Lessons from the meme war in Ukraine

Illustration of a mini replica of tanks and soldiers, seen in front of the Ukrainian flag in Krakow, Poland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto)

In 1927, the political scientist Harold Lasswell wrote about political propaganda as “the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols.” Underlying Lasswell’s work were two sets of insights. One is that the mass public played a key role in political outcomes, such as success and failure in war. Second, that those public attitudes could also be manipulated. Scaling to the mass-level, however, required simplicity. This included the use of symbols and slogans that were memorable, such that they could frame “pictures”—or, cognitive shortcuts—that the public recalled when engaging elected officials to shape certain policies.

Nowhere has the use of propaganda been more ubiquitous than in war, especially because acquiescence or resistance is based on public sentiment and behavior. In World War II, Hollywood produced films that “created a communal viewing experience unlike any during World War I” intended to maintain resolve for the war. These films capitalized on the public’s predisposition to understand social life in terms of in- and out-groups, which shapes how people often interpret foreign policies, including the use of force.

In contemporary conflict, those symbols have increasingly taken the form of memes, defined as a “piece of media that is repurposed to deliver a cultural, social, or political expression, mainly through humor.” Online users have attempted to counter the Islamic State by creating memes satirizing the group’s barbarism, especially on specific “Troll ISIS Days.” Lebanese Internet-users have ruthlessly mocked Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, with memes.

Memes have also been a staple of the war in Ukraine, providing a valuable window into key questions about how actors use memes for political purposes in war. Who is the audience, what is the message, and what events drive the production of these memes?

To explore these and related questions, we compiled an original dataset of memes posted by Ukrainians throughout the war. The memes were all taken from Reddit, a popular social media website that allows users to comment in discussion forums based on shared interests. Overall, our analysis of Ukrainians’ use of memes points to several findings that shed new light on how other countries may use memes during conflict. First, memes are not used in isolation from a particular military operation on the battlefield, such as an offensive or counter-offensive. Rather, they are concurrent and complementary to these military efforts, suggesting that they are meant to play a supporting role. Second, memes do not seem intended to directly influence diplomacy, but may further diplomatic efforts indirectly by bolstering popular support for the war. Third, memes target a diverse array of audiences, including Ukrainian citizens, expatriate audiences abroad, and Russians, especially soldiers’ families. This suggests that those creating and posting memes assume that success is a function of both domestic resolve as well as foreign material support.

Our empirical approach: Data, method, and descriptive trends

We analyzed Ukraine-related memes generated between the beginning of the war on February 24, 2022, and January 14, 2023. Although the Internet is rife with memes, we focused on Reddit, using the PRAW library in Python, which uses Reddit’s Application Programming Interface to request data from the website. To optimize the library, we used it against a handful of subreddits, which limited our scraping to three subreddits used almost exclusively by Ukrainians: (1) /r/ukrmemes, (2) /r/UkraineMem, and (3) /r/ukraine22memes. This approach yielded 1,365 visual memes, along with metadata for each meme, including its title, author’s screen name, date and time of dissemination, and popularity. The latter is a score that Reddit publishes with every post to help users gauge how much attention it is getting, and is the difference between the number of “upvotes” and “downvotes” a post receives. A greater number of upvotes, therefore, indicates the post is more popular with Reddit users. Finally, we also randomly sampled from our data to confirm that our machine-coding process was reliable.1

The graph below illustrates how the Ukrainian meme war has evolved over time. By plotting meme frequency and popularity against The New York Times’ key monthly developments in the war, we are able to show how the intensity and public uptake of memes correlates with political and military milestones throughout the war.

This figure, made from data provided by Reddit, reflects the meme score (left y-axis) and frequency (right y-axis) from February 24, 2022, to January 14, 2023. For ease of interpretation, we put dates in a day/month/year format.
This figure, made from data provided by Reddit, reflects the meme score (left y-axis) and frequency (right y-axis) from February 24, 2022, to January 14, 2023. For ease of interpretation, we put dates in a day/month/year format (click to expand).

The graph above reveals several patterns. First, the use of memes surged during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has steadily declined throughout the war. This trend suggests that the meme campaign is likely more informal or crowd-sourced than centralized among Ukrainian officials and leaders. If this were a coordinated, top-down effort, we would expect to see more continuity over time, especially in terms of frequency. As a bottom-up effort, the declines point to the possibility of war fatigue among the population.

Second, the frequency and popularity of memes correspond to major ebbs and flows in the Ukraine war, with spikes that clearly relate to major offensives and battles. More specifically, memes seem to play a supporting role designed to amplify tactical effects on the battlefield rather than precede them as a separate form of psychological operations. This finding is in line with what U.S. Army General Christopher Cavoli, the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, observed at a recent security forum in Sweden: “hard power is a reality.” In short, memes are meant not to replace hard power on the battlefield but instead to provide a psychological dividend to the successful application of hard power.

Third, even as memes mirror major milestones in the war, they do not seem to correspond closely with important diplomatic and political events. Among these include the announcement on May 18, 2022, that Sweden and Finland submitted accession documents to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to the White House in late December 2022. This may suggest that memes are hitched to some immediately observable effects, which are typically more pronounced on the battlefield rather than diplomacy, considering negotiations often occur over a longer time horizon.

A typology of memes

Given the visually evocative nature of an image, fully understanding the role played by memes in the Ukrainian conflict requires more than just empirical analysis. Examining a subset of specific memes tells a more complete story of what some analysts have referred to as “memetic warfare,” or the use of memes to control the narrative. Accordingly, we randomly selected a handful of memes that piece together a story about messages and audiences.

Our analysis suggests that a rich typology of memes has emerged during the war. For instance, expatriates in places like the United States often generate memes to establish a sense of solidarity and support abroad. The meme below illustrates this purpose while capitalizing on a clear reference to the popular U.S. television show, “The Office.”  Published on December 14, 2022, the Ukrainian is translated as “Glory to Ukraine!” suggesting a pro-Ukrainian sentiment. Such sentiment may be important to sustain public support for the war, especially in the United States where Congress passed the “Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022” on May 9. Following the precedent of World War II, this act facilitates the transfer of arms and equipment to the Ukrainian government to enable its military operations against Russia.

I live in DC, so this was from a while ago when I went for a walk around the national mall. The couple were going to a small solidarity demonstration outside the White House
by u/marty_mcclarkey_1791 in ukrainememes

Memes can also serve as a commentary on a military operation. The meme below shows a Russian billboard that reads “Kherson—Forever Russia.” The bottom panel then mocks this claim with a SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon, suggesting that Ukrainians believe Russia’s attempt to occupy Kherson is as ridiculous as a childrens’ cartoon. This meme was posted on November 9, 2022, just as the Ukrainians were in the process of recapturing Kherson, which culminated several days later.

„Kherson, forever Russia!“
by u/Wurst_Case in ukrainememes

Similarly, the meme below is from April 20, 2022, days after the Ukrainians had used a drone to sink the Russian warship Moskva, the flagship ship of the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet. It portrays a tough-looking Putin on a ship at the bottom of the sea. The artist appears to be Hajo de Reijger, a freelance illustrator who writes for Dutch newspapers and is based in Amsterdam, but the meme clearly has universal accessibility in highlighting how damaging the sinking of the Moskva was to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image as a competent military leader.

Battleship Moskva – Amsterdam (Netherlands), Hajo de Reijger (20/4/2022)
by in UkrainianMemes

Lastly, some memes are in both Ukrainian and English, suggesting they are designed to shape the attitudes of domestic and international audiences. The following meme, also posted on June 11, 2022, carries the following title: “Putin lacks imagination—У Путина нет воображения.” This statement highlights Putin’s targeting of civilians during the war, contrasting this immoral and illegal use of force with other countries’ investment in children, a message that could be intended for an audience in Russia, for example soldiers’ parents.

Putin lacks imagination -У Путина нет воображения
by u/BeeBobMC in memes

The implications

What insights can we draw from this early analysis of memes in Ukraine? In a sense, the most powerful argument that can be made in defense of memes is theoretical. Countries have always relied on psychological operations conducted through visual expression. They do so because they think that the visual medium is effective for persuasion. In a domestic context, the supporters of political candidates place yard signs around communities because they think people can be persuaded by these visual insinuations, and research suggests that those resources are not wasted. These signs influence vote shares.

Our initial investigation suggests that memes can play a similar role. They offer a simple and digestible way to communicate with supporters, both at home and abroad. Propping up support among citizens is important, if not integral, to the war effort in Ukraine. Ukrainians are at the literal tip of the spear; if they do not resist, the country will fail. The psychological persuasion and support of expatriates is also crucial because they live in countries that materially support the Ukrainian military.

Though our research reflects a mix of memes intended to connect with these audiences, we also find that memes, at least in Ukraine, also play a supporting role to combat operations. As we show, the frequency and popularity of memes track closely with key military milestones in the war and mostly function informally as a way to highlight battlefield successes. To best capitalize on the psychological dividends that memes promise, however, officials should better integrate them into their overall wartime strategies, perhaps through a “Meme Warfare Center,” as recommended by other analysts. The relative decline of memes throughout the Ukrainian war raises another set of questions. Why, if their messages have such powerful potential, have memes declined over time? Do memes operate in a similar fashion as the news cycle where internet-users simply move on to the next viral social issue after a matter of time? Have meme creators concluded that the images are not effective? Has another form of online persuasion, if any, taken their place? Does the use of different social media platforms, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Telegram, and Twitter, shape the frequency and popularity of memes, as well as the anticipated effects? Scholars should study these and related questions to better understand if—and how—memes can play a role in the psychology, and perhaps even outcomes, of war.

Sarah Kreps is the John L. Wetherill Professor of Government at Cornell University and the director of the Cornell Brooks School Tech Policy Institute.

Paul Lushenko is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and deputy director of the Cornell Brooks School Tech Policy Institute.

Keith Carter is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and director of the defense and strategic studies program at the United States Military Academy.

Acknowledgments: The authors would like to thank Alexey Elkin for excellent research assistance, as well as Matthew Evangelista, Bryn Rosenfeld, Aleksandar Vladicic, and an anonymous reviewer for feedback on this research.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or Government.

Note 1. We manually reviewed a cross-section of the memes to check the accuracy of our scraping technique. Specifically, we built an algorithm to randomly select a percentage of memes from our database. This process resulted in a subset of 34 memes—approximately 3% of our database—from which we ensured they were, in fact, memes. Our hand-coding recorded an 85% fidelity rate on the machine-coding, suggesting that the volume of memes may be somewhat lower than the overall number of hits we gathered but we have no reason to think that this affects the broader patterns we observe.