Foreign Policy's Weirdest New Weapon: Memes
The same suit-clad Ivy Leaguers who once poured over Soviet archives and debated Francis Fukuyama essays are now tasked with their most daunting obstacle yet, figuring out what the hell a "dank meme" is. Foreign diplomacy is indistinguishable from a Reddit page in 2021. Don't worry; only the fate of the world hangs in the balance. When military guys at the Pentagon command center or CNN experts gab on about cyber warfare, this is not what they were planning for.
Why are prestigious think tanks reduced to sifting through Wojak memes? It started with ISIS's sudden appearance on social media, the extremist organization searching out new avenues to spread propaganda and recruit new suicide bombers. Analyzing the trends on the platform provided valuable information on their overall strategy. What it says is that ISIS is essentially in the same boat as any streamer looking to shill sponsored energy drinks, struggling to engage with the core demographic. That demo being edgy teenagers who spend every waking hour of their day online looking for dangerous behaviors and stunts to pass the time. Or maybe ISIS simply got confused by the name "TikTok."
Seeing as more and more people get their news in the form of simplified headlines and snippets of video on their phones while taking dropping a deuce, the meme format is the perfect method to drip feed a particular message. It's visual and appeals to those who don't have the time or attention span to read more than ten consecutive sentences without some sensory stimulation to distract them. Which reminds us, we really need to stick some more ads in this sucker before you get bored.
Twitter and Facebook offer an irresistible, open, instantaneous channel to reach an international audience with minimal filtering. The service is so damn attractive that despots use it to rant despite social media being banned in their own countries. The irony is lost on the very same social-media junkies who prohibit basic civil liberties. North Korea is even getting in on the action, but they don't quite grasp social media yet. Instead of starting arguments and accusing people of being Nazis, they've been politely talking about the dangers of smoking and complimenting their mothers. Give it time.
Cut to 2021, and the situation in Ukraine looks scary, forces massing on both sides of the Ukraine/Russia border, the site of regional clashes in 2014. This time it's not merely a matter of "Russian separatists," but the actual Russian military staging an impromptu, weeks-long picnic at the border. The threat of war is palpable. Staring down an existential threat of grave proportions, how did Ukraine respond? Like anyone else would. They shrugged and posted a snarky meme to disguise their panic. We all deal with rowdy, saber-rattling, shirtless neighbors in our own way; this is Ukraine's:
Just wait until half-naked Vlad cranks up the techno on his boombox. That post above is from the officially sanctioned Twitter account of the nation of Ukraine. The mouthpiece of the nation reacted to the Russian build-up non-violently. It's not what Gandhi would have done, but it got the world's attention way more successfully than another boring speech from the foreign minister. Ukraine made their message clear: screw it. Marking the first time in recorded history that college kids need to sit down and explain world events to their poli-sci professors.
This particular Twitter account outwardly seems an odd venue to provoke enemies, the account usually reserved for banal bios of famous Ukrainians and pictures of snow. Until that is, you realize what Twitter really is, a marketing propaganda tool. With this post receiving half a million likes in a week, expect to see more Workaholics memes and less educational tweets about expressionist painters. The masterminds behind the Ukrainian social media account have been stepping up their trolling game as of late, with some high-quality stuff like this:
Like all good memes, the headache template was immediately copied by imitators, driving it into the ground like so many before it. The awesome power of internet jokes has drawn the ire of authoritarian demagogues before, some threatening to ban them outright. It's no coincidence that the one regime that hates memes more than anyone else on the planet happens to share a border with Ukraine. While perhaps not wise, you still gotta respect the country that counters surface-to-air missiles and Spetsnaz commandos with a s**tpost.
Top Image: PhotoMIX-Company/Pixabay