I think at this point, we’re all aware that it’s in gen Z’s nature to respond to difficult situations through humour and memes—we do it when we’re trying to deal with our mental health, to make sense of the mess that is politics, and we even did it during the COVID-19 pandemic. But do we ever cross a line?
The current war in Ukraine is a good example of this—before the crisis had even officially begun, the internet was already chock-a-block with jokes on the country. Memes about WWIII, Russia and Ukraine, the warcore TikToks about getting drafted, or even the “Vladdy Daddy pls don’t invade Ukraine” trend (the nickname gen Z gave Vladimir Putin when asking him to stop the invasion) littered the internet.
The situation, however, changed since then, and on 24 February, the 2022 invasion (because it didn’t technically start at this point) of Ukraine officially broke out. The memes, however, not only stayed but kept on coming. Some of this content came directly from teenagers stuck in Ukraine, individuals being affected by this first hand, using humour as a coping mechanism in such horrific times. Other content, however, came from those comfortably sitting in their Western, unaffected, homes in the US or the UK, a move which understandably got some backlash.
A recent trend on TikTok, for example, has people sharing their friendship groups, giving a reason why each of them wouldn’t get drafted to fight in the war. Often these include things like “would shag a soldier,” “would turn it into a party,” “would be late and miss the war”—you get the gist of it. It appears that most participating in this trend currently reside in places like the US, the UK, or other European countries.
Another concerning trend popping up on the social media platform are videos of women cleaning or doing other housework, captioned with something along the lines of “when the USA starts drafting for WW3” or “I’m a feminist but if WW3 breaks out, find me in the kitchen where I belong.”
The most unhinged and absurd of them all, however, must be the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thirst trap edits. Yes, you read that correctly. In such clips, you’ll find consciously made edits of him captioned by the creator on how hot they find him, using the “I want your daddy” TikTok sound over photos of his children. Some even go as far as posting their own takes that “him being such a great leader has ruined dating [for them] forever.” You cannot make this up.
In hindsight, these appear to be simply harmless jokes with no malicious intent involved, right? But with the territory of posting anything online, sometimes you need to stop and ask yourself, why is it being made, who is it really helping and what larger consequential impact could it be having?
There is something extremely eerie and uncomfortable about the act of making memes about a war that does not affect you, especially when said war is the horrifying reality for millions of Ukrainians. While people in the West make memes about themselves being drafted, men in Ukraine aged 18 to 60 can’t leave their country under martial law, mothers are losing their sons (and daughters), and over 900 civilians have been killed since its start.
So how do Ukrainians feel about the current state of the internet?
Olesia comes from Kharkiv, Ukraine, but her family relocated to the capital, Kyiv. She herself lives in the UK. “My dad is in the territorial defence forces, he’s protecting our city, while my mother, brother, and grandmother are in a village nearby Kyiv. They are safe for now, [though] Kharkiv was affected really badly,” she told SCREENSHOT over Instagram.
“I’m really grateful that this is all happening in the social media age because the news spread quickly. I’m really happy to see most of the videos being about support for Ukraine, and a lot of the videos are actually describing the situation as it is. It’s been helping a lot to get the message out.”
“I do love memes and humour as a method of coping—we have to try and keep living and smiling. There are memes that are okay, that we understand and laugh at—they are mostly memes made by Ukrainians, for Ukrainians. My friends make lots of funny TikToks from the bomb shelters,” Olesia revealed on the use of internet humour to aid Ukrainian morale. “They continue to spread awareness through humour and I really appreciate that because it makes it easier for me to check on them.”
“It does help a lot, making jokes about it, they just have to be sensitive. Some of the jokes are offensive, and there are some that fully remove the horror of the situation from it,” she continued. “Honestly, I do not know how I feel about the memes about WWIII and drafting, especially in the UK and US. I did find some of them funny,” Olesia admitted.
“Before the escalation, there were some memes like ‘Putin stop, I haven’t picked up my outfit for WWIII’, and back then, it was funny, but right now, you are not affected, nobody is going to draft you,” she clarified.
With an understanding that humour is used as a coping mechanism, Olesia pleads to such meme creators that if they have the time to edit WWIII skits or thirst traps, then they clearly have the time to actually spread awareness and real supportive action for Ukrainians. “Being drafted and picking [out] an outfit is not funny for us Ukrainians, so if you do support us, try to find a way to make a funny video without making it about you,” she went on to say.
“Please remember there are people suffering, and if you do want to thirst over Zelensky, try and do that in a respectful way. I am not sure how you can do that, but at least mention a charity [your followers] can donate to in the comments, or pin a comment saying that we should support Ukraine.” It’s literally the bare minimum.
“I am not saying you have to make this all about us, you are more than welcome to share your feelings and we are more than happy to listen, answer your questions. But we are all scared. You have to remember that you are scared of something that might happen or might not happen. We are scared for our families, and we are in pain,” she shared.
SCREENSHOT also spoke to Oly, who lives in London but is Ukrainian. “Both my grandmas, all my aunts, uncles, cousins and some of my friends and their families are still there. Most of them are staying in Kyiv or on the outskirts,” they shared. With parts of Kyiv under heavy attack, Oly’s grandmother is terrified for her life. Fear for their family’s safety has manifested into impactful anxiety for the London-based Ukrainian. “I constantly worry about my relatives and cry a lot. It’s affected my eating patterns and I get nightmares all the time—I dream a lot about my grandma,” they admitted. While they find the internet “somewhat helpful,” they had to mute some of their mutuals on Instagram because of the amount of graphic content and misinformation posted.
“I hate war-related memes. I don’t find them funny,” Oly explained. Any realm of internet pertaining to the crisis affects Oly deeply but when it comes to ‘lighter’ coverage of the matter, they prefer content that is heartwarming as opposed to humorous. “Anything related to it makes me sad [but] one of my friends introduced me to some TikTokers who filmed their life from bomb shelters and their content was done in a very uplifting way.”
For Oly, the references to WWIII are perhaps the most upsetting ones among this so-called comedic catharsis, in that it’s not even true. “People in the West make a mockery of my country and the comparison to WWIII is ridiculous to me. Yes, it’s very bad, but this is not WWIII—not everyone is being affected by the Ukrainian crisis, and countries like America and the UK don’t have many valid reasons to worry about themselves.” It is, for them, a marker of true insensitivity that does nothing but incite panic among those unaffected without valid cause.
“I think if people in the West want to help, they should definitely be more careful with what they post, they should check if their information is truthful and look for valid news sources. Donate to trusted organisations, share truthful content if they want to at all—they don’t have to share anything if they don’t understand or don’t want to understand the issue. Be kinder to people who are affected by the Ukrainian war and take into consideration that if their home and families were affected by war, they would definitely not find it funny. For those who don’t have the money to donate but still want to help, they can do volunteering work as most Western countries have volunteering centres,” Oly finished off.
It’s a scary and sad time—no matter where you are based in the world, it’s normal to feel anxiety around the decisions politicians make that you have very little control over. However, by making yourself the epicentre of a crisis you have no involvement in (and be grateful that you don’t), you are only diminishing the experience of those who do. Instead, pass the mic and amplify their voices.