Internet Memes: an Element of Coping Mechanism or a Tool for Propaganda Disinformation?

In times of calamities such as pandemics or wars, humor, as acknowledged by many scientists, serves as a coping mechanism that helps to endure stress, despair, and depression. Paradoxically, jokes and satirical images proliferate during war times. Gallows humor consoled soldiers during World War I. Humor and comedy were broadcasted and published during World War II to keep audiences’ spirits. For those who suffered the worst, such as Jews in concentration camps, humor was probably the only available energy source necessary to survive. In all those instances, people were destined either to share the joke by word of mouth or to consume those produced by professional creators. In today’s world of digital technology and participatory culture, anyone, though, can become a creator.

Moreover, with the expanding availability of social media worldwide, anyone can make the creation public in a blink of an eye. The participatory culture with technological development also enables users to create and share their narratives, applying them to mass culture. As a result, digital participatory culture, among other content, makes internet memes – a modern embodiment of humor as a coping mechanism. On the other hand, internet memes, like any other media message, can spread mis- and disinformation.

The Ukraine-Russia war is obviously not the first one in which social media played a significant role. This war, however, seems to be the first one in which social media are playing almost the leading part in mediating the war issues. Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, numerous artifacts of content were generated by users – multiple video clips and pictures have been taken on a smartphone’s camera, and myriads of social media posts and blogs have been posted. Furthermore, from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to small cities mayors, officials communicate news through their social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. Thus, the content spreads online, gets commented on, and remixed.

According to Henry Jenkins, “Pattern of media consumption have been profoundly altered by a succession of new media technologies which enable average citizens to participate in the archiving, annotation, transformation, and recirculation of media content.” Thus, as digital technologies are available in both Ukraine and Russia, the participatory culture product in the form of memes produces the symbolic meaning that is used as an element of the coping mechanism and, in other cases, a tool to spread misinformation and disinformation.

CAPTCHA with Ukrainian farmers tractors carrying Russian tanks.
CAPTCHA with Ukrainian farmers tractors carrying Russian tanks.

Although the unregulated flow of information through social media often leads to spreading fake or misleading news on both sides of the war conflict, the example of Ukrainian and Russian memes demonstrates how internet memes spread mis- or disinformation causing aggravation to a conflict or are used as comedic content that evolves positive feelings necessary for emotional health.

An Australian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, wrote about his experience in a concentration camp: “I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site to develop a sense of humor. I suggested to him that we would promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily about some incident that could happen one day after our liberation.” Thus, not only consuming comedic content is beneficial for emotional health, but also the creation of such content. Internet memes are one of the products created by digital technologies users who are struggling with coping with the horrors of war.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers film series.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers film series.

As an example of the contrary effect internet memes may have, the memes created and spread by Russian users support disinformation of the Russian propaganda machine. The following memes confirm Vladimir Putin's lie that Ukraine is not a real country, but a part of Russia ("Russian oblast" means a region of Russia) and that Ukrainians are Nazis (Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who is ethnically Jewish, holding a T-shirt with swastika).

Because Russia is an aggressor in the war, the memes from Russia mostly show the narratives spread by Russia's propaganda machine long before the invasion and thus are prevalent in the society, while Ukrainian memes, created by people who are fighting for their freedom and lives, express mockery and repugnance toward the occupants.

Jenkins, H. (2020). Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars?: Grassroots Creativity Meets the Media Industry. (pp. 203-235). New York University Press. 10.18574/9780814763025-017

Frankl, Viktor E. (Viktor Emil), Lasch, I., Kushner, H. S., & Winslade, W. J. (2006). Man's search for meaning. Beacon Press.


Alla Kachanivska is Brooklyn College MS in Media Studies graduate student. Born in Ukraine. In 2015, Kachanivska graduated with a master’s degree in Journalism and worked in various online outlets in Ukraine. In 2018, she moved to the United States. Kachanivska adores new experiences, visiting new places, reading and creative writing. Kachanivska's first novel The Riddle was published in Ukraine in February 2022. Alas, because of the Russian invasion, the book has not been distributed yet and is still waiting in the storages of a publishing house in Kyiv. Kachanivska believes that books, education, and media literacy will eventually save the world.

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