You’ve seen them: the one where the Wordle is “peace. ” The Harry Potter jokes about Putin. That John Cena tweet about his show Peacemaker. As Russian forces began their invasion of Ukraine last week, our news feeds began to show us — in addition to plenty of misinformation, legit harrowing footage from on-the-ground war reporters, and whatever this is — memes about World War III.
Others I’ve seen in the past few days include dozens of memes about drafted Americans doing silly things on foreign soil. The official Ukraine Twitter account posted a literal meme. Tweets about surviving a (still ongoing) pandemic only to be “rewarded” with war. It’s been a choir or responses. And they feel inescapable. They’re on every social-media platform, and everyone — from celebrities to the very online — feels compelled to chime in through retweets, reshares, screenshots, and attempted dunks.
This kind of online behavior treats memes as social currency — things to post to get attention, to fit in, or to make public statements about who we are. In a way, it makes sense. Memes are woven into our language and culture, and they’re ridiculously good at packaging information and projecting it across the internet at uncanny speeds.
We also share memes as shorthand for things we feel we don’t have the right words to express. Like, say, anxiety over escalating imperial aggression. Just reposting a meme about current events says “I read the news, I’m a good person, but I don’t know what to say or do, LOL.” The problem with this offering is it’s three I statements in a row. In this particular case, it doesn’t seem to facilitate connection and learning let alone make any tangible impact. Instead, it’s flooding our feeds with half-baked thoughts and needy “Look at me!” performances that make demands on our attention and create so much noise (perhaps an accurate externalization of what’s going on in some minds).
Consider the history of these particular memes. They are not, if you can believe it, the first World War III memes to go viral. In January 2020, “#ww3” memes followed then-President Trump’s admission that he’d ordered the assassination of a high-ranking Iranian official. The memes jumped to the WWIII conclusion because those are, historically, the kind of assassinations that prompt world wars (remember Archduke Ferdinand from history class?). It was mostly a meme about Trump, about his political bravado and cartoonish antics. It was Americans under Trump making memes about Trump’s America, an unsafe reality we were actively navigating — or trying to, at least. That March, we dipped our toes into coronavirus memes as we adjusted for the change and began to cope with the losses. Meme culture under the Trump administration was definitely dark and maybe even self-indulgent and fatalistic.
But this round of WWIII memes feels different.
As a meme librarian who’s worked for Instagram and Tumblr, Amanda Brennan’s job is to decipher the mass of popular memes for whatever sense, story, or meaning she can make of them: “Seeing some of these memes feels so haunting because it feels more like the gravity of the uprisings is different than the fake WWIII memes that trended throughout 2020.” The war we theorized about 2020 did not exactly materialize; the one in these recent memes, in a way, has. Brennan noticed that this time the people making and sharing these viral memes are not the people at the center of the conflict. “While it does feel large and overwhelming, as an elder millennial, I just feel at a loss to do anything let alone process through memes.”
Vlasta Pilot is a Los Angeles–based artist and TikTok creator. I follow her TikTok for her pickle reviews. She was born in Russia (where she still has family) and is in regular contact with friends in Russia and Ukraine. She attributes the weirdness of these WWIII memes to the abstract ways their creators are talking about war: “I have a hard time empathizing with the whole ‘Millennials are tired of living through historical events’ narrative when most people are not, in fact, living through it but watching it happen to others from the safety of their couch.”
Between her Russian and Ukrainian friends, she admits that memes have been passed around “to share a smirk,” but overall they don’t “give us any hope or relief at the moment.” Memes prove limited in their ability to help people cope in situations like these. “There’s a specific type of content that, as much as I try to avoid it, always finds its way on to my FYP,” Pilot tells me. “It’s the short viral videos about ‘Vlady Zaddy Putin,’ Ukraine being in Pluto return, or Jeff Bezos coming to save everyone by buying Russia.”
“Making memes,” Pilot points out, “requires a certain level of detachment.” How else could you turn actual people and events — and, in this case, human suffering — into content? Here, we see how memes can separate content from its reality, which in this case is literal war (amid the threat of nuclear war) and the senseless slaughter of actual people.
It would be easy to cast all blame upon the form of the meme, to decide that memefication is a process that inherently corrupts good discourse and only serves as a vector to misinformation.
But a meme is what you make of it.
Take, for instance, @blackpowerbottomtext, run by organizer Nicolás Esquis. This account was once exclusively a meme page (now it hosts a mix of posts), its politics leaning heavily left. Last week, Esquis shared a meme about the liberal tendency to turn complex issues into aesthetic social-justice slideshows. On the grid, it shared this meme with nesting captions (each complicating the previous one) demonstrating that just because something is complex and layered doesn’t mean it’s beyond our comprehension — that it actually makes more sense when we make room for critical thinking. This popular tweet about CNN running ads for Applebee’s in between footage of air raids over Ukraine is basically a multimedia political cartoon about commercial journalism. Whether you agree with the politics of this content or not, these memes prove it’s entirely possible for memes to facilitate nuanced conversations.
Given their ubiquity, memes will likely inform many on what’s going on in Ukraine and serve as a point of entry for people who might not otherwise be aware of the issue. But the memes that are going viral on mainstream Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram can’t be defended as information. And saying they’re helping people “cope” feels like a cop-out.