Do memes matter for the Russia–Ukraine War?

Ilan Manor outlines the advantages and limitations of memes as communications tool in the RussiaUkraine war

Pro Ukrainian protesters gather outside the White House, Washington DC. Photo taken by Yohan Marion on Unsplash and published Febuary 27th 2022.

Within the battle for global popular opinion that is taking place alongside the ongoing Russia–Ukraine war, the importance of social media has been difficult to overstate, with memes in particular playing a central role. In this blogpost I outline how the Ukrainian government has used memes to advance its goals, some of the unique advantages of memes as a political tool, as well as their drawbacks when used in relation to contemporary conflict.

How Ukraine uses memes

Since the beginning of the 2022 Russia–Ukraine war, the Ukrainian government has implemented a host of innovative digital tactics. Ukraine has formed the world’s first international hacker army tasked with conducting cyber-attacks against Russia and has also launched a global crowdfunding campaign collecting donations from digital publics to help finance its military. Most notably, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation has published open letters to tech CEOs on Twitter urging them to exit the Russian market. Many such tweets have gone viral and put public pressure on global tech companies including PayPal, Facebook, Google and Netflix which responded by suspending their activities in Russia.

Additionally, Ukrainian officials have used social media to disseminate memes of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. This approach has also been eagerly embraced by social media users who publish hundreds of Zelenskyy memes every day. Indeed, the use of memes is an especially sophisticated digital tactic as it builds on the sharing culture of social media to disseminate foreign policy messages to large numbers of individuals. A trending meme travels further and faster online then any press statement or well formulated diplomatic tweet.

To date, viral memes have focused on celebrating Zelenskyy’s bravery and refusal to leave Ukraine, while comparing him with other western leaders. One such meme argued that Zelenskyy was a comedian turned inspirational leader, while European leaders have turned into a joke. Other memes compared him to Vladimir Putin, arguing that the former is a ‘hero’ and the latter is ‘loser’. Another popular genre includes images of Zelenskyy in battle fatigues compared to Putin sunbathing shirtless.

Above all, social media is awash with memes that reimagine Zelenskyy as a superhero. One meme shared by Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation depicted Zelenskyy in a Superman outfit. Other memes have placed the Ukrainian President in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One such meme, labels Zelenskyy as ‘Captain Ukraine’.

Memes as a political strategy

Memes are inherently contradictory. On the one hand, for memes to obtain virality they must resonate with large and diverse digital publics. Thus, memes often draw on images and videos that are immediately recognizable to social media users across the globe, for example the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the other hand, given that memes are based on images, they are open to interpretation, as in the case of the Captain Ukraine meme. Some social media users may infer that the democratic world needs more leaders like Zelenskyy. Others may deduce that Ukraine is fighting an archvillain and that there is little difference between Russia’s Putin and Marvel’s Thanos. Finally, American social media users may assume that Ukraine resembles America in terms of its dreams and aspirations. So, while the analogy between Captain America and Captain Ukraine is clear to many, the actual meaning can vary greatly. This duality only contributes to memes virality as diverse audiences are willing to share the same meme online.

From a diplomatic perspective, memes matter for three reasons. First, they can help shape a leader’s global image. This is important as a leader’s image can impact how the nation they represent is perceived. Indeed, Zelenskyy’s bravery is now synonymous with Ukrainian bravery. Second, memes’ ability to go viral can help states retain the focus of digital publics over longer political timeframes. Ukraine memes ensure that digital publics remain focused on the war. Finally, memes can harm the image of an adversary. During the Russia–Ukraine War, viral memes tend to contrast Ukrainian bravery with Russian violence.

A note of caution

This said, memes as a diplomatic tool have disadvantages that warrant attention. First, memes may trivialize wars, as social media users focus on creating viral memes and not the human pain and suffering caused by war. Second, memes might impact the actual progression of a war. If viral memes come to seriously harm Putin’s global image as a ‘strongman’, he may seek to reaffirm his image by escalating the war. This is an especially concerning possibility given that autocrats pay close attention to their image both at home and abroad.

Finally, memes can simplify how their audiences understand complex processes. Geopolitical crises involving many actors and resulting in numerous interrelated outcomes are reduced to simple battles between superheroes and supervillains. This tendency towards simplification is dangerous as it rests on the same foundations as populism. Like populist rhetoric, memes are simplistic, rest on clichés and promise simple yet unrealistic solutions to complex problems. When these simple solutions fail to materialize, individuals come to view leaders and diplomatic institutions as ineffective. Memes thus help drive global frustration with the international system and can hinder the abilities of governments to govern a global world.

Conclusion

Memes are a double-edged sword as they both advance diplomatic goals and erode trust in diplomacy as an institution. Indeed, while they have been relatively successful as a component of the Ukrainian government’s approach to winning over the global public, they remain an inherently limited tool for driving public engagement, especially in the context of what looks likely to be an increasingly protracted conflict.

Ilan Manor is a Digital Diplomacy Scholar at the University of Tel Aviv and a member of Oxford University’s Digital Diplomacy Research Group.

His recent article written with Corneliu Bjola, The rise of hybrid diplomacy: from digital adaptation to digital adoption’ was published in the March 2022 issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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