War is ugly. When war on the internet becomes a meme, it shifts from ugly to plain disrespectful.
Meme culture is alive and well and truly thriving. And on TikTok, the content is, how would you describe it? Diverse? Unrefined? Strange? A combination of all three? I’m as addicted to TikTok as the next Gen Z user but there’s one thing I can’t get behind — “war mockery” for entertainment.
The sheer volume of Ukraine war-linked memes astounds me. Alongside the overwhelming outpouring of support for Ukraine, sits the memes. Gen Z donates with one hand, while anonymously commenting “gen z b like” on a supposedly unrelated war meme with the other. Have we become so infatuated with the idea of followers and likes that even something as serious as the death toll and the destruction of a country is legitimate fodder for some Gen Z influencer in search of a “like-fuelled” serotonin boost?
I accept that Gen Zs are known for our strange, sometimes-bordering-on-another-language-weird meme production and humour, but this is where I draw the line. It’s all just privilege. Gen Z, and possibly Millennials, haven’t lived through the brutality of war and hopefully never will, so they feel the need to “memeify” it, make it into a sick joke that was never and will never be funny.
For me, it started with a simple TikTok search for “war”. I wanted to learn more about what was happening in Ukraine. It took me down a rabbit hole I never knew existed. Here is a small sample of what I found.
Unexpected war benefit
There's lack of empathy. Meet @nataliafadeev. This TikTokker is an Israeli Defence Force soldier. Her account is dedicated to defending Israel and mocking Palestine. This vid, with 4.6 million views, is one of her more popular ones.
Any empathy that might be implied from the #stopthewar hashtag is erased by the caption "great success" and the meme's text "when you're not the most hated country anymore". The video ignores the plight of Ukrainians to celebrate what Fadeev sees as the more significant development, Russia's rise to top of the world's "most hated country" list over Israel. The video has more than 11,000 comments, many negative, and over 380,000 likes, evidence of how much engagement videos such as this will draw. Whether supportive or opposed, this engagement generates more hate and distracts from the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine.
There's misplaced humour. This How Me And The Boys Pulling Up To WW3 In Our Tank video was especially hard to watch, for me, but perhaps not so hard for the 4.7 million others who watched and commented on it. I screenshot a portion of those comments to gauge what exactly the response had been. It wasn’t pretty, with comments such as “Bro people who don’t know this song clearly don’t have a child hood 😂”.
WW3 boutta be a Battle Royale at this point 😂😂 #ww3 #worldwar3 #fyp #foryou #memes #war #comedy
This post did dual service, to promote @ttvxtopshoota’s Twitch account, and yes, to be funny. (The creator’s original "chilling and kicking back" comment on the post has since been removed). Perhaps he realised, noone in Ukraine was "chilling and kicking back". As of Monday, May 2, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated 3,153 civilians had been killed since the invasion on February 24.
The only history lesson you need
Finally, there is crass misogyny. For TikTok user @__peepaw__, his "Rare Footage on Badussy War" video, subtitled “The only thing we have to learn in history”, is among his most watched with 2.1 million views. The comments reflected mixed reactions, from “can we not joke about war” to others asking “Why people mad about this ⁉️⁉️💀”.
I know good ol’ Gen Z self-deprecation keeps TikTok alive but the “laughter is the best medicine” sentiment doesn’t apply here, and neither should “ignorance is bliss”. War is unfathomable and brutal, so while humour feels like a good hole to fall (or willingly jump) into, it’s not the place to hide. Think back, chances are you heard something about the first two world wars in high school history class if you were paying any attention. They weren’t funny to any degree.
Some of these memes may glancingly highlight Ukrainian suffering on the way to a punchline but do they help us better understand or do they distract us from the reality? Do they disrespect the Ukrainians who are struggling to survive this brutality?
There is a time for being controversial, a time for using humour to expose dishonesty, corrupt behaviour or hypocrisy. But just because this war, happening in our time, at a seemingly safe distance, with heightened media coverage, has punctured the bubble of our Gen Z awareness, does not mean we have an open invitation to turn it into a meme. I’m not a TikTok creator, I’m here to engage with the content and have a bit of a laugh, but I’m not laughing at this — and neither should you.