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04 grudnia 2022

The art of making memes. How Ukraine is successfully disarming Russia... with mockery

Online, the Ukrainians are as feisty as they are on the front. And it’s working!

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Publikujemy angielskie tłumaczenie tekstu Szymona Opryszka. „Sztuka robienia memów. Jak Ukraina skutecznie rozbraja Rosję… kpiną”, opublikowanego w OKO.press 9 października 2022 r.

Roman, the meme-maker, has had his hands full since the start of the war. He is just poking away at Vladimir Putin’s face.

I’m starting to regret asking Roman to teach me how to make memes. It seemed so simple: just a humorous association, a reference to pop culture, a suggestive description and it’s a success. But Roman’s face tenses up. The 31-year-old corrects his glasses and prepares for his lecture. Online theoretical classes mean we’ll get through more than two hundred days of war. And every day is a different picture. Or several.

‘The good ones are blunt and funny, but they don’t cross the line of good taste,’ assures Roman. ‘The history of this war is written in memes.’

It starts on 24 February, when Ukraine shares a caricature of Adolf Hitler on its official Twitter account. The Nazi is touching Putin’s face. The caption to the picture reads: ‘This is not a meme. This is our reality and yours right now’.

View post on Twitter

Even before the snow melted, the internet conquers Chornobayivka, a village in southern Ukraine where Ukrainian drones have destroyed a Russian base. We look at a photograph of a signpost, straight ahead, left and right – all roads take the invader to Chornobayivka.

Spring bursts with washing machines: hanging from Russian helicopters, riding away on tanks with the letter Z, spinning just outside the Kremlin. ‘The Russians looted everything: money, laptops, kettles, rugs, china, but it was the washing machine that broke through into the collective imagination,’ giggles Roman. And immediately afterwards, he argues that the production of memes resembles the laundry process. First the basic wash, namely the initial phase of the meme. Then, during the rinsing process, the internet crowd reworks the picture, adds context, funny captions and releases the replicated versions to the world. And at the very end, the spinning starts, the meme circulates around the web, faster and faster until the last drop, when another viral picture enters.

‘Is this really a good metaphor?’ I have my doubts, but Roman is scratching his head, because essentially I don’t think he’s ever done any laundry. He says about himself that he could be a meme. He’s 31 years old, a web-developer at a multinational corporation and lives with his mother in a city in the west of Ukraine. That’s probably why they didn’t take him into the army or even into the partisan movement with the Ukrainian Memetic Forces (this is a popular Twitter profile with war memes).

That’s why Roman has rolled out the cannons against Putin and is disarming Russian propaganda on his own. There are numerous mockers like him in the web. And internet ridicules have become a weapon in the hands of Ukraine.

When Russian oil depots in Crimea were burning in August, the Ukrainian defence ministry posted a video of Russian tourists fleeing from the beach. Bananarama’s ‘Cruel Summer’ was playing in the background. And as the Russians awkwardly explained away the smoke over Crimea, the Ukrainian ministry tagged the World Health Organization in a tweet and chirped: ‘Smoking kills.’

‘I’m proud of my country for using modern tools to fight the Russians on the communications front as well’, says Roman. ‘My mother always complained that memes kill time. And now I can jeer at her with satisfaction: You can see for yourself, I’m murdering orc propaganda.’

The mean girls beat the ayatollah

‘Memes have become a strategy of diplomacy,’ admits Corneliu Bjola, extraordinary professor of diplomatic studies at the University of Oxford.

‘I don't want to take away the heroism from the Ukrainians, but I wonder if Ukraine would still be in existence without exemplary communication with the world?’

Bjola sits in his office in London, a wallpaper of the Palace of Westminster behind his back. He professionally researches digital diplomacy strategies. He explains that this is a completely new concept: fifteen years ago, no one was using Twitter, Facebook, memes or gifs to create diplomatic relations. The harbinger of change was the Arab Spring, a series of social protests in North Africa and the Middle East a decade ago.

‘It was social media then that shaped the offline protests and therefore reinforced social tensions and accelerated the fall of authoritarian governments,’ says Bjola. ‘Diplomats then understood that the new trend was not about digitizing news, but about creating new avenues of communication with the world.

The second, dark phase of digital diplomacy came after 2014. ‘The conflict in Syria and Russia’s annexation of Crimea created the conditions for toxic digital propaganda,’ Bjola continues. ‘The soil was fertile, because negative emotions circulate around the web six times faster than positive ones. The migration crisis, Brexit, the U.S. elections – disinformation was able to form convictions and behaviours offline. ISIS and Russia, followed by China and North Korea used the media for their foreign policy purposes.’

The result? Before the 2016 presidential elections, 150 million Americans, namely almost eight times the number of viewers of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox news programmes, were exposed to a Russian disinformation campaign.

‘How do we combat this?’ I ask the professor.

You can ignore it, but that won’t stop the disinformation. You can expose the false message, but denials hardly get through to the audience. That is why, for instance, the U.S. State Department launched the Global Engagement Center in 2016: initially to counter ISIS propaganda, but later to combat Russian, Iranian and Chinese disinformation efforts that were influencing U.S. politics. In the UK, a network of government agencies and units has been set up to do a similar job.

‘It seems to me that the so-called ju-jitsu tactics that the Ukrainians are now using against Russia seem to be the most effective,’ smiles Bjola. ‘You can use humour to highlight your opponent’s weakness and show the nonsense of his actions.’

An example? When the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Israel a ‘malignant cancerous tumour’ in a tweet in 2018 and encouraged its ‘elimination,’ the Israeli embassy in Washington responded with a gif from the movie ‘Mean Girls’: ‘Why are you so obsessed with me?’

View post on Twitter

‘Diplomatically risky,’ I conclude.

‘Of course, but it worked. There was only talk of an Israeli reaction,’ explains Bjola. ‘Ukraine is currently navigating around equally difficult digital territory. After all, the war is about Bucha, death and a huge tragedy, but the Ukrainians have found their way. They never speak humorously about what has happened in their country. They use humour exclusively against Russia. And it works like never before.’

An Oscar for the minister of foreign affairs

While the U.S. was living the Oscar gala in March, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence was awarding its own statuettes on Twitter. The award for best supporting actor for ‘Taming of the Shrew’ went to a film with a farmer towing a Russian tank. The Oscar for the best actress in the female role in ‘Burning Orcas’ went to a Javelin missile. There is no shortage of gifs and memes in the web of Ukrainian institutions and officials referring to ‘The Simpsons’, using quotes from ‘Rambo’, or comparing President Zelenskyy to pop culture superheroes. At the end of August, a meme featuring the British World War II song ‘Run, Rabbit, Run’ was a hit. Of course, it was referring to the Russians.

View post on Twitter

Funny? For many web surfers from all round the world, yes.

‘And that means that there is still a lot of noise about Ukraine,’ believes Bjola. ‘How can this phenomenon be explained? It would be easiest to say that the Ukrainians believe their president is a comedian. But after all, Zelenskyy, as a statesman, doesn’t joke, because he wants to be treated seriously. But a whole host of institutions, ministers, officials and soldiers no longer have any problems with internet trolling. As Ukraine’s message is not centralized, it is spreading throughout the world.’

According to the professor, Ukraine did its homework from 2014. Back then, the Russians took Crimea, but the world didn’t notice because Ukraine’s message was diluted.

The turning point was the return of Dmytro Kuleba to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, taking charge of strategic communications. He is the current head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the president’s right hand man responsible for Ukraine’s vision of digital diplomacy.

Since the annexation of Crimea, the authorities have introduced a number of innovative digital tactics. And even after the outbreak of the war, Ukraine created the world’s first international army of hackers tasked with launching cyber-attacks against Russia. It also launched a global crowdfunding campaign, collecting donations from the digital public to fund the army. This year, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, tweeted open letters to directors of IT companies, calling on them to leave the Russian market. The pressure meant that PayPal, Facebook, Google and Netflix, among others, suspended their operations in Putin’s country.

The pluses of the ‘memization’ of the war? According to my interviewees, humorous and viral pictures have kept global public opinion focused on the war.

And the use of humour is damaging to Russia because it destroys its image of a superpower with a tough sheriff and an invincible army.

Bjola: ‘A key and often overlooked aspect is that Ukrainians are introducing themselves to the Western world through memes. If Americans had been asked two years ago who the Ukrainians were, they would have had a hard time answering. But today, Ukrainians use pop-cultural contexts and associations, refer to ‘Superman’ or ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and show: “We’re like you. By helping us you are protecting yourselves.” And this message is working, because aid for Ukraine is still flowing. And this is happening on many levels.’

But what about the dangers? The trivialization of the war? The simplification of Ukrainian reality? Or even the escalation of the conflict, because authoritarian rulers of the Putin type are not keen on such literal criticism? I tell the professor about the first days of the war. At that time I was in Zhytomyr, where Russian shells were falling in the centre. I felt distaste for the fact that, at that time, my friends were exchanging a meme with another Ukrainian farmer who was towing a Russian tank.

‘It should be remembered that, at that time, Western countries did not believe that Ukraine would survive for more than a few days. The Ukrainians had to demonstrate that they were not weak, to show that they were fighting smartly and using their methods,’ replies Bjola. ‘Note that the tractor memes suddenly returned when the Ukrainians went on the counter-offensive. They were then building morale. Now, they are showing that they are strong all the time and are not wasting the aid from the West.’

Saint Javelin with a rocket launcher in her hand

‘War is no fun, but this approach helps keep us sane. This is important because we have to be resilient for a long time. Especially now, when many people are already “tired” of information about the war,’ emphasizes Kostiantyn Koshelenko, deputy minister of the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy, where he is responsible for digital transformation.

He tells me that, since the outbreak of the war, he has had numerous contacts with representatives of UN agencies and humanitarian organizations. Their employees have a presence on Twitter and LinkedIn, so he has set his sights on this form of communication himself.

‘I was inspired by the huge support from the world when several million people saw a picture of my children in a bomb shelter on LinkedIn,’ says Koshelenko. I ask for other examples. The deputy minister talks about his friends from the Ukrainian Armed Forces. When they looked under the bonnet of a Russian Tigr vehicle, they found subassemblies from four European manufacturers. The photo worked its way into the internet; memes meant that this fact spread virally, and all this contributed to the decisions of manufacturers to stop doing business with Russia.

One of the ‘wartime’ successes of the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy, where Koshelenko works, is the humanitarian eDopomoga platform. It enables Ukrainians to be helped online.

‘This is a transparent, fast and simple method. It works like gift vouchers in pre-war times. All you have to do is select a Ukrainian family and make a donation of 5 euros, for which they can pick up food, medicine or fuel at major retail chains. And the donor will receive a receipt with a shopping list as confirmation.’ ‘We don’t have an advertising budget, so our only hope is guerrilla marketing and word-of-mouth,’ admits Koshelenko.

Several days before our conversation, the politician changed his Twitter profile picture. On it he posted ... a shiba-inu dog. ‘Doggie’ is a well-known meme character that recently gained a second life and became one of the main symbols of the North Atlantic Fellas Twitter community, or NAFO for short.

Several thousand Twitter users have banded together to fight the Russian propaganda machine online. How? Precisely by using anti-Kremlin memes featuring a dog usually dressed in the uniform of a Ukrainian soldier (but not only).

‘Doggie’ is not the movement’s only symbol, because an equally popular image is that of Saint Javelin, a stylised icon of Our Lady holding a Javelin rocket launcher in her hand.

One of the key figures in the movement is a Pole, a user with the nickname ‘Kama_Kamilia’, who already has more than 19,000 followers. She is involved in fundraising, including for the Georgian International Legion. The official Saint Javelin website has T-shirts, mugs or patches with meme characters that can be bought, while the proceeds go to the Ukrainian army.

Where did the government official come from in a movement that is associated with so-called shitposting, namely publishing junk content in the web?

‘This community’s initiative impresses me greatly and is ideologically close to my heart. The guys from NAFO don’t get bored supporting us in our battle, and on top of that they are doing it with a sense of humour,’ assures Koshelenko. And a few days later, he sends me a photograph: he is standing dressed in a T-shirt with ‘doggie defending Ukraine’, on top of which he pulled his jacket.

View post on Twitter

‘The financial crisis, the war in Syria, the refugee crisis, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine – jokes are an escape from the problems. And I’m not talking about Prime Minister Boris Jonhson’s style of joking even during the pandemic. But the use of humour to create hope is something else. That’s what the Ukrainians are doing. They are sharing their sense of humour with the West and lowering the level of fear both among their population and in the West,’ Bjola points out.

‘What will be your next meme?’ I ask Roman.

‘I won’t make a better one than this one,’ he writes back. And he sends a picture of a Russian soldier staring out of a train window. Putin is standing on the platform and saying: Ivan, it’s now time to die.

View post on Twitter

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Szymon Opryszek

Szymon Opryszek - niezależny reporter, wspólnie z Marią Hawranek wydał książki "Tańczymy już tylko w Zaduszki" (2016) oraz "Wyhoduj sobie wolność" (2018). Specjalizuje się w Ameryce Łacińskiej. Obecnie pracuje nad książką na temat kryzysu wodnego. Autor reporterskiego cyklu "Moja zbrodnia to mój paszport" nominowanego do nagrody Grand Press i nagrodzonego Piórem Nadziei Amnesty International.

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