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The memeification of the Ukraine War

Can the memeification of global warfare and bloodshed be justified as a coping mechanism?

Memes are everywhere. They have evolved for decades, some now becoming so complex, saturated with a particular inside witticism that only a small demographic of people will even understand them. So, what happens when social media trades traditional fear, diplomacy, and discussion regarding major world events with TikToks and memes?

Unfortunately, this is the current affair of our social media as we know it. Our feeds and timelines are flooded with cringeworthy memes — anything from corporate RyanAir making self-aware TikToks instead of addressing the climate crisis to governments turning to memes to address global tensions.

Notably, it is also filled with young Millenials and Gen Z-ers posting ironic memes, hypothetical situations, and skit videos. A big example would be many women denouncing their feminist ideals so that they can stay at home when the “draft” begins. A problematic take in terms of feminism, and, let’s be honest, an unlikely position for any British or American woman to be in, regardless.

Are dark memes coping mechanisms or are they indicative of a desensitised society?

Many Ukrainians have called out the memeification of their very real ongoing trauma. Their lives have been uprooted. Families destroyed. Homes shattered. They are living in fear and destruction. However, the replies often look a lot like this: “It is a coping mechanism to deal with horrible events”.

This raises two questions: Is this really something that we, as those who are not (yet) directly involved in any conflict to joke about? And, two, is this indeed a coping mechanism?

Studies do suggest that dark humour or memes may be a form of cognitive reappraisal. This refers to a time when a person changes the interpretation of a certain event, perhaps changing the way they view a negative experience or thought. However, there is very little research to suggest that these memes actually improve the mood or, in fact, help us “cope” more.

As for the memes posted by government bodies, it seems to fall hand in hand with the very real neo-liberal, late-capitalist hellscape that we find ourselves in. At their very best they can just be taken as an awkward, cringe-worthy way to boost engagement with younger citizens. At worst, the memeification of international relations could contribute to diplomatic disasters. Is the personal brand and Twitter clout more important than confronting issues? Is it the new norm to escalate a conflict for the sake of retweets?

Our new lexicon and speaking in social media code

It also appears that our language has undergone a memeification. This has become something of a meme in itself. ie when you show a video to your parents and they ask who is in the video.

It would be next to impossible to try to even articulate how young people spend their days scrolling through apps that can legitimately use phrases that would not make sense to somebody out of the social media sphere.

This, however, shouldn’t be used as an excuse to delegitimise the suffering that is currently ongoing in Ukraine. Your jokes about Ukraine are not helpful, nor do they offer an insightful addition to the political or social discourse. Making light of a situation that should be addressed with rage is not productive. It can only really be seen as senseless, bizarre and insensitive.

The sad reality, away from memes and dark humour, is; two capitalist states are in conflict and those who will suffer are the working-class citizens in society. Whether this is by sanctions or immediate military invasion — the oligarchs of both nations will be largely unaffected. If you can craft a meme that thoughtfully presents Lenin’s idea of revolutionary defeatism, maybe the memeification of this global catastrophe could be justified.

Instead of sharing memes or reposting “drafting” TikToks, there are meaningful ways to help those in Ukraine. Here’s the Ukrainian Red Cross.

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