By: Tessa Cuppens
Picture credits: screenshot of Ukrainian government Twitter account
When Putin invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the Ukrainian government posted a meme on Twitter with the caption: “This is not a ‘meme’, but our and your reality right now.” The Western world seems to have chosen the approach of online activism to supplement its boots-on-the ground response to the invasion. More specifically, flooding social media platforms with pictures villainising Putin has created a new genre of Internet culture: the meme war.
Memes did not emerge with the introduction of the Internet. In 1976, the first person to coin the term “meme” was Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist. He suggested that memes were catchphrases or bits of information that leap from brain to brain through imitation, expediting their transmission. Today, Patrick Davison, a media historian examining contemporary social media, describes an Internet meme as “a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmission”. On the surface, Internet memes can be seen as a source of light entertainment, but memes can also have serious implications. Their distribution and reception within society can make them a powerful tool for social and even political influence. For example, memes can undermine a government and shift the course of an election. Moreover, Joshua Nieubuurt, a researcher in misinformation and disinformation, regards memes as a modern digital equivalent of the propaganda leaflet. With a particular focus on memes which have been used to support or undermine arguments for Covid-19 restrictions and vaccinations, Nieubuurt investigates how humour and sarcasm are used to delegitimise stances of people on either side of a debate. So, if weaponsided correctly, memes can have an effect on the narrative of a conflict understood by the public. Some of these effects of the weaponisation of memes can be seen in the ongoing Russo-Ukraine conflict.
Social media and a war
Just as television defined the Vietnam War, the Internet is defining what we know, see, and remember about the Russo-Ukraine conflict. The conflict has been inescapable on social media, with TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram propelling scenes of horror and destruction onto our feeds. Nowadays, millions of people of all ages and nationalities can spread and view many different memes and content about wars and politics using social media. Hence, in recent years we have witnessed the politicisation of major social media platforms, as various political crises have engulfed communities across social media. The days when you could distance yourself from political conversations by simply retreating to your preferred social media platform are long gone. This is the same for the Russo-Ukraine war as social media is increasingly flooded with content about the conflict.
Social media content, such as memes, has become one of the guiding principles in the way we interpret not only the world around us, but also our political realities. Therefore, social media has become a mechanism to control narratives about certain topics, such as that of a conflict. This power to control narratives is understood by different parties and therefore used by varying actors during conflicts. Anastasia Denisova, author of the book ‘Internet Memes and Society’, explores how memes provided a powerful form of alternative discourse outside of the “restricted Russian media ecology” during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Fast forward to today, and the involvement of a wide range of actors like governments, journalists, and also citizens has made the relationship between a conflict and the media environment more complicated. It is no longer a top-down controlled environment in which governments are able to command the flow of information. Instead, it has become an environment in which all actors are clicking, swiping, liking, and sharing various hubs of data and information such as messages, images, memes, and videos. Ultimately, this has the potential to blur the distinction between who is a civilian and who is a combatant.
War participation and memes
Many more actors are now competing within the media environment than ever before. Pitted against one another, they strive to dominate the production and distribution of information and news about conflicts in order to control the narrative. Through the struggle for monopolisation, the public’s perception has become a battlefield in itself. That is why Tom Dobber, a researcher of political communication at the University of Amsterdam, expects that the public’s involvement in the Russo-Ukraine conflict will fade less quickly compared to previous conflicts. For him, the weaponisation of memes is one of the many ways in which people have drastically changed from purely passive news consumers to more active participants in this conflict as they reproduce cycles of memes. John Spencer, head of urban warfare studies at the US Military Academy’s Modern War Institute, believes this reflects a new kind of warfare, one where people are no longer confined by the physical battlefield because they are already involved through the online battlefield.
For instance, in 2015 the Ukrainian Information Ministry created an ‘I-army’ website that offered citizens the opportunity to join a network of volunteers that performed different types of content-related tasks. A statement from their website highlights the Ministry’s high valuation of these new forms of online participation: “Every Ukrainian who has access to the Internet can contribute to the struggle. Every message is a bullet to the enemy’s mind.”
Ukraine and the use of memes
The use of social media to control narratives is also reflected in the practice of Ukrainians and their supporters. Using social media to belittle and humiliate the Russians, many Ukrainians seek to boost the spirit of their fellow compatriots and undermine the morale of the invaders during one of the most Internet-accessible wars in history. The instrumentalisation of social media has opened up a new dimension of modern warfare, a reality that is increasingly understood by the Ukrainian government. Many of the memes and videos on the Ukrainian government’s official social media channels are from the Ukraine Crisis Media Center (UCMC), which uses popular visual culture to reach the public. This popular visual language evokes a rapid emotional involvement from the audience, which also multiplies itself at lightning speed.
This form of active participation in the conflict has led many to feel that they can contribute to the fight and has resulted in initiatives from the online community, such as the increasingly important North Atlantic Fellas Organization (NAFO). A play on the words of the international security alliance the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it is an online social media movement that is dedicated to countering Russian propaganda and disinformation. In addition to promoting Ukraine by posting memes, the movement also raises funds for the Ukrainian military and other pro-Ukrainian causes. Several foreign army leaders and politicians, such as former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, have declared themselves ‘members’ of NAFO, thus demonstrating international solidarity for the campaign. The Ukrainian defence minister has also recently joined this parody of NATO and tweeted: “NAFO expansion is non-negotiable”. Jamie Cohen, an Internet culture expert at the City University of New York, called the movement a tactical event against a nation-state through the weaponisation of memes.
Not everybody is positive about this emerging form of war participation and the outbreak of memes on the Internet since the invasion. For Stephanie McNeal, a BuzzFeed News Reporter, it appears that “since the conflict broke out, people have been posting some of the most cringe-worthy, inappropriate, strange, or hilariously out-of-touch content that I have maybe ever observed.” However, Saleen Alhabash, who studies memes and social media at Michigan State University’s media psychology department, counters this sentiment as he describes memes as valid a response as any other to overwhelming events beyond our control. For Allabash, memes are a medium through which people communicate. Thus, while these memes might appear humorous or dismissive of the seriousness at first glance, they can actually reflect a deeper public sentiment.
‘Memeifying’ the conflict also helps to simplify what is an already complicated situation into something more understandable and accessible. But as Steven Buckley, political communication and social media researcher at the University of West England, states, memes currently dominating social media platforms can oversimplify a very complicated geopolitical conflict. This of course holds its own set of implications. Essentially, memes can remove any nuance from a deeply complex and constantly evolving situation. These overly simple narratives can consequently harm the public’s wider understanding of the issue at hand, and hence damage efforts to seek solutions to the problems caused by the invasion. Against the backdrop of this two-faced dilemma, Bakari Sellers, an American political commentator with a large Twitter platform, stated the following: “Some of y’all went from COVID experts to foreign policy experts on Twitter in a week.”
To conclude, during the Russo-Ukraine conflict, Ukrainians have been using social media to control narratives about the conflict and to garner support for their cause. This is then amplified by the practice of their national leaders broadcasting these memes themselves in the spirit of the people and the fight. In effect, this use of social media has transformed passive news consumption into active participation in wartime, a new form of war engagement. So, the ongoing physical battle has also expanded itself to online spaces.
While I have focused on the Russo-Ukraine conflict, it is just one example of the wider emergence of the weaponisation of memes. For instance, in 2018, the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. answered Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Twitter with a Mean Girls meme. This kind of usage of memes could turn conflicts into something resemblant to a Marvel film, with clear-cut heroes, villains, winners, and losers. This simplistic meme rhetoric rests on clichés, and this tendency towards simplification is dangerous because it could harm how individuals view the effectiveness of leaders and diplomatic institutions.
What happens on social media has become important to the outcome of any debate, or even war. The weaponisation of memes is constantly evolving, and its future remains unpredictable. However, memes are just one tenet of what can be weaponised on social media, and social media companies have been unprepared for the ways in which their platforms can be used. Social media has only just begun to shape the future of war, and memes may become more important than we could have ever imagined. Ultimately, more attention needs to be paid to these kinds of new war participation and to possible frameworks concerning the weaponisation of social media platforms.