhabash’s research indicates that people who share memes often aren’t thinking too deeply about what to post or share, and are “driven to make content based on what we think other people want to see on social media.” This can be a very knee-jerk experience, which doesn’t really lend itself to reflective war memes.

“We seriously need to have a conversation,” one Twitter user wrote in a viral tweet that has since been locked, “about how the overwhelming prevalence of meme culture has made people insensitive to serious tragedies and only see them as an opportunity to make a joke rather than for the reality of the situation and those in it.”

But the memes are also serving an important function for the meme-makers. On a very basic level, they’re connecting to the moment by trying to insert themselves into it. That’s because, by making a meme, as Alhabash said, “You become part of the narrative and it becomes part of you.”

What’s more, as the memes and their narratives travel and spread, they help shape the larger cultural narrative about the Ukrainian invasion itself — just as all memes, from toxic to wholesome, help create cultural narratives. <this graf is repeated from above, does it belong here or there?

“Things just unfold and keep on unfolding. And then [the topic] becomes so dynamic that there’s no way to pinpoint what is the cause of someone thinking in a particular way about the world,” Alhabash said. “Because, after all, they’re part of making that narrative and influencing how it evolves over time.”

The basic idea here, as Alhabash pointed out, is that the war meme itself isn’t just about war. It’s about the larger cultural mood and the ways in which we receive, express, and amplify that mood. In the past, the memes might have functioned as a kind of canary in the coal mine for a larger social media response to future emergent political situations.

Now that Ukraine has become a real theater of war, the memes might be serving as a form of real-time popcorn gallery. If that creates a desensitized, distanced approach to the conflict itself, recall that this wouldn’t be the first time some form of media was accused of turning war into a dehumanizing spectacle; similar criticisms attached to the “made-for-TV war” of Operation Desert Storm during the first Gulf War, while nonstop images of 9/11 joined with the concept of military “shock and awe” to heavily manipulate support for the US invasion of Iraq.

The sober, polarized reactions to the memes likewise forms part of the cultural response to the invasion. Laughter or horror at a war meme are both reflections of unease about a turbulent moment; their coexistence reflects both larger societal polarization and some of that turbulence itself. After all, if laughter gets read as a mark of desensitization, displaying too much empathy can be viewed as narcissism. Is the only acceptable response, if you’re an at-home viewer, just to sit and be sad?

Well, yes and no. There’s no single satisfactory response to a war. It’s okay to feel how you feel, however messy or improper your feelings are — and that’s always been true. What’s new, this time, is that the Ukrainian invasion is unfolding in the context of the modern internet. Social media gamifies public discourse, dividing conversations into winners and losers in a way that’s simply impossible to reconcile with the myriad emotions that accompany the possibility of an actual global military conflict.

In this context, memes inevitably feel like a dismissive, reductive approach to an overwhelming moment — but so do tweets, TikToks, Insta posts, and every other impossibly compact digital manifestation of such deep and complicated emotions. Your nervous laughter, your hair-trigger temper, your stress tears, your exhaustion, your gallows humor, and your sheer terror all get condensed and repackaged into something that can easily be ripped apart online by a thousand other people whose contradictory emotions are all getting ripped apart, too. That reality of being online is not going to be easily changed, especially in a moment like this.

But sitting and being quietly sad isn’t the worst idea when something terrible is happening. Periods of silence, reflection, and meditation allow us space to process huge news like this, and shift our focus away from the intensity of in-the-moment emotions toward larger questions: What are we prepared to do to help? How should this change us? What conversations should we be having right now, and who should we be having them with? And, too, the act of being sad brings us closer to those who are suffering, even when we are across the globe. So if your response is less like laughter and more like grief, know you’re not alone.