Meme-ifying “World War III”

How the Soleimani assassination has called into question what “war” means today and how the world should respond

On January 3, 2020, all other programming was suspended as the likeness of General Qasem Soleimani flashed over television screens across Iran. In the early hours of the day, the commander of the al-Quds brigade of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard had been killed by a U.S. airstrike at the Baghdad International Airport.

The reaction online was instantaneous and overwhelming. 

Social media heralded the arrival of “World War III”, and subsequent hysteria ensued. Twitter and Instagram were flooded with posts that paradoxically satirized and validated the notion of a looming war.

Although the U.S. military draft has been abolished for almost fifty years, talk of resurgence resulted in the government website responsible for registration to crash. The U.S. Army had to issue a statement debunking widely-circulated fake texts that called ‘conscripted’ Americans to Iran.  

In a statement released by the Pentagon, the United States claimed responsibility for the strike that killed Soleimani, calling it an act of deterrence.

“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world,” the statement read.

Official responses from news sources and experts on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) were divided into several camps. Northeastern University Political Science Professor Max Abrahms outlines three major perspectives: that the U.S. had lost credibility in the region and needed to restore deterrence against Iran; that Soleimani posed an imminent threat and needed to be preemptively eliminated; and that Soleimani’s killing was an act of war that eliminated prospects of negotiation, the sentiment largely echoed by social media. 

The differences between the concepts of deterrence, preemption, and war begs the question: today, what does war really mean? 

War has historically been conceptualized as existing between states, fought by militaries. However, a decline in this sort of conventional warfare has been met with an increase in unconventional warfare. Political Science Professor and expert in transnational security Adel El-Adawy, of the American University in Cairo, explains: 

“You can be at war without having a military fighting a military… you have third-party entities fighting each other on behalf of states…there can be economic warfare, political warfare, there can be psychological warfare.”

When the definition of war is broadened to include the unconventional, it can hardly be said that the United States and Iran are at risk of war; rather, it has already begun.  

In September of 2019, Iran-allied Yemeni Houthis launched an attack on two oil refineries in Saudi Arabia, shutting off 5 percent of global oil production. In late December, the militia group Kataib Hezbollah, which has ties to Iran, launched an attack in Iraq that killed an American contractor. Trump then retaliated by ordering airstrikes on assumed Hezbollah camps in parts of Syria and Iraq. Days later, Hezbollah supporters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. These events ultimately increased tensions to the point of General Soleimani’s assassination on January 2, only days into 2020.

War is no longer strictly characterized by boots on the ground. The above acts, reliant on proxies and carried out in third-party states, illustrate an “unconventional” but increasingly common war. 

El-Adawy says that Soleimani’s assassination was unprecedented because of his status as a state official. Although assassinations may well be considered acts of conventional war, that logic cannot be as quickly applied to a man who also has ties to unconventional modes of war. Because of Soleimani’s association with Hezbollah and other proxy groups, his assassination “is hampering the unconventional activities of the Iranian regime.” Although the United States didn’t use deterrence in the conventional sense, it effectively deterred Iran from waging unconventional war.  

Yet, when the terms used to describe acts of aggression are in flux, both news correspondents and the public must be wary of their politicization. Abrahms highlights the differences in connotation between the word “assassination” and surgical terms like “targeted killing” or “precision strike,” the latter of which was used by the White House to describe the attack. 

“You can tell a lot about one’s politics depending on which word is used,” Abrahms told The Cairo Review. Surgical terms like targeted killing “are more accepted around the world… When one speaks about targeted killing, the emphasis is on connection to the militant groups under the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps’ command.” The fact that both terms can be applied to Soleimani, who was uniquely situated as commanding both state and non-state authority, is a testament to the increasing unconventionality of warfare.

An analysis on the changes in conventional war and conflict would not be complete without also addressing the shifts in public response. Now that news breaks in real time, often through social media platforms, instantaneous reaction is the norm.

Some experts and officials may dismiss the explosion of a potential “WWIII” on social media sites as sensationalized, uninformed, and unimportant reactions. Insider’s Andria Moore interviewed younger internet users who explained that humor is often used as a coping mechanism when faced with uncertainty. 

Others believe it is merely an exaggerated but age-old human response. Abrahms explains, “This is a human reaction that goes back. If you were to go back through the archives of World War II, for example, you would find humor attempts in characterizations of Stalin or Hitler.” 

“Discussions of World War III post-Soleimani killing were hyperbolic,” he continues, but maybe not entirely unfounded. 

“The fact that things did not escalate further do not invalidate the very legitimate concerns of a serious escalation factor that Soleimani was killed…the reason why there wasn’t further escalation was left to chance.” 

Even if some may not believe the chance of an outright World War is high, most can agree the overwhelming response warrants a second look. 

On Instagram, searching the hashtag #ww3 yields a little under 600,000 posts. An account that seemingly devoted itself to only this content has around 75,000 followers. The thread r/ww3memes on reddit surged to 40,000 members in a week. On Twitter, the top-trending hashtags the day of the assassination speak for themselves.

The ominous hashtag 'WWIII' started trending shortly after the killing of Qassem Suleimani

At the very least, internet culture (specifically meme culture, where media users insert themselves into existing narratives by combining relevant text with popular images unrelated to the topic) is a reflection of the way the younger generation understands and perceives world events.

Most of the content that surfaced online was humorous and largely theoretical. However, tangible responses like the crash of the government draft website are indicators of real fears. 

An article titled “The Memeification of International Security” by Jamie Withorne, a Research Assistant at the Middlebury Institute in Washington D.C., looked at the trends in datasets she gathered that try to analyse this far-reaching social media response. She concluded that it was driven by generational issues, popular culture, identity politics, and more. 

Wilthone discussed generational issues; the younger generations (namely millennials and Generation Z) are constantly inundated with distressing news, and tend to use self-deprecating humor to cope with widespread high levels anxiety. Popular culture references from modern video games and TV shows “Friends,” “30 Rock,” and “The Office” were all woven into the memes posted about World War III. 

But, to look only at the American experience is to take a narrow view of the phenomenon. At the same time that #WW3 was trending on Twitter, memes in Arabic popped up on social media users’ phones across the Arab world.

A Twitter user hashtags “Third World War” in Arabic

One user reposts a meme showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, tweeting “this one looks very nice” in Farsi.

However, social media users in the Middle East and in the United States inserted their geographical perspectives into their memes, as seen above. Memes were generated in both regions in response to Soleimani’s death, but it remained known (though not always acknowledged) that people in the Middle East would be the most directly affected by World War III.

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In general, “People on social media [in the Middle East] were talking about escalation, but not really…about World War III,” El-Adawy said. 

That kind of talk usually came from “people that are not really in touch with the region”, he explained. Indeed, American memes’ references to “learning Arabic” (Iranians speak Farsi) and using the AUX cord in a military tank show a population out-of-touch with reality in a country where objective education in Middle Eastern studies is largely exempt from middle and high school curricula. 

At its core in both spheres, social media became a manifestation of anxiety. Anxiety has been transformed into “trendy” and “relatable” content that comprises an entire genre of memes. Scrolling through Buzzfeed’s “55 Memes About Anxiety That Will Make You Say ‘Me’” merits pause: are meme consuming/producing millennials and Generation Z okay? 

Studies argue no, in fact. Findings from a study on millennials at Berkley’s Goldman School of Public Policy explains, “As the first generation raised on the Internet and social media, as a generation that came of age in the wake of one of the worst recessions in modern history, and as a generation still grappling with increased economic uncertainty and worsening financial prospects, millennials are experiencing anxiety like no other generation.” While there are many factors contributing to this spike in anxiety, the impact of the Internet is hard to overlook. 

Social media was adapted by millennials with age as it grew and expanded. Gen Zers—anyone younger than the millennials, who were aged between twenty-three and thirty-eight in 2019 according to Pew Research Center—simply do not know a world without it. While millennials grew up using the internet, Generation Z grew up engulfed in it; by the time the first iPhone came out, the oldest of this generation was ten years old. 

In the same way that millennials and Gen Z grew up with the Internet, they grew up surrounded by unconventional war. Members of Generation Z were born either after or shortly before 9/11, perhaps the most potent example of unconventional warfare. The first “war” that many of them experienced was the War on Terror, waged by a state against nonstate groups. They don’t know conventionality in war, so why would they have a conventional—serious—response to it?

“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,” explains Wilthone.

The Soleimani assassination, then, is part of a broader shift in the meaning of war and how we understand it. As states become embroiled in new modes of aggression, they have also developed new modes of response. In step, the public has evolved its perception of war and the methods used to cope.

Sydney Wise is contributing editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. Her past work has been published at the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies. On Twitter: @sydneyywisee Read More
Audrey Lodes is an assistant editor and photographer at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. Find her on Twitter at @audreylodes. Read More