As the US and Iranian governments strode towards what seemed like inevitable conflict over the past week, ordinary Iranians and Americans turned to memes to cope with the uncertainty.
That’s right, memes, those images you see on social media that are created, shared, remixed and shared again.
On Twitter, messages like “World War Three is happening an i’m here drinking water and playing Minecraft & Fallout 4. Its a good way to go out,” “#WW3 is here… Who wants to chill with me and watch the bombs go off?” and “Me running of a cliff before I get drafted. #iran #WW3 #WWIIII” have accompanied thousands of tweets using variations of the hashtag #ww3.
On Instagram, #ww3 has collected nearly 500,000 mentions, and on Reddit, the forum r/ww3memes exploded from a couple hundred subscribers to more than 40,000 in a week.
A cursory glance at any of the content posted there is sure to leave the impression of a disingenuous and foolhardy person. But a deeper look reveals a far more complex portrait of a people using humor to mask their deep sense of dread.
One person familiar with the feeling is Kate Hewitt, a federal contractor and adviser at Girl Security, a nonprofit organization that educates girls in middle and high school on national security. She has authored several articles on Iran and researched the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
“People are certainly afraid and sometimes pictures, GIFs, memes and tweets can express what you either don’t know how to or don’t want to fully articulate,” she told CNN.
“It’s certainly easier for some people to see a meme that takes a serious issue, like what’s happening with rising US-Iranian tensions, and makes you laugh either because it is absurd or you’re afraid or you don’t fully understand the issue,” Hewitt said.
The threat of “WWIII” has loomed large on the internet for years
North Korea’s attempted missile launch had failed. While the world searched for answers on April 16, 2017, Micah Price of South Africa got to work creating r/ww3memes on Reddit to capture the fear people were experiencing.
The subreddit languished for more than two years until a week ago. The forum’s growth has been extraordinary, Price said.
“It was a huge shock. I actually completely forgot about the subreddit until it started growing last week,” Price told CNN. “I think memes just happen whenever there’s a big cultural event, regardless of the nature of it. A few years ago, a movement seemed to start where the darker the joke was, the more popular the meme was and I guess these new ww3 memes are just an extension of that.”
The memes from almost every corner of the internet have revolved around fear over getting drafted, the historical significance of another world war and just how unprepared ordinary Americans are to deal with combat.
Jamie Withorne is a research assistant with the Middlebury Institute in Washington, DC. She has been paying close attention to the use of memes around the US-Iran tensions. Withorne, who recently authored “The Memeification of International Security,” believes the language used in many of the memes shows the common public lacks expert knowledge when it comes to foreign affairs.
Withorne cited the overuse of “the draft,” instead of “conscription” or “selective service” on Twitter, and how people feared getting called up to serve in the US military.
The meme-fueled noise around the draft got so intense that the Selective Service website crashed on January 3 because of “the spread of misinformation,” the agency tweeted. (Just so you know, the US draft ended in 1973. The military is now an all-volunteer force. Currently, all men ages 18 to 25 are required by law to provide basic personal information to the Selective Service System. To authorize the draft, Congress would need to pass official legislation and the President would need to sign it.)
“I think the language used specifically in the memes is particularly interesting and perhaps indicates that the people making them are not familiar with international conflict,” Withorne told CNN via email. “I think this unawareness of the linguistics they are using is indicative of an unawareness about the nature of conflict itself and could be potentially dangerous as tensions continue to rise.”
The simmering tension in the Middle East hits close to home for Iranians
While many Americas are using memes to filter their fears, Reza Akbari, a 22-year-old from Mashhad, Iran, used his Twitter account to share his unadulterated feelings.
“Tonight has the feeling of becoming a night of uprising,” Akbari tweeted on January 7. “That time when we had an uprising in the night (in the past) felt the same as tonight.”
Many of Akbari’s other tweets include anger over the airstrikes that killed Qasem Soleimani, a revered and powerful figure. Soleimani loomed large in Iran as the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps elite Quds Force and the leader of the country’s overseas operations.
Akbari and many other Iranians have rallied around the hashtags #hardrevenge, #vengence and #NoWarWithIran to express their frustration and fear over mounting tensions. These feelings manifested themselves last weekend when Iranians packed the streets of Tehran to pay their respects to their fallen leader.
“Still tears streaming down our eyes with his name and his memory … and only with a vengeance on his killers Iran will lose a bit of our sadness …Iran have nothing to do with the common people of US. Iran is taking revenge on US politicians,” Reza told CNN through a Twitter message after the funeral.
Hannah Kaviani, a journalist at Radio Farda, the Iranian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, believes that recent history may explain why Iranians have responded on social media in their own way.
Iran, no stranger to military conflicts, has lived under the threat of war before.
With the US engaged in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq on either side of the Iranian border, there’s been a real concern among Iranians that war may come to their borders next. The Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 which killed 1 million people on both sides remains “very fresh in minds of Iranians,” Kaviani told CNN.
“There are still pictures of soldiers of that war on the walls of cities and many streets around town bear their names. The state media is also very much trying to keep that memory alive through its own propaganda tools. But then I also think youth in Iran, due to so many different reasons, get involved in socio-political matters much sooner than in the West,” Kaviani said.
And yet despite the seriousness of the situation, Iranians have found a way to joke about it all, as Twitter used @Titoalkarim exhibited January 7. His roughly translated message, “Iranian Air Force has been deployed,” was accompanied with a photo of two men wearing airplane costumes.
“You see jokes going around on social media and messaging apps, about all sort of heavy news coming from inside and outside of the country,” Kaviani told CNN.
“Obviously the talk of heightened tension between Iran and the US in the past days is the number one topic being discussed among Persian-speaking users on all platforms, and it has caused hot debates among those who believe a confrontation with the US can rid Iran from its current regime, those who are against war, and others who think Islamic Republic should confront the US.”
CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Zachary B. Wolf, Amir Vera and Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this story.