Soon after the White House announced the killing of Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani, the internet reacted in the only way it knows how — by making memes. Jokes about the upcoming World War III, being on missile duty “with the boys,” what music you would play when you drive a tank and ignoring draft notices began to surface. So followed the “counter-memes,” shamers and naysayers, commenting on their tone deafness. Many suggest that memes are a release from painful world events and can encourage people to get informed and have discussions. How effective they actually are is debatable.
In our age of instant information, staying informed is a responsibility, and being uninformed is a privilege. The obligation to remain informed, given the apparent proliferation of worldwide tragedies, creates anxiety. Meme creators attempt to release this anxiety, but skip the vital step of verifying the information they spread.
In this case, tensions in Iran do not threaten World War III. Rather, they suggest an armed conflict similar to the now-universally derided war in Iraq. Countless Iranian lives could be lost for reasons that, as per usual in US foreign policy, Americans do not support or even understand. There is also no threat of a draft. Currently, American poverty acts as its own draft. The military offers free access to healthcare, education and housing, so a high military recruitment rate among the poor is assured.
World War III memes divert the national conversation away from these meaningful topics. Granted, their proliferation is understandable. Ostensibly, they provide relief from the crushing anxiety over US-Iranian tensions and other seemingly endless crises the news brings, like the Australian wildfires and climate change.
Do World War III memes actually soothe people? No, they do not, and in fact unproductively create more anxiety. They erase the potential for a critical examination of issues surrounding the military-industrial complex, and cannot act as a substitute actually becoming informed on US-Iranian tensions and what led to them.