I spent Thursday night staring at Twitter, refreshing my home feed every few seconds to try and figure out what was going on: Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force was killed in Iraq. As more time passed, it became clear that he was killed in a drone strike carried out by the United States… and it was a big deal.
Conversely, I spent Friday night staring at Twitter, refreshing my home feed every few seconds in hopes of a new meme.
Following Soleimani’s death, “WWIII,” “World War III,” and “Iran,” instantly started trending on social media, with over 10 million+ mentions on Twitter alone. This is perhaps the first time in history that an international crisis not only directly involved memes, but also almost instantaneously resulted in an influx of memes across numerous new media platforms.
Within just 48 hours, I personally came across at least 300* different memes and humorous social media posts regarding the possibility of entering into an international conflict with Iran. After collecting and scrolling through this content — and watching nearly every person I follow on Twitter transform into a Middle East security expert — I decided I could contribute to the analysis by doing what I do best: analyzing memes. More specifically, I wanted to answer the question: What can the next generation’s use of new media tools tell us about public perceptions and awareness of national security policies?
NEW MEDIA: THE PLATFORMS
For the purposes of this analysis, I focused mainly on new media tools, or platforms that emphasize mass communication and digital technologies (i.e. the internet). Following the event in Iran, the WWIII trend manifested itself across three main platforms: memes distributed on popular social media sites, TikToks, and tweets. I would argue that these platforms generally perpetuate the same type or culture of humor, but each are stylistically different. Broadly, memes are defined as “an element of culture or system of behavior that is passed from one person to another within a culture.” However, in this case, I am defining a meme as “a humorous image, video, or piece of text that is copied (often with slight variation) and spread rapidly by internet users.” Memes are generally formulated using a template of sorts and are distributed on social media sites (such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, etc.). TikTok, on the other hand, is a specific social media platform where users generate original content that can be stylistically similar to other users and posts. Unlike other social media sites, TikTok is constrained to a medium of short-form videos. Similarly, Twitter is a social media platform that is more oriented towards social networking and original “microblogging” posts. Twitter allows for multiple media mediums including text, images, gifs, and videos. Whereas a meme or a TikTok cannot be a Tweet (but can contain Tweets), it is possible to tweet a meme or a TikTok.
Despite the large number of posts on both Twitter and TikTok about “WWIII” or the conflict with Iran, specific memes and variations, or replications thereof, were the most prolific, or “viral,” medium for discussing “WWIII.” For example, I came across this meme on various platforms (including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit) often with slightly varied captions or text. I would add the caveat that the platforms themselves generally use automated trending systems which are programmed through algorithms and not equipped to make judgments about the content being shared. These trending systems could affect the dataset insofar as they limit the content I encounter based on the history of my social media practices and various other calculations that make up a “trend” on social media platforms.
#NEXTGEN: THE THEMES
Sorting through the dataset, I observed seven thematic trends: the draft, generational issues, popular cultural references, historical references, identity politics, specific equipment references, and memes about memes (henceforth referred to as memeception).
The next generation does not want war, but they simply don’t know what else to do besides make memes.
The Draft: The possibility for military conscription or getting “drafted’ was far and away the most popular theme for these “WWIII” posts, especially on TikTok. In fact, there were so many posts about the potential for getting drafted into this anticipated conflict that the New York Times wrote a piece on it and the Selective Service System felt it necessary to clarify the process of the actual draft. In my collected dataset, most of the draft references are rooted either in a sense of anxiety about being drafted, or jokes about how to avoid being drafted. Most teens had a vague understanding that you have to be 18 years old to be drafted, and that there has been debate about if women should be included in selective service, but they were otherwise unaware of how the process actually worked or what it entailed.
Generational Issues: Gen Z and millennials are notorious for their anxiety and joking about said anxiety on social media. This stress culture also manifested itself in the WWIII posting. After the draft posts — which contained a tinge of anxiety — most focused on generational issues, or issues that Gen Z and millennials have faced. These issues include debt, dating, the climate crisis, a general continuous onslaught of bad news, and just basically trying to enjoy themselves despite these perpetual issues.
Popular Culture: Several of the posts on WWIII also involved popular culture references including Snapchat, various movies and TV shows, and video games. Perhaps the most popular references were to the videogame Call of Duty, potentially suggesting that younger generations glean most of their information on international crises and wars from video games.
Historical References: Several other posts contained vague historical references to the other world wars. Outside of history meme accounts, most of these involved Germany starting world wars and France surrendering. The only memes specifically focused on Iran came from Iran specialists on Twitter.
Identity Politics: Multiple posts on TikTok and Twitter discussed how a potential war would affect different identity groups including black Americans, gay Americans, and Mexicans.
Specific Equipment: The internet teens love tanks. Specifically, they are hopeful that their tanks have aux cords. Among my collected dataset, only two posts specifically mentioned missiles, and only three specifically mentioned the prospect of nuclear war.
Memeception: Perhaps what was most interesting about the dataset is that the further away from the event it got, and the more memes and posts there were, more memes about just how many memes there were surfaced. I think this is a unique occurrence and is suggestive of just how prolific the memes and posts were following Thursday’s event.
INTERNATIONAL SECURITY: THE TAKEAWAYS
After analyzing this dataset and identifying themes I think there are several conclusions that can be drawn. First, and perhaps most daunting: the next generation is uninterested in international conflict and does not understand the underlying regional and factual foundation for it, as evidenced by references to “learning Arabic” and a general lack of understanding of Iranian politics and history of conflict in the Middle East region. While the dataset is limited and not indicative of every Gen Z individual, this lack of knowledge could be detrimental to the national security field, especially if the next generation really is completely uninterested in understanding international conflict outside of the realm of memes and humor. Second, while the next generation’s disinterest in international conflict could become an important building block toward a more diplomacy-oriented national security policy, based on the memes it is clear that this generation does not know how to effectively channel its disinterest after a life spent in never-ending conflict. The posts indicate that young people are self-reflective, and generally harbor a desire to be informed, but also indicate that the despair they feel only appears to have yielded more anxiety, rather than any specific action. The next generation does not want war, but they simply don’t know what else to do besides make memes. Lastly, it is clear that the next generation uses humor as a form of deflection against a constant and uninterrupted stream of bad news and crises. This is important as, when trying to rectify the other aforementioned issues, it is imperative that national security experts trying to reach out to the next generation realize that young people are already at capacity for “doom and gloom.”
Semiotics and using stories, memes, and other mediums to provide long-term “active communication systems” about international security issues has always been a factor integral to understanding national security issues. The next generation’s memeification of international crises, while humorous, shouldn’t be ignored as it can tell us a great deal about the people facing conflict, and maybe even the future of conflict itself.
* Yes, I have the data. DM me for some of that good content.