The Power of Memes: Analyzing War-Time Messaging

The Russia-Ukraine war has witnessed the emergence of new social media practices. The Ukrainian government, for one, has been using social media to crowdfund its armed forces and create an IT army charged with cyber-attacks against Russia. Yet the war has also seen the growing use of memes. Ukrainian diplomats and government ministries have published a host of memes depicting the bravery of Ukrainian soldiers or celebrating the leadership of President Zelenskyy.

Memes may be regarded as especially sophisticated rhetorical devices. Memes can deliver complex messages in a very concise form. Moreover, memes complement the internet’s sharing culture as messages may travel far and wide reaching diverse audiences. For memes to be successful, however, they must hold meaning to social media users with diverse backgrounds. For this reason, memes often incorporate popular culture be it films, tv shows or books. Finally, although memes hold shared meaning, they are still open to interpretation which only contributes to their popularity. The same meme can hold one meaning for people living in Western Europe and another for people living in ex-soviet states.

Recently, I evaluated how official Ukrainian social media channels incorporate memes into their war-time messaging. This week I decided to evaluate war-related memes shared by a private account called “Ukrainian Memes Forces”.  Launched in February 2022, the same month in which Russia invaded Ukraine the account’s stated goal is to be the “Source of the best Ukrainian memes”. The account has amassed an impressive following of 250,000 followers. Importantly, the account is followed by academics, journalists from leading publications, diplomats from a host of countries, communications advisers to world leaders and social media managers at multilateral institutions. The account’s memes may thus reach global elites, find their way into the mainstream press and serve as an example of how to incorporate memes into strategic communications. Indeed, the history of digital diplomacy shows that states and diplomats often mimic the behaviors they witness on social media.

For this post, I analyzed memes published by the Ukrainian Memes Forces. The name of the account speaks to its ultimate goal- to weaponize memes and use memes to shape how social media users make sense of the War in Ukraine. A review of 100 tweets published between June and August demonstrates their appeal. The average meme obtained 14,000 Likes, 2,000 Re-tweets and 91 comments. As was expected, many of the memes published by the account incorporated elements from popular culture including movies (Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Spiderman), TV shows (the Office, the Simpsons, Game of Thrones, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and books (1984). These can be seen below.

However, while some memes include humor, others were highly critical of the international community and human rights organization. Likewise, while some memes included very little text, others were long consisting of entire paragraphs. Finally, while some memes corresponded with current events, such as a meeting between world leaders, others dealt with history and especially with the history of the Soviet Union, as can be seen below.

I thus sought to identify which memes attracted the largest number of comments, and which attracted the largest number of Re-Tweets. Comments are an important indicator as they suggest  that a meme’s message was so poignant that social media users stopped skimming their feed and took time to respond to a message. Re-Tweets indicate how far a meme can travel, and can help identify which memes traverse national borders and speak to diverse publics.

Of the 23 memes to elicit the most comments, ranging from 100 to 600 comments, 16 were humorous in nature. Sometimes the humor was quite rudimentary as is the case with the meme below.    

Yet in other cases, memes employed humor as a sophisticated rhetorical device. Such is the case with the tweet below that lists favorite fantasy books one of them being “A history of Russia”. The meme suggests that Russian historical narratives, used by Russian propaganda to suggest that Ukraine was always Russian or that there has never been a Ukrainian state, are as fanciful as the Lord of the Rings. The meme thus negates Russian propaganda without repeating Russian propaganda. Moreover, the meme invokes popular culture through books that would be familiar to diverse audiences such as “A Game of Thrones”. Finally, the meme suggests that as is the case with every fantasy saga, the Ukraine-Russia war is an epic struggle between good and evil and between heroes and arch-villains.

Another sophisticated meme, shown below, mocked Russia’s evolution. The meme is sophisticated as it contrasts Russia with “the West”; it makes use of an image familiar to many social media users and it suggests that Russia is regressing rather than evolving. The meme may thus assert that Russia has fallen back to its base instincts of using force to conquer foreign lands. Moreover, unlike Americans and Europeans that are “armed” with smartphones, Russia is armed with automatic weapons. The meme thus creates a moral contrast between Russia and other countries while subtly associating Ukraine with “the West”.

Another meme uses a simple rhetorical device to elicit humor- the image of a Russian soldier plundering goods during a War. The meme suggests that three generations of Russian soldiers have plundered their way through wars and that plundering is a Russian military tradition. Here, humor is used to summon the past to the present. This meme might help social media users make sense of the current War arguing that it is but one more invasion in a long history of Russian invasions. There is also a moral statement here suggesting that Russian armed forces are actually brigands who plunder their way through history. This meme also deals with Russia’s Soviet past suggesting that Russia either wishes to re-establish the Soviet Union or that Russia is a mediocre modern incarnation of the Soviet Union. This meme would be most relevant to social media users in ex-Soviet states.

Of the 13 tweets to obtain the highest number of Re-Tweets, ranging from 2,000 to 15,000, many included macabre messages such as the meme below depicting Russia as the grim reaper. Wherever Russia goes, death follows, be it Georgia, Russia or Ukraine in 2014. Yet the ripper is killed when it tries to invade Ukraine in 2022. Here again one finds a single meme can include several messages. First, that all Russian interventions bring death and suffering. Second, that Russia is the world’s grim reaper. Third, that unlike 2014, in 2022 Ukraine will stop the reaper, meaning that Ukraine is no longer the weak state whose land was so easily annexed by Russia. Finally, the meme resonates with Ukraine’s claim to bravery as its soldiers remain resolute even when fighting death itself.   

Notably, many of the most Re-Tweeted memes relied on popular culture and included very brief messages. Memes that gained the lowest numbers of comments and Re-Tweets were those that included lengthy messages, failed to employ humor or did not incorporate familiar elements from shared or popular culture.

It should be noted that memes may be an especially potent form of social media messaging as humor is a gateway to influence. When people laugh they are unlikely to think of counter arguments or question the message they have received. Moreover, humor suppresses cognitive functions meaning that people are more susceptible to influence and suggestion.  Memes are likely to play an increasingly prominent role in digital diplomacy. The weaponization of memes, already practiced by the Ukrainian government,  is just one more example of how the norms, values and practices of the digital society shape the activities of diplomats, MFAs and states.

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