In the hours after many people learned of the extrajudicial assassination of Iran?s General Suleimani, a bleak anxiety over the outcome of such an event expressed itself online. In the early morning of January 3rd, my feed was filled with the first meme of 2020: the WWIII meme. The first meme in this decade wasn?t made by a savvy very-online gen-Zer or millennial, but by the president himself.
Low res jpg memed
At 9:32pm (ET), Trump acknowledged the assassination with no words, but simply a low-resolution US flag posted to his official account. The low-res American flag image was not a mistake. Not to say the choice was to use a low-res image, but rather post as soon as possible with whatever American flag jpg appeared first in a search. Like the blurry American flag, the international action was questionable and over the top. Later, information was reported that Pentagon officials only put the action on a list as an example of the most extreme action the US could possibly take in retaliation for the December attacks on the Iraq embassy; allegedly the officials were shocked Trump took the most extreme choice.
Trump is an memetic thought leader who commands via visual rhetoric. The goal is to please his audience, much the way an Instagram edgelord does and by the end of the day January 3rd, ?WWIII? was trending and the memes were omnipresent on social media. These memes are a study of reaction in an era of unreality. The threat of actual World War Three is somewhat hyperbolic, albeit founded in a reality of an endless war that?s claimed millions of lives and trillions of dollars. Regardless, young people began to express their anxiety in images.
Maybe there?ll be a parade in the city?An attempt at being serious without being seriousSigns of the times
The irreverence of the memes display a sort of nihilism to the possibility of a war. In their presentation, the memes don?t come off as serious or grave, but rather funny and uncaring. It isn?t as though the memelords/creators don?t think WWIII can happen, but rather that the shallow nature of the meme is the way to deal with the horror. Young people have grown up existing to a transition to an overwhelming surveillance state, ongoing climate change crises, and a reality television star that became president. There are no norms, just ways of interpreting a more and more exceptional reality. The expression through memes is a form of visual language.
The most honest of these memes
Critical to the nature of media studies and digital media literacies, memes should be read in the context of a connected global socio-political discourse. In other words, the assassination of Suleimani is a global event that expresses itself globally and simultaneously. To solely focus on the memes in your feed gives the sense of safety, that war can be joked about, that actions are inconsequential beyond the attempt at virality. As Sara Li noted in Teen Vogue, ?Being in a position to joke about the horrors of war often means not actually being in the line of fire.? Already US troops have been deployed to the Middle East and Iranians have died at the funeral of Suleimani. If war breaks out, people who lack mobility as well as citizens in Iran will be in far more danger than those who have the comfort to create memes for Instagram or Twitter. This is a serious unfolding of events and memes can provide a way of learning of the event, though they?re not treated as serious media information.
To disregard memes as playful rather than serious is an error, especially in this context. While the edgelords and shitposters in the US compete for points for absurdity, Iran has deployed tweets that provide a coherent message: revenge.
These memes are incredibly disturbing to say the least. The most audacious and terrifying is a short video that was shortly hosted by an Iranian Newspaper of Donald Trump?s Twitter with a flag covered coffin. The memes coming from Iran are unique, potent and serious by contrast to the constantly recycled image formats of American memes. The Iranian memes are also terrifying because they are not funny or intended to be humorous.
In world where the US president truly believes his ?media posts? on Twitter act as official decrees and governs by chaos that feeds never ending news cycles, we are made numb by the overwhelming noise produced in the miasma (to use Neil Stephenson?s term) of the platforms. Bridget Read summed it up well in The Cut: ?In the maw of the posting machine, nothing sticks. Code travels but no power shifts. It was terrifying to be suddenly aware of how much time and attention I?ve given over to this strange place where everything happens, but nothing happens, where empathy circles around but ultimately drains out.?
The memes that are all over my social media feeds are decadent. Memes escalate; memes build off one another; memes evolve. We move on. Possibly, the most lasting and damaging effect of the last decade was the platforms turn to a never ending spiral-like process of ?time spent? and commodification. As a result, memes act as a means with no intention to an end. By looking at the memes and visual images from Iran, we should see how memes operate as methods of cohesion rather than humor. Memes in the US perform as noise in an attention economy aiming for codification and later commodification. In other countries, the message is already codified and the meme acts as a signal.
Re-memed meme with facts
The privilege of scrolling, passing from one meme to the next, is part of how we use social media. The important takeaway is to consider how memes operate beyond our borders. In 2016, great pride was shared by meme creators during what was dubbed ?The Great Meme War,? which was bolstered by Trump posting of his likeness as Pepe the Frog during the 2016 campaign season. The edgelords and posters from /pol/ and Reddit emerged as digital warriors. This current event should provide contrast to that event. Because memes act as reductionist media, they perform in simple terms ? a slogan or a momentary rush of nostalgia or an interpretation of anxiety. In this case, Iran isn?t attempting at an insular push for a specific candidate, but rather displaying a strong and serious message that already exists.
The immediate reaction to the recent news in the form of WWIII memes are a normal response, but now, just days later, they?ve left my feed. In the meantime, the hashtag #revenge on Twitter displays shocking memes and propaganda that are deadly serious. While we look at memes for an escape, that privilege is not for everyone. If we think of memes as the conversation starter, it will allow us to think outside the screen and broaden our view of current events.
Update: Nearly immediately after I published this post, Iran retaliated for the killing of Suleimani with missile strikes on two military airbases in Iraq. In response to the strike, a representative to the Supreme Leader in Iran posted a direct response to Donald Trump by tweeting an image of the Iranian flag ? in high resolution.
As Justin Caffier wrote, this is ?war in the trolling age.? In an era where visual rhetoric demands response, memes are not just funny, shareable, images. They are messages with meaning.