What the Russia-Ukraine conflict can teach us about diplomacy in the age of social media

Tension on the border between Ukraine and the Russian Federation is hardly a recent development, but the online response at the close of 2021 has sparked fresh controversy.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent creation of several unstable states in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, political and territorial division has flourished.

Ukraine, which borders Poland to the west and Russia to the east, remains politically divided between western and traditional socialist values. Russia’s steadfast attempts to reclaim the territory, beginning with the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, have sparked the rise of Russian-separatist forces while the Ukrainian government continues to prioritize national autonomy.

In 2021, Russian forces continue to occupy Ukraine while western nations draft threats of sanctions to economically hobble Russia’s capacity to pursue military invasion in the territory.

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Social media coordinators working on behalf of the Ukrainian government, however, have adopted a new approach to levying support for the Ukraine nationalists: swaying public opinion via the most generationally relatable format of online memes.

At 8:09 a.m. on Dec. 7, the official Twitter account of Ukraine posted a meme, using a common template that depicts four different types of headaches: the first three are migraine, hypertension, and stress, and one covers the whole head.

The meme posted by Ukraine followed this format, and in the blank space under the fourth picture, it read, “Living next to Russia.” This meme highlights a trend of memes about the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, although this particular one garnered more attention than most memes do.

While alarming to some and a hilarious stunt to others, the engagement of governments and politicians with social media — called “Twiplomacy” — and the subsequent participation in internet “meme culture” is not a new phenomenon.

Nearly all U.S. Congress representatives have shared memes on their personal and official social media accounts, and it is not a far cry to attribute much of former President Donald Trump’s success to his online interaction with the developing alt-right, through the use and spread of “Pepe the Frog” imagery, a notorious icon claimed by 4chan users.

This meme is definitely not an isolated incident, as there have been many instances in the past few years of politicians or other government leaders using social media as a platform to say things they would not say otherwise. And it's nowhere near the most provocative or outrageous example.

One of the worst instances of an inappropriate social media post by a member of the government was quite recently when House Representative Paul Gosar posted a video that depicted him, in the style of anime, attacking and killing his fellow representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The video was met with much backlash, and Gosar was censured, but he did not apologize publicly or face any other punishment.

While this social media post hurt relations between many politicians, the meme posted by Ukraine was actually beneficial to global relations (at least on the surface), and President Biden has initiated talks with Russia to attempt to deescalate tension.

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Aside from the political significance of the meme in garnering sympathy from western players, the novel approach offers insight into geopolitical relations in the digital age and how they largely differ from communication in times past.

While I matured to political awareness amidst this cultural shift, I recall internalizing the notion that the political realm was an entirely serious one, and memes spurring from global issues were made by observers, not players. The democratization of satire through social media has shifted this narrative; recognizing the popularity of political memes, governments and corporations have largely adopted them as a promising strategy.

The translation of events with catastrophic potential into humor, as seen with the Ukraine-Russia border conflict, is largely symptomatic of a cultural tendency toward irony and nihilism following the rapid-fire of overwhelming issues that plague contemporary existence.

As David Lynch in an at-home weather report during the pandemic rather sensically remarked, “What a great time to be alive if you love the theater of the absurd."

Summer Roberts
Summer Roberts

Summer Roberts is a senior at Bordentown Regional High School in New Jersey. She's lead editor for the student newspaper club and a member of the debate club, mock trial and model United Nations. She writes about worldly affairs, cultural phenomena, and the relationships between them.

Owen Jacobs
Owen Jacobs

Owen Jacobs is a freshman at Palmyra High School. He began doing jigsaw puzzles when he was 3 years old, and joined Teen Takes to hone his writing skills. He's interested in writing about how the pandemic changed high school and other current events.

This article originally appeared on Cherry Hill Courier-Post: What the Russia-Ukraine conflict says about social media diplomacy