Imagine: Two neighboring nuclear powers get into a brawl. Not only do these countries share thousands of miles of border, but also a long history of hostility, outright violence and diplomatic animosity. There’s an imminent threat of war. And a single nuclear strike by one of these players could trigger effects that transcend national borders and threaten the very survival of civilization itself.
Classic meme fodder, right? Well, their citizens sure seem to think so.
Earlier this year, tensions between India and Pakistan reached an unsettling high. The timing of the tussle coincided with the buildup to this year’s Indian elections, which recently began and will last until late May. The prospect of a nuclear war was hovering above South Asia.
It was hardly the first time the two inherent rivals were at odds, but the atmosphere was markedly different because of another contemporary battlefield: social media.
The weaponization of Twitter hashtags was covered thoroughly in the news. (Now that old people finally get hashtags, they sure do like to talk about them.) But we saw another kind of grass-roots warfare online, too, with citizens of both nations exchanging fire through memes.
My parents are both Pakistani diplomats, so I grew up in a lot of different countries. When high school started, my mom got posted to the embassy in D.C. There, as I was getting used to having an iPhone for the first time, I downloaded Twitter and immediately started following a bunch of people from back home in Pakistan. That was when I became a part of Pakistani Twitter, an online community spanning the entire country.
Since then, it’s become clear to me that the way information spreads, especially political information, is changing. Some Democratic staffers in the U.S., for example, are now tasked with making memes to appeal to a younger audience. And that shift toward jokes and composite images has been global. After the India-Pakistan hostilities started, there was a sudden onslaught of humor about the situation, with both the Indian and Pakistani sides of the subcontinent taunting each other with visual and verbal comedy.
In an earlier time, the citizens of both countries might have muttered insults about their neighbor under their breath while reading the morning news, or made bitter comments at dinner parties. Now there is a direct line between enemies as mass communication continues to shift toward social media.
At every development, there was a fresh set of memes being circulated all over the internet, particularly Twitter. Comment sections on Facebook posts related to the conflict were filled with Indians and Pakistanis hurling abuses and colorful memes at each other.
The ability to forward WhatsApp messages got the older demographics involved as well. I noticed when my dad suddenly knew what a meme was (and yes, he sent many to me).
It’s easy to understand, and share, bite-size statements that cater to your political views. This is not to say that all the sharing was aggressive or nationalism-fueled; a lot of the jokes were simply making fun of the prospect of war itself.
Just like other memes, these sometimes veered on the bizarre, and made light of incredibly sensitive topics (like this compilation of Alex Jones yelling as a way to describe the political situation).
At certain points, even I got a little uncomfortable with all of it, because people had actually suffered. Everyone is (or should be) aware that there are hideous repercussions to war, especially between nuclear nations. But maybe that’s exactly why some approached it with levity.
Using humor as a coping mechanism is nothing new, but the millennial and Gen Z tendency to approach serious issues with jokes adds another layer to political discourse — a layer that senior political analysts of the region probably didn’t, or couldn’t, properly factor into their analyses.
It’s just a part of how our generation understands and processes the reality around them. Memes aren’t inherently bad or good, but they do speak to a cultural moment. They take on the character of the people creating and consuming them. This was and is an international conversation, with both locals and even the desi diaspora, like Hasan Minhaj, getting involved.
“You see so much happening around you at that point,” Indian Twitter user @soupykaur told me. “You need to say something because you’re scared of the prospect of war.”
In the age of Twitter diplomacy, the fact that Indo-Pak dynamics have become more cyber should come as no surprise. Realizing the potential of the internet, both BJP, India’s ruling party, and PTI, Pakistan’s ruling party, had notable social media campaigns to get them in power. This is indicative of a larger, more global shift in the nature of political dialogue, even in the most dire of circumstances. The way people now interact with this manifestation of media is something that could come to define our age.
“The language of social media is different than other medias. The younger generations, like millennials and Gen Z, are more likely to use pop culture in their language,” the prominent Pakistani Twitter user @Bluemagicboxes told me. “So pop culture now affects political language.”
Take the popularity of Egg Boy, a teenager who cracked an egg onto the head of a far-right politician that was criticized for blaming Muslim immigration for the New Zealand shootings earlier this year. Acting with his phone in his hand, the teenager quickly became a social media hero who embodied the way politics, youth, and social media meld together to create viral phenomena.
What’s been happening in Pakistan and India recently is an extension of the same concepts. I think it’s safe to say that memes have become a universal language. Whether we’re facing hate speech or nuclear war, there’s apparently nothing that can’t be memed.
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Elia Rathore is a contributor to The Edit. She recently graduated from Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan.
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