After a US drone strike killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani last week, the online world saw two nations tumbling toward a war that could consume the globe—the long-prophesied World War III. Some Americans celebrated President Trump taking a stand against an old perceived enemy. Some planned protests. Many, including President Trump and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, made their thoughts known on social media, which may have helped stop a war before it started. Because this is the internet, though, not all of those thoughts were nuanced policy positions. A lot of them were jokes.
Moments after news of Soleimani’s death broke and #WWIII began trending on Twitter, people started to meme. There were jokes about being poor soldiers, about playing dead and being shot again, about how annoyed Queen Elizabeth II must be that she’s going to live through another world war. Many of them featured images and GIFs from pop culture: SpongeBob SquarePants, Friends, Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Especially on TikTok and among young people, the jokes tended to revolve around creative means of dodging the (currently nonexistent) draft, from blocking US military organizations on Twitter to having asthma to accepting the consequences and having a good time in prison. The meme has even made it to some elementary school classrooms: “A former student who teaches fourth and fifth graders told me that his students are all joking about it,” says Viveca Greene, who studies dark humor at Hampshire College.
Jokes about WWIII strike some over the age of 10 as decidedly—offensively—unfunny. It’s easy to see their point: Avoidable death and destruction are generally no laughing matter, and joking about them might trivialize strangers’ real suffering. The cycle of joke and rebuke should be familiar to everyone by now, but in the case of #WWIII, the condemnation has gone, well, worldwide.
“What strikes me as unusual is the sharp rebuke by people in the Middle East who claim to be in far more dangerous situations than Americans who are worried about being drafted,” says Paul Lewis, author of Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict. Considering the draft people are worried about doesn’t currently exist, it’s difficult to dispute that. However, these jokes and memes may not always be signs of calloused hearts and internet-maddened minds.
Many people (some meme-makers included) have identified jokes about WWIII and the draft as coping mechanisms, and time-honored ones at that. “There have probably been jokes about wars since there have been wars,” says Lewis, who studies humor and politics at Boston College. “Freud recognized such gallows humor as a last, desperate effort of the ego to distance itself from an inescapable bad fate.” As the world has grown more unpredictable and destabilized, memes have taken on an absurdist "laugh to keep from crying" sort of tone. (See: the majority of 2019.)
Other experts think #WWIII jokes are less memetic mental balm than the kind of disaster humor people have observed since the early 1900s, when consumption of media truly came to the masses. “These jokes aren’t like what we know from emergency room workers. Those jokes don’t have the same kind of absurdity,” says Giselinde Kuipers, a cultural sociologist at Catholic University Leuven, Belgium. According to Kuipers, dark topic + absurdity = jokes happens only when there’s a great deal of media-mediated distance between the joker and the crisis, like when the Titanic sank or people outside of New York City learned about the 9/11 attacks.
Either way, the motive for making the joke is rather self-serving, but, in aggregate, the shallowness of the act doesn’t negate the potential positive effects. “The sheer number of people reporting that they learned what was going on with WWIII by seeing memes on Reddit is astounding,” says Greene. “It’s not the endpoint, but humor has always been used to draw attention to issues in a way that people aren’t as turned off by as they are if you came with a serious voice and a wagging finger.” Conveying overwhelming information in a comfortable, approachable format is a technique often used by white supremists and terrorist organizations like ISIS to reel in new recruits. WWIII memes do the same, but people are ending up informed about world events rather than radicalized.
Not only are people being informed about events taking place on the other side of the world, they’re able to engage directly with the people whose lives are impacted. “The biggest thing to notice is that this is the globalization of response to humor,” Lewis says. “The global internet is allowing people around the world to see what Americans are joking about, and respond.” The fact that so many of the comments are negative doesn’t mean the discussion isn’t worth having or isn’t a significant improvement over war jokes past. Greene notes that a presumed good–evil binary is all but absent from jokes about WWIII, which was not at all the case in the lead up to the Iraq War. For most people, it’s hard to fully demonize people who can tweet at you.
If you take a moment to stop being scandalized about how they’re communicating, it’s also frankly remarkable that young Americans—plenty of whom are still on their school vacations—are thinking about the implications of an air strike in Iraq at all. “Most of the time young people aren’t rewarded for taking interest in world events,” Greene says. “As much as the comments and jokes are pretty superficial, there’s also plenty of opportunity to point out real problems.” People are taking it: The queer community has used WWIII jokes to educate people about how they’re discriminated against in the military. “Making memes is some kind of cultural citizenship,” Green says. “This is how you participate.” That participation is starting to look a bit like progress.