That’s right, memes, those images you see on social media that are created, shared, remixed and shared again.
A cursory glance at any of the content posted there is sure to leave the impression of a disingenuous and foolhardy person. But a deeper look reveals a far more complex portrait of a people using humor to mask their deep sense of dread.
One person familiar with the feeling is Kate Hewitt, a federal contractor and adviser at Girl Security, a nonprofit organization that educates girls in middle and high school on national security. She has authored several articles on Iran and researched the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
“People are certainly afraid and sometimes pictures, GIFs, memes and tweets can express what you either don’t know how to or don’t want to fully articulate,” she told CNN.
“It’s certainly easier for some people to see a meme that takes a serious issue, like what’s happening with rising US-Iranian tensions, and makes you laugh either because it is absurd or you’re afraid or you don’t fully understand the issue,” Hewitt said.
The threat of “WWIII” has loomed large on the internet for years
The subreddit languished for more than two years until a week ago. The forum’s growth has been extraordinary, Price said.
“It was a huge shock. I actually completely forgot about the subreddit until it started growing last week,” Price told CNN. “I think memes just happen whenever there’s a big cultural event, regardless of the nature of it. A few years ago, a movement seemed to start where the darker the joke was, the more popular the meme was and I guess these new ww3 memes are just an extension of that.”
Withorne cited the overuse of “the draft,” instead of “conscription” or “selective service” on Twitter, and how people feared getting called up to serve in the US military.
“I think the language used specifically in the memes is particularly interesting and perhaps indicates that the people making them are not familiar with international conflict,” Withorne told CNN via email. “I think this unawareness of the linguistics they are using is indicative of an unawareness about the nature of conflict itself and could be potentially dangerous as tensions continue to rise.”
The simmering tension in the Middle East hits close to home for Iranians
While many Americas are using memes to filter their fears, Reza Akbari, a 22-year-old from Mashhad, Iran, used his Twitter account to share his unadulterated feelings.
Many of Akbari’s other tweets include anger over the airstrikes that killed Soleimani, a revered and powerful figure. Soleimani loomed large in Iran as the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps elite Quds Force and the leader of the country’s overseas operations.
“Still tears streaming down our eyes with his name and his memory … and only with a vengeance on his killers Iran will lose a bit of our sadness …Iran have nothing to do with the common people of US. Iran is taking revenge on US politicians,” Reza told CNN through a Twitter message after the funeral.
Hannah Kaviani, a journalist at Radio Farda, the Iranian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, believes that recent history may explain why Iranians have responded on social media in their own way.
Iran, no stranger to military conflicts, has lived under the threat of war before.
“There are still pictures of soldiers of that war on the walls of cities and many streets around town bear their names. The state media is also very much trying to keep that memory alive through its own propaganda tools. But then I also think youth in Iran, due to so many different reasons, get involved in socio-political matters much sooner than in the West,” Kaviani said.
“You see jokes going around on social media and messaging apps, about all sort of heavy news coming from inside and outside of the country,” Kaviani told CNN.
“Obviously the talk of heightened tension between Iran and the US in the past days is the number one topic being discussed among Persian-speaking users on all platforms, and it has caused hot debates among those who believe a confrontation with the US can rid Iran from its current regime, those who are against war, and others who think Islamic Republic should confront the US.”
CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Zachary B. Wolf, Amir Vera and Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this story.