World War III memes prompt discussion about inclusion, coping mechanisms


Photo credit: Anna Brodsky

In response to the U.S. killing of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, teenagers began producing World War III memes on platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Reddit. Senior Alizeh Jarrahy, an executive board member of Muslim and Middle Eastern Culture Club and Alliance, said the repercussions of the memes extend beyond the apps to daily life. Photo illustration by Anna Brodsky.

Alizeh Davis Jarrahy was scrolling through Instagram at the end winter break when she saw a meme proclaiming that World War III was coming. As she continued looking at her feed, she saw more and more images and graphics related to world war populating her feed. She researched on Google and learned that the United States had ordered the killing of Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian major general.

Soleimani’s death prompted uncertainty about how fast tensions between the U.S. and Iran would escalate. In response to the news came floods of articles from major networks and speculation among foreign policy experts — and memes.

The memes, which were particularly popular on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit, dealt with the threat of a third world war — #WW3 drove trends for several days, according to Vox. On TikTok alone, the hashtags #WW3 and #WWIII have been viewed more than 1.6 billion times. Popular themes included ways to avoid the draft and allusions to U.S. involvement in Iraq.

When history teacher Kathleen Niles arrived at school from break ready to teach her unit on foreign policy, she asked students whether they had been following the news on Iran. Two of her classes immediately mentioned the images spreading online.

“When you ask what’s going on with Iran, the first thing that came to mind was the World War III, the meme thing,” she said.

The Muslim and Middle Eastern Culture Club and Alliance [MMECCA] had a meeting to speak about the U.S.’ relationship with Iran. Members listened to a podcast then engaged in open dialogue, which soon turned to the memes.

The club spoke about the role of humor as a coping mechanism, an interpretation that appeared across major news outlets. A headline from CNN reads ‘How Americans and Iranians are using hashtags to cope with conflict,’ while a Vox headline declares the memes a method of ‘therapy.’ Kate Hewitt, a federal contractor and adviser at an organization that educates teenage girls on foreign policy, said she believes the memes are a manifestation of anxiety.

“People are certainly afraid and sometimes pictures, GIFs, memes and tweets can express what you don’t know how to or don’t want to fully articulate,” she told CNN.

Jarrahy thinks “a lot” of the memes are based in fear, but she is also concerned that the memes make light of war and destruction.

“Is there a line you can’t cross with humor?” Jarrahy asked. “I don’t know what that is for me yet. But I think that maybe joking about it online and publicly — because it spreads so easily and it influences so many people — isn’t the best idea, especially when it’s not supported with facts.”

In Niles’ class, students also spoke about the memes as a coping mechanism. She encouraged them to contextualize the issue and “lean on” friends, teachers and family.

“When you’re feeling anxious, memes may offer some kind of release,” she said. “But if there’s really genuine anxiety, there are a lot of people that can help students through that, and I hope that they’ll reach out.”

Jarrahy, a member of the MMECCA executive board, said that club members were concerned that some memes portrayed Iranians as generally in favor of war.

“War often blurs the line between government and citizen,” Jarrahy said. “In reality, a lot of people are just like us. They don’t want war. They’re not in control of what happens; it’s their government calling all the shots.”

Yasi Gohar, another MMECCA executive board member, saw memes that relied on stereotypes about Iranian culture; for example, some meme and video creators would wrap scarves around their heads to imitate hijabs or speak about American superiority. Gohar, who is Persian, said her background influenced her reaction to the memes.

“It just kind of hurts me, because that’s me,” she said. “You’re making fun of me.”

Jarrahy emphasized the importance of being mindful of one’s digital footprint.

“We’re not all the same, but we’re all people,” she said. “Just think about that when you make a meme or say something because it all has repercussions and affects people, even if you can’t see that.”