When Sir Carter woke up last Saturday, the world seemed pretty bleak.
A day before, President Donald Trump had ordered an airstrike in Iran that killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Everyone on social media was talking about this being the beginning of another world war, fretting about the possibility of further violence and the civilians who would get caught in the crossfire.
For Carter, 18, it was all very new and scary.
“Especially for this generation, we’ve never really experienced anything like this,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Just kind of the reality setting in that this could potentially happen is very scary for people in my generation.”
Social media wasn’t just full of fear, it was full of memes. Jokes about World War III and the draft returning were all over every platform, from Twitter to Instagram to Reddit to Facebook. Like thousands of others, Carter opened his current favorite platform — TikTok — and joined in.
Carter’s video is a funny take on gay stereotypes and the draft. It features him posing with toy guns with the caption “we are here to SERVE our country and SERVE these looks mama.”
To some people from older generations, this all might seem terribly ignorant, inappropriate, and glib. But for Gen Z and anyone else who is Very Online, memes are just a means of coping with an unruly, unstable world.
“What’s great about memes is that they allow us to insert our own experience and feelings into a format that can be understood by whatever community we’re in,” Kenyatta Cheese told BuzzFeed News. He’s one of the founders of KnowYourMeme.com, an online database of pretty much every meme out there.
“They’re cultural macros.”
Cheese said he’s noticed that as WWIII memes have blown up, there’s been a big variety within the genre, especially on TikTok.
There have been jokes about avoiding the draft.
Or about adopting traditional gender roles.
Or just generally about how Gen Z simply isn’t ready for war.
There have also been some pro-war posts, but most have a theme of underlying anxiety and fear. Cheese said these memes are a way of expressing those fears without having to be too vulnerable.
“If I present my anxiety in the form of a trend, I have plausible deniability if somebody calls me out for being uncool or being inappropriate. But if what I say connects with somebody, I can still connect with them in the comments,” he said.
This also isn’t a brand-new phenomenon. Using humor to cope with difficult situations isn’t exactly novel.
“The people that are cracking jokes definitely are just as scared as people in past generations,” said Carter. “Our generation is all about social media, and that’s how we deal with and address a lot of problems.”
The teens making these jokes, however, do tend to be the ones least likely to be personally affected by conflict. Generally speaking, these memes have come from middle-class American teenagers who don’t have Middle Eastern heritage and who don’t serve in the military.
While WWIII memes became a focal point this week, it’s not the only current political situation getting the meme treatment, including one that hits closer to home.
After Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives, memes starting popping up about Mike Pence’s “summer camp.” The joke is that if Pence becomes president, LGBTQ teens are going to be shipped off to anti-gay, so-called conversion therapy camps.
Mars Wright is a 24-year-old trans advocate and social media manager in LA. He started on TikTok five months ago and, recently, he posted his own summer camp meme.
While his video is funny, Wright has very real fears about Pence’s policies.
“A lot of this just feels overwhelming and scary, and this is a way to handle it and feel like our voices are being heard when no one is listening,” he told BuzzFeed News.
As much as humor is being used, these memes are a way of expressing opinions.
“TikTok is a platform people are listening to us and where we can show we have real opinions about what’s going on,” Wright said.
Participating in the meme also serves as a way to build community by bonding over both an inside joke and a genuine concern.
Plus, it can also just be fun, and that’s a welcome distraction when the world seems to be falling apart.
“Creating memes is also a perfectly logical way to react to the news, when you express an opinion or a judgment through a meme and, by doing so, can move the focus from the worrisome parts to the entertaining one. For centuries, laughter has been a coping mechanism,” said Anastasia Denisova, a lecturer at the University of Westminster who’s been studying memes for almost a decade.
“Making a meme about the potential catastrophe or climate change makes the thing seem less threatening, just for a moment. It helps when others react to this humorous take in the same way — it gives us this best feeling: that we are not alone.”
As for the appropriateness of it all, it’s all relative.
“It is easier indeed to rise moral panic and joke about military conflicts or climate change when the user is not directly affected by it. I am not sure though that it makes memes on certain subjects strictly amoral,” Denisova told BuzzFeed News. “Memes, as research proves, can function as ‘fast-food media,’ the beacons of attention that can lead people to learn about the main news or issues.”
Plus, you have to remember that Gen Z doesn’t exactly have a ton of experience with something as big and scary as a global conflict.
Cheese said he remembers being on a subway car in Brooklyn on 9/11. The car was quiet except for two teenagers making jokes about looking out for planes. Cheese was about to tell them to stop when he realized that they’d never experienced war before — they were just trying to cope with a laugh.
“The question of appropriateness is relative,” he said. “Assuming that we’re talking about Americans, it’s arguable that the last time we started a potential war was 2003. So if you’ve never experienced the start of a conflict like this, you won’t know how you’re expected to act.”
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