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What’s so funny about a Russian invasion?

Here’s how Kyiv is wielding humor in its information war against Moscow

- April 6, 2022

Since the Kremlin’s attack began in February, Ukraine’s official Twitter account, @Ukraine, has been poking fun at the invader, even as it highlights the brutalities Russia is inflicting upon the country.

Why? Wars are ugly and certainly no laughing matter. But Ukraine’s approach isn’t new. According to a 2017 NATO strategic communications study, Ukraine has used memes, caricatures, parodies and satirical TV shows as buffers against the Kremlin’s propaganda since the annexation of Crimea. The post-invasion tweets are a continuation of that counter-propaganda campaign.

Many social scientists see the power behind humor’s enduring value for the oppressed. Here’s what to know about how that’s helping Ukraine fight the information war against Russia.

Social science research says humor is powerful

Humor has several functions. For one thing, it can bring people together and allow them to blow off the tensions of everyday life. When a society experiences traumatic events, satire and dark humor can help individuals counter feelings of powerlessness and distress.

The use of humor in politics has been around for a long time. Many scholars have noted its power to puncture vanity, expose hypocrisy and challenge falsehoods. This makes it perfect for provocations and attacks on authorities. In autocracies, however, rulers are often protected from direct disparagement. They react harshly against people who publicly make fun of them. Recent research on civil resistance elaborates on this subversive potential and shows that humor can persuade the public that repressive tactics are ridiculous and excessive.

Humor can also work as a counter-propaganda tool that provides an alternative interpretation to the main narrative, diluting the propagandist’s message. Britain used satirical radio programs to reach ordinary Germans during World War II. Today, funny images on social media — like Anonymous’ rubber ducks superimposed on ISIS propaganda — give modern information warfare a visual twist.

Ukraine has been winning the messaging wars. It’s been preparing for years.

Kyiv is using all this in its information campaign aimed at weakening the image of both the Russian military and Russian President Vladimir Putin while cultivating Ukrainian solidarity at the same time. In doing so, it’s using a few key targeted messages.

1. Don’t take the Russian military too seriously

As the attack began, the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign spread the message that Ukraine’s defeat was inevitable. The Russian press, for instance, promoted falsehoods that Ukrainian soldiers deserted once they saw Russian troops at the borders. The Kremlin also claimed successes that did not happen, including a capture of the entire Kherson Oblast in mid-March.

@Ukraine began counteracting these false narratives with memes and videos that shattered the image of a formidable Russian military. In response to reports of Russian tank losses in early March, @Ukraine tweeted its own version of a popular meme: Peter Parker’s glasses. In this meme, Spider-Man alter ego Peter Parker looks at two different images that change drastically when he puts on his glasses. In @Ukraine’s version, a Russian tank parade in Moscow is transformed into wreckage engulfed in smoke and flames. The account also remixed a popular video that showed Ukrainian farmers allegedly stealing a Russian tank. Real or not, @Ukraine managed to reduce the Russian military to absurdity and give the Internet a good laugh.

2. The invasion is both a meme and a reality

@Ukraine’s humor also uses satire as a coping mechanism against the threat to its existence as a country.

On the same day of the invasion, @Ukraine tweeted a political cartoon of Adolf Hitler affectionately caressing Putin’s cheek. The post gained more than 300,000 retweets and close to 2 million likes. Kyiv also followed up with the message, “This is not a ‘meme,’ but our and your reality now.”

This satirical piece, which draws on the horrific memories of World War II, puts Putin on the same level as Hitler, whom everyone understands as a brutal dictator and callous warmonger. Journalism and communications professor Jessica Maddox described this as a form of “real-time trauma processing” through which @Ukraine, as a representative of its people, can respond to and communicate the immense scale of suffering wrought by the invasion.

Ukraine’s oligarchs are united against Russia

3. Ukraine is tweeting in English for the world to hear its pain

These humorous English-language tweets allow non-Ukrainians to share the country’s suffering and be part of the conversation.

The caricature of Putin and Hitler particularly resonates with Western audiences who can quickly grasp the historical cues and are invited to come to its support. It lined up perfectly with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comparison of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. The tweet was noted by major U.S. media outlets including The Washington Post and NPR. A Canadian conservative newspaper lauded the tweet as a social media win for Ukraine.

By tweeting in English, @Ukraine has encouraged many Twitter users to join its trolling effort and to reproduce anti-Kremlin humor. Pro-Ukraine users, for instance, followed up with spinoff memes in the reply section of @Ukraine’s video of the tractor towing away a Russian tank. They have also communicated solidarity in other ways. Some have posted supportive messages, pictures, emoji of the Ukrainian flag, and hashtags such as #SlavaUkraini (Glory to Ukraine) and #StandWithUkraine.

Check out all TMC’s analysis of the Ukraine-Russia conflict at our new topic guide: Russia and its neighbors

Humor alone can’t end the war or rally international support

Of course, @Ukraine’s promotion of humor is no magic bullet. Laughter might catch people’s attention, but we don’t know how long that would last. Citing recent research on the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, sociology professor Jeffrey Stepnisky warns that social media trends have had problems translating solidarity into long-term practical support.

Still, all these examples can help us better understand the ways humor can come to aid a society under foreign attack. Not only is humor an instrument the defender can wield in the battle to win “hearts and minds,” but it also unites victims in refusing to let the power of pain overwhelm and destroy their will to survive.

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Chonlawit Sirikupt (@c_sirikupt) is a PhD candidate in political science at the Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen in Germany and a research member of the Oppression/Resistance Research Lab at Emory University.