After the news broke the first week of January that President Trump had ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, one of the most rapid reactions to emerge amid the surprise and confusion was the memes.
Jokes about the possible fallout of Soleimani’s death were instantly everywhere. They especially proliferated on TikTok and Twitter, where hashtags like #WW3 drove major trends for several days. A member of the subreddit r/ww3memes, created over two years ago, announced on January 3, “It’s time for this sub to rise.” It’s currently got over 43,000 subscribers.
You might think this type of reaction is juvenile or dismissive, but it’s really just human. Memes frequently operate as exemplars of larger trends, as well as stand-ins for cultural anxieties and ways to express and alleviate fears or other emotions through humor. The collectivism of memes, too, is a crucial part of their popularity, because their rapid and visible spread helps us all figure out how we’re feeling about some news trend or other issue.
So what were the memes telling us, if anything, about how teenage meme makers are perceiving the Iranian conflict and the larger, more abstract idea of a third World War?
Surprisingly, many of them seem to demonstrate far less fear than you might expect. In fact, the overall tone of the memes boiled down to a kind of cheerful ambivalence about the prospect of war.
There are definite gaps in the tone and subject of the memes from platform to platform. And they may already be part of a larger tonal shift away from the wholesome meme toward something a bit more suited to an era of apocalypse: a determination to party through the hard times to come.
The vast majority of memes expressed anxiety over the draft
After the news broke of Soleimani’s assassination on January 2, memes about the turn of events exploded across Twitter, TikTok, and other social media platforms. The memes proliferated ideas about the prospect of World War III; about Iran and its culture; and about the hilarity and absurdity of sending a modern generation of teens and young adults off to war.
Despite having some universal themes across platforms, most memes about the war looked and felt much, much different from platform to platform. But the vast majority of them joked about people getting drafted to fight the war.
the US: we are considering adding women to the draft
me: call me old fashioned but yes, i was raised to serve my husband. cook for him. do the laundry. wake up at the crack of dawn to make him breakfast, prepare his clothes and clean the house.
— queen quen (@quenblackwell) January 3, 2020
The American government eliminated the draft in 1973, but that didn’t matter to the meme makers — which makes sense, because fears about the draft being reinstated have always circulated among teens and young adults. In 2016, a false claim that Trump wanted to bring back the draft circulated around the internet as a part of the larger cultural anxiety over his campaign.
As it often does, Black Twitter was the first community to drive this meme. That also makes sense, given that a recurrent fear of the draft has been especially prevalent in black culture since the Vietnam War, when black men were disproportionately affected by the draft.
In other words, despite fears of a possible draft temporarily crashing the Selective Service website, the meme makers probably weren’t proliferating the idea that the draft still exists out of ignorance, but out of a sense of anxiety about the country fighting another war.
That ironic sense of merriment was a crucial component in all the memes. One thing that immediately struck me about the World War III memes on both Twitter and TikTok was how lighthearted their tone was despite the seriousness of the subject matter.
What was that about?
Meanwhile, the other predominant emotion was … glee?
Again and again, the predominant theme associated with the World War III memes was the idea of Gen Z’s general unpreparedness to fight in a war of any kind.
This humorous anxiety took the form of jokes framing normal millennials and Gen Z-ers showing up to the war just to party, or approaching it like a typical game of Fortnite or Call of Duty:
There’s another recurring theme that accompanies all this comedic haplessness in the face of an impending global crisis. On TikTok especially, there’s a subset of memes that seem to relish the excitement and pure adrenaline of going to war.
It’s rare to see any TikToks of the meme that say something serious about the war — they do exist, but they’re far outnumbered by attempts to represent WWIII as a party.
As CNN’s Fernando Alfonso III pointed out, World War III memes have been a thing on the internet for a while, particularly as conflict escalated between Trump and North Korea in 2017. And as the Atlantic’s Ian Bogost pointed out, the idea of World War III itself has been a looming specter since the Cold War, along with its threat of impending nuclear disaster.
The apocryphal nature of the next “world war” might help explain why so many of the memes are ambivalent about whether the war itself would be a good or bad thing for the country. But there’s probably a simpler reason behind the ambivalence: When we make these jokes, we’re not thinking too deeply about what they all mean.
The memes are helping to shape a narrative about the war — and it’s not always a great look
“They’re not very exciting to look at, to tell you frankly,” Dr. Saleem Alhabash told me in a phone interview when I asked him if he’d seen the World War III memes. Alhabash, a professor at Michigan State University’s media psychology department, studies social media and the way people use memes as intercultural communication. Part of the meme response is about “glorifying the war for sure,” he told me, “but also not realizing what war really is and what it means. So dealing with it in a laissez-faire kind of way.”
Alhabash’s research shows that whenever social media users participate online, often people aren’t thinking too deeply about what to post or share.
“None of us would see something online and look at it for five, 10, or 20 or 30 minutes and discuss what the ramifications are of posting this or not,” he explained.
We’re also driven to make content based on what we think other people want to see on social media — which might explain why memes themselves get reified so easily: They show us what we think people want to see, so we make more of them. Alhabash’s point, however, is that this can be a very knee-jerk experience, which doesn’t really lend itself to reflective war memes.
“There’s also an issue of jumping on the wagon — the feeling that I have to be part of the conversation, I have to remain relevant on social media and be part of the general discussion — at times without really understanding the issue in depth,” he said.
To Alhabash, the non-linear nature of memes in spaces like TikTok has a huge role to play in shaping public discourse. Think of TikTok as a place where memes aren’t so much purely copied — like a straightforward retweet — as they are shared with additional commentary. Only the share usually involves the next user adding new personal imprints to the original footage, usually either new music to existing footage or new footage to existing music.
“There’s a certain level of originality [on TikTok] and putting yourself within the narrative of that particular team,” Alhabash said. “You become part of the narrative and it becomes part of you.”
So a meme that might start out calling attention to one idea in one way might wind up calling attention to a completely different idea in another way. By the time a meme has been shared numerous times, it might have a completely different meaning in a completely different context.
Take this changing perspective on the dancer in the memes below. In both memes, the main joke is about assimilation into the war. But in the first meme, the meme’s point of view is from the dancer; in the second, it’s from the “kidnapped” men around her.
These are significantly different ways of framing our relationship to Iran and its people, but they’re both equally important examples of how people are thinking about the war. Because as the memes and their narratives travel and spread, they help shape the larger cultural narrative about Iran itself — just as all memes, from toxic to wholesome, help create cultural narratives.
“Things just unfold and keep on unfolding. And then [the topic] becomes so dynamic that there’s no way to pinpoint what is the cause of someone thinking in a particular way about the world in 2020,” Alhabash said. “Because, after all, they’re part of making that narrative and influencing how it evolves over time.”
The memes are really about coping with increasing disaster
Despite Alhabash’s reservations about how effective the WWIII memes were at making salient political points, he pointed out that the anxiety the memes expressed is real. “These memes, the way that people are communicating, could be a reflection of the general feeling that people are having — this uncertainty about what is going to happen, and how severe this trend is. So while they might appear humorous or [dismissive] of the seriousness, they can reflect [public] sentiment.”
The memes seem to follow a recent trend of viral internet humor as a coping mechanism — memes that are more overtly psychological than the usual wholesome meme, and more upfront about the touch of nihilism that drives them. There are two obvious recent references for this self-aware state of mind. The first is the “are you in the right headspace?” meme, which spawned last month as a deeply sarcastic response to a Twitter thread inviting people to ask their friends if they’re “in the right headspace to receive information that can possibly hurt you.” The resulting meme has been frequently used to ironically frame its subjects as overblown drama. World War III? No exception:
me: it’s my birthday, oh boy! gonna get so many presents :3
The U.S., getting ready to draft my friend group: are you in the right headspace to receive information that could possibly hurt you?
— storm (@st0rmcl0uds) January 4, 2020
The second example is the “do what you need to cope” meme, which emerged near the end of 2019 and has been hugely popular into the beginning of 2020. The format usually involves a fictional character and starts with the banal “canceling plans is okay” — only to then rapidly escalate through overdramatic plot points before coming to rest at “do what you need to cope.”
Canceling plans is ok. Being forced to participate in a fight to the death is ok. Having a fake relationship to trick the wealthy into loving you is ok. Becoming the face of the rebellion is ok. Do what you need to cope.
— The Hunger Games (@TheHungerGames) January 7, 2020
There are WWIII variants of this meme as well, though they’re a bit bleaker than the norm.
Cancelling plans is ok. Realising the world is ending is ok. Longer zoomies with apocalypse looming on the horizon is ok. Acting like you’re an expert on Iran all of a sudden, semantic arguments about world wars being imperialistic constructs is ok. Do what you need to do to cope
— Short Left Winger (@CivilSerpentt) January 3, 2020
The basic idea here, as Alhabash points out, is that the World War III meme itself isn’t just about war. It’s about the larger cultural mood and the ways in which we receive, express, and amplify that mood. Alhabash expressed doubts about how self-aware this process was. But for a subset of the meme makers and their audience, the war jokes are helping quell anxiety and keep things lighthearted.
In other words, the making of memes is a form of doing what you need to cope.
It’s worth noting, however, that some situations do seem to be utterly too dark to meme — there are virtually no memes about the Australian bushfires, for example — and that ironically might be cause for hope. If the potential global conflict is something we can joke about, then it might mean that our prevailing emotion is still hope that it won’t happen.
Still, Alhabash cautioned that the memes are a kind of canary in the coal mine for a larger social media response to future emergent political situations.
“In any kind of political tension, whether it is local, regional, national or global, social media is part of the warfare,” he said. “And this is something to look for in any future crisis.”
In other words, keep your eye on the memes — and not just because they might help you figure out how you feel about an increasingly complicated world.