Since the onset of Russia’s War against Ukraine, social media users have authored and disseminated thousands of memes. At times, memes respond to trending news stories. Such was the case with the barrage of memes depicting Ukrainian tractors towing Russian tanks and armored vehicles. Other times memes have been used to try and galvanize international support for Ukraine’s cause. One meme, depicting Queen Elizabeth with a surface-to-air missile, was used to encourage the UK government to better arm Ukraine’s military. The Twitter account “Ukrainian Meme Forces” now boasts more than 200 thousand followers including diplomats, world leaders, foreign ministries and journalists. Many of these have re-tweeted Ukrainian memes, especially those mocking Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Yet perhaps the most memorable memes have focused on Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy. Some memes draw attention to his remarkable leadership calling him a hero and arguing that he deserves a Nobel peace prize. Another genre of memes contrasts Zelenksyy with Putin, arguing that the former is a hero while the latter is a ‘loser’. Finally, some memes have noted that in Ukraine, a comedian has transformed into a leader while in other countries leaders have become a sad joke.
It should be noted that some Zelenskky memes have been authored or disseminated by official Ukrainian social media channels. In these memes, Zelenskyy is transformed into a superhero from the Marvel cinematic universe. In a few memes, Zelenskyy is simply ‘inserted” into Marvel-like scenarios, as can be seen below. In other memes, Zelenskyy is labeled as a superhero such as “Captain Ukraine”, the long lost cousin of Captain America.
Memes authored by diplomats and governments may be regarded as an especially sophisticated digital tactic. On the one hand, memes must resonate with global publics in order to become viral. Thus, memes are often based on global pop culture, or images and references that are recognized at once by publics across the world. Such is the case with the Marvel cinematic universe whose heroes smash box-office records in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. On the other hand, given that memes are based on images they are by nature open to interpretation. As such, different audiences, in different countries, may find different meanings in the same meme.
Consider, for instance, the meme below of Zelenskyy as “Captain Ukraine”. What is the message imbued into this meme? Is it that the West needs bold leaders? Is it that Ukraine is fighting an arch-villain? That Putin is the equivalent of Thanos? Or does the tweet imply that Ukraine is fighting for “Western” values, those norms and ideals lauded by the original Captain America? Or perhaps the meaning is that Ukraine is now fighting for the “America Dream”, the dream that saw a frail boy transform into the powerful First Avenger?
Memes are effective because they are both open and closed to interpretation. Indeed, most Twitter users would recognize the analogy between Captain Ukraine and Captain America. Yet memes are also open to interpretation as different individuals derive different meanings arising from this analogy.
News pundits have even suggested that memetic engagement is a new form of activism as social media users may spend hours creating viral images that comment on the War in Ukraine and those managing it on either side. Yet one must consider the long term ramifications of memetic engagement. That is, one must consider how the creation and circulation of memes by individuals and diplomats will shape diplomacy and warfare in the coming years.
First, it is possible that memes lead to the trivialization of War as social media users do not focus on the pain, suffering and destruction caused by war. Rather, social media users focus on creating viral memes. Over time, the War becomes but a sideshow to the main event- memetic war between opposing social media users. This is an especially worrisome consequence as if wars become trivial, then we may expect additional wars and violent conflicts in the near future.
Second, memes might actually impact the progression of a crisis. Scholars agree that the images of leaders impact the images of nations. Such “Halo Effects” were evident when America’s image suffered globally under the tenure of President George W. Bush and Donald Trump. If viral memes transform Putin into a laughingstock, Putin may decide to bolster his domestic and global image. To do so, Putin would escalate affairs both in Russia and in Ukraine. In other words, online discourse can impact the offline progression of a crisis. This is especially true of dictators who take great care to cultivate a “strong” image.
Finally, an important question is whether memes respond to reality or create reality. Because they tend to go viral, memes can shape how online publics make sense of world events. However, memes simplify complex processes. The War between Ukraine and Russia, for one, is reduced to war between superheroes and supervillains. This tendency towards simplification is dangerous as publics ignore the complexity of geo-political crises whose causes and consequences are complicated and multifaceted. Put differently, memes speak the language of populists such as Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. They are simplistic, rest on clichés and propose simple yet unrealistic solutions to complex events.
There is thus a great cost to this digital tactic and it is incumbent on leaders and diplomats to weigh these costs against those of virality.