The insidious effects of the meme-ification of the Ukraine war

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – This month, as heavy bombardment rocked Ukrainian cities, killing at least hundreds of civilians and sending millions more fleeing, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, the man behind the vicious attacks, was challenged to a duel by the billionaire Elon Musk.

Mr Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, tweeted at the official Twitter account of Mr Putin’s presidential office, challenging the president to “single combat” with the stakes being Ukraine.

The response in the Twittersphere was gleeful: There were mock-up posters promoting the big fight, and Photoshopped images that cast Mr Musk as the Terminator or Rocky Balboa.

Putin supporters – including the Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin – mocked Mr Musk for the tweet, and Mr Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman head of Chechnya, a part of Russia, offered to train Mr Musk, to “change from the gentle (effeminate) Elona into the brutal Elon you need to be”.

“I’ve seen this movie before,” one person tweeted, alongside a meme of the billionaire superhero Iron Man with Mr Musk’s face overlaid.

There was something unsettlingly familiar and Hollywood-like about the moment.

It was almost as if the tweeters had forgotten they were discussing a complex geopolitical situation, in which millions of lives are at stake – and not just another celebrity feud.

And perhaps that’s inevitable, when Russia’s war on Ukraine itself has became a kind of meme on social media, with images of exploded tanks, refugee convoys and body bags interspersed with Wordle humble brags, NFT hype-tweets and your friends’ adorable pets.

“One of the strangest experiences of the modern world is following a war on social media,” Mr Trevor Noah said on a recent segment of The Daily Show.

“Because all the other stuff on social media doesn’t go away. It just gets mixed in together.”


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