The Power of Memes in the Information War between Russia and Ukraine

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 The complex situation in Ukraine has had a near continuous presence in the world media since 2013. However, it is not the meticulously compiled fact files or timeline of events which leave a lasting impression, rather the hastily fashioned image of Putin smiling to the words ‘Not Ukraine…Mykraine’.

This is representative of the changing media landscape, where the rapidity of communication allows information to spread at an unprecedented rate. There is an increase of attention-grabbing headlines and ‘click-bait’ videos, as we value sound bites over in-depth analysis. Yet the accessibility of these media forms, specifically memes, allows a democratisation of opinion, as anyone with access to a meme generator can attempt to articulate their viewpoint with a concise juxtaposition of picture and text. Consequently, the internet is now awash with a myriad of images and references to the Ukraine crisis, physical illustrations of the competing voices and opinions in what has been dubbed the ‘information war’ between Russia and Ukraine.

Memes have literally become weapons used either to praise, condemn or simply to ridicule. The strikingly simple act of sharing a meme can become an expression not just of opinion, but also of identity, as your allegiances or criticisms are overtly displayed to the world. Memes embody this performative aspect of identity through visually exposing a thought process or shade of opinion. For example, this picture appears sympathetic towards Russia, as it symbolically presents Russia as Ukraine’s defiant, yet motherly protector against the predatory America. Yet the beauty of memes lies in the rapidity and ease of their replication, since a single image can be manipulated to voice a multitude of contradictory opinions; depending on the intended depiction of Russia, the image of a bear can be seen either as protective or condemningly aggressive.

Memes, then, can attempt to present a generalised identity of entire nations in a single, two-dimensional snapshot. This image represents a cowering Ukraine, subservient to America in the face of Russian aggression. A narrative is constructed in order to depict a subjective vision of reality, so negotiating accepted systems of thought through the power of satire.

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Conversely, they also have the capacity to deconstruct an established norm and delegitimize an opposing point of view through actively foregrounding the fictitious processes that lie at the heart of information manipulation. The Yarosh business card memes are brilliant examples of this. They stemmed from a Kremlin-backed report, which insinuated the involvement of a right-wing nationalistic political party member, Dmytro Yarosh, in a shooting in Ukraine. The allegation revolved around the apparent recovery of his miraculously unscathed business card from a burnt-out car, and so prompted a wealth of creative spin-offs which mocked the absurd accusation.

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This willingness to critically, or at least satirically, engage with political thought suggests that warfare has moved beyond the field of combat and into the digital sphere, where the fighting takes places within the framework of a creative struggle for moral legitimacy. There have been few studies on the measured effectiveness of memes in swaying public opinion, yet at the very least they allow a single voice to be multiplied exponentially across cyberspace, becoming distorted or expanded in its replication. Therefore, memes have become emblems of a world where it really does seem that an image is worth a thousand words. 

By Joanne Riggall

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