On Tuesday, as the situation along the border between Ukraine and Russia continued to deteriorate, someone affiliated with the U.S. embassy in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, made the executive decision to post a meme. It was unclear whom or how this was supposed to help.
If you’re wondering why American State Department officials would stir the pot at this moment of crisis — as the embassy’s own staff flees to Poland due to the threat of Russian attack — you’re not alone. Not a few commentators pointed out that, instead of making the case that Ukraine has always been a distinct territory, the meme dovetailed with Vladimir Putin’s claim that the region belongs to a larger Russian whole. But while the image, as propaganda, is almost too stupid to waste time on, it affirms a trend in this age of the internet: geopolitical shitposting.
The Kyiv embassy’s content resembles something from a long, toxic debate over ethnography on 4chan’s /pol/ board. It’s also not without precedent in the diplomatic sphere. In 2018, relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia were strained over the latter’s crackdown on civil and women’s rights activists. When the Canadian government urged that the Kingdom release those arrested, Saudi Arabia expelled the ambassador and recalled their own from Ottawa, meanwhile announcing the suspension of new trade and investments. Then a group connected to their state media appeared to threaten Toronto with a 9/11-style attack in this Twitter graphic:
Deletion, apologies, promises of an internal investigation and a new graphic without a plane on it soon followed, but none of this concealed an unnerving truth: The normal channels and filters of international communication can be bypassed with reckless action on social media, often carried out by anonymous individuals who control verified, high-profile accounts. It’s sort of like how a rogue employee at a beer company can tweet a joke about eating ass and go viral before management even realizes what’s happening — only here we’re discussing literal acts of war.
Some of this can be blamed on the always escalating urge to “own” your rivals and opponents online, and U.S. politicians are especially bad about sniping, triggering and epically clapping back at one another (as opposed to, uh, running a country). That belligerent style of verbal conflict has come to span the globe, as evidenced by the popularity of journalist Chen Weihua, an extremely pro-Chinese government commentator known for scathing replies to everyone from sitting members of Congress to Trump and Biden. This week, he celebrated reaching 10 million impressions on an infamous tweet in which he called Sen. Marsha Blackburn a “bitch.”
One hopes this is just a way to blow off steam, and it’s true we’ve yet to see a full-scale invasion in response to an inflammatory shitpost from another foreign power. But we’ve already seen attempts to justify brutal occupations and state violence with ghoulish meme propaganda. Among the worst offenders is Israel, which tends to blend it with strategic misinformation. They tweeted a wall of rocket emojis to convey the danger to their citizens even as they killed hundreds of Palestinians in May 2021, have soldiers posting thirst traps on TikTok, unironically shared a map that accused Iran of not staying within its borders and, for Valentine’s Day this year, likened it to an abusive partner. At this point, you have to think the outrage is the objective.
What’s to be done? Sadly, the architects of aggressive policy and the trolls peddling it to an internet audience all represent the same intractable human problem: the drive to dominate and control. The silver lining is that where these ideas were once expressed behind closed doors, or in public euphemisms, we’re now seeing them reduced — by the leadership responsible — to the flat, morally bankrupt and shameless nonsense they really are. If you can explain your geopolitical reasoning in a shitpost, it couldn’t have been that smart to begin with. So thanks for stripping away the pretense! The usual feigned competence? That was really getting old.