A Project for Better Journalism chapter
Editorials and Profiles

World War III Memes

After the news broke the first week of January that President Trump had ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, one of the most rapid reactions to emerge amid the surprise and confusion was the memes.

Jokes about the possible fallout of Soleimani’s death was instantly everywhere. They especially proliferated on TikTok and Twitter where hashtags like #WW3 drove major trends for several days. A member of the subreddit r/ww3memes, created over two years ago, announced on January 3, “It’s time for this sub to rise.” It currently has over 43,000 subscribers.

You might think this type of reaction is juvenile or dismissive, but it’s really just human. Memes frequently operate as exemplars of larger trends, as well as stand-ins for cultural anxieties and ways to express and alleviate fears or other emotions through humor. Generation Z is practically known for using this type of humor as a coping mechanism to deal with scary events. The collectivism of meme is a crucial part of their popularity because their rapid and visible spread helps everyone figure out how we’re feeling about some news trend or other issue.

Many memes circulate around the idea of a draft, and the rules placed around certain groups joining the military. For example, women are unsure whether they would have a chance at being drafted. Because most people would not like to be drafted, they make jokes about going “back to the kitchen” like women often were when only men were allowed in the military. However, it is important to remember that women of course deserve equal rights to men, and that these jokes are simply bringing humor into a complex situation.

So, what were the memes telling us, if anything, about how teenage meme makers are perceiving the Iranian conflict and the larger, more abstract idea of a third World War?

Surprisingly, many of them seem to demonstrate far less fear than you might expect. In fact, the overall tone of the memes boiled down to a somewhat cheerful ambivalence about the prospect of war. 

This confidence is most likely because a world war is unlikely to happen. Despite tensions with Iran, the likelihood is slim, especially considering the fact that only two world wars have ever happened in the history of humanity.

There are definite gaps in the tone and subject of memes from platform to platform and they may already be part of a larger tonal shift away from the wholesome meme toward something a bit more suited to an era of apocalypse: a determination to party through the hard times to come.