Cat TikToks in cardboard boxes. Affectionate comments on Instagram accounts dedicated to Vladmir Putin, begging him to stop Russia’s attacks on Ukraine. Memes lamenting what it’s like to live during a pandemic and war.
Memes, chats and TikToks are central elements of contemporary internet culture. And sometimes internet culture is all three, using commonly understood patterns in conjunction with cute and silly themes and materials that don’t automatically seem to grapple with the catastrophic consequences of Russia’s attack on the Ukraine.
As a scholar of social media platforms and internet popular culture, I know that images of cute animals, including images of cats, are a defining communication practice online. While cats, memes and TikToks – and sometimes cat memes and cat TikToks – are ways of dealing with and responding to current events, they are also emerging, more recently in the Ukraine war, as a way to deal with toxic, harmful and tragic situations.
Much of the way the public thinks about the internet has been through dichotomies: there’s online, and then there’s offline. There are cute cat videos, and then there is misinformation and harassment. There’s TikTok, and then there’s global politics.
But if Russia’s attacks on the 2016 US election have learned anything, it’s that internet culture is now a global policy, not a separate and distinct domain. There are recent examples of this, such as TikTok live-streaming the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and TikTok users organizing to buy tickets to a rally for the US President of the Republic. era, Donald Trump, for not showing up.
The famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said that the medium is the message, which means that the mode of communication is meaningful as well as the communication itself. And if so, then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reveals that cute cat memes and content aren’t just for fun and entertainment anymore. Today, the cultural practices that underpin Internet culture have become a framework through which to deal with the disaster.
The memes of official Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to understand how to manipulate Internet cultural practices and tactics.
Putin’s Russia knew how to use memes, Facebook groups and other social media platforms to sow discord in 2016 and beyond. In the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election, the Russian Internet Research Agency planted polarizing memes and tweets about police brutality, Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ issues on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
But memes, TikToks and tweets aren’t just used for polarizing purposes. the Ukrainian official Twitter accountrun by the Ukrainian government, used internet culture to communicate Russia’s aggression.
As tensions escalated between Russia and Ukraine in the second half of 2021, Ukraine’s official Twitter account began tweeting about the assault. This often involved the use of memes, two of which are good examples:
In a meme, Ukraine conveys the general message that living next to Russia is a constant source of stress and pain. The meme shows in red the specific location on the head of three common types of headaches: migraines, high blood pressure, and stress. But there is a fourth headache represented, called “Living next to Russia”. Its location not only covers one point on the head, but the entire head and neck.
The second meme has a dog sitting calmly next to a life-size werewolf statue. At the top, the meme reads: “Putin’s real fears”. Further down the image, the dog has the words “Ukraine in NATO” superimposed. Next to the dog, the vicious-looking werewolf is overlaid with text that reads: ‘Human Rights, Free Press, Fair Elections’. The juxtaposition of the harmless-looking dog and the menacing werewolf indicates that Putin is in fact afraid of freedoms for the Russian people, because these freedoms are a threat to his power – while Ukraine’s membership of the nato is not, the meme suggests.
Large-scale trauma treatment
After Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, many social media outlets noticed Ukraine’s tweets for the first time and seemed baffled as to why the official Twitter account of a country was tweeting such things.
But again, if memes, chats and TikToks are ways of dealing with disasters in real time, then Ukraine’s Twitter account is a national version of dealing with trauma in real time, using formats that people know well.
The communal nature of memes, chats, TikToks, and social media in general cannot be ignored. Memes are digital communication devices that grow and develop as people share and create them. Chats invite to share a cute image with another person. TikTok’s mission is “to inspire creativity and bring joy”, and the platform’s features invite interaction with others. And social media is fundamentally social, based almost entirely on communicating with others.
With that in mind, Ukraine’s memes and tweets are saying something else – that it’s their nation’s invitation for more people to join the conversation. I believe this speaks to their need for the rest of the world to stand in solidarity with them.
If the medium is the message, then the cultural practices of the Internet have become intertwined with geopolitical and military conflict. Memorizing war and conflict isn’t always silly – it can be an invitation to communicate, to bear witness, to process in common and to share.
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