Early Thursday morning, just hours after Russia began its invasion into Ukraine, Ukraine’s official Twitter account posted a political cartoon of an oversized Adolf Hitler looking over Vladimir Putin, his hand cupping Putin’s cheek. Ukraine responded to the tweet a couple hours later: “This is not a ‘meme,’ but our and your reality right now.”
Later in the day, Ukraine tweeted again: “Tag @Russia and tell them what you think about them.”
The country’s tweets went viral, with people seemingly dumbfounded that Ukraine would use such a sarcastic tone on social media while it was being attacked. But Ukraine’s Twitter account has teetered between serious and sarcastic posts about Russia for ages — since as far back as 2017, at least. Only, now, the country’s posts are getting attention.
Ukraine’s use of humor to communicate about serious issues isn’t as odd as it seems, according to Fred Cook, director of USC Center for Public Relations at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “It reflects the fact that Ukraine has very limited power and very few ways to defend themselves,” Cook told Protocol. “They are using the common language of the internet to tell their story to the west, where people aren't very knowledgeable about the situation in Ukraine.”
English-speaking users have always seemed to be the country’s target audience. Ukraine has posted memes and sarcastic tweets tagging @Russia about 40 times since 2020, according to tweets on the account that were reviewed by Protocol. All of the text in the tweets, as well as the text in Ukraine’s memes, was written in English.
No matter the issue, Ukraine would tweet through it. In March 2021, Ukraine’s account quote-retweeted a news story saying Russia planned to block Twitter for failing to delete banned content. The tweet read, “bye, @Russia.” In December, Ukraine posted an image describing different types of headaches: a migraine, hypertension, stress and “living next to Russia.” Last month, the country posted a photo of a Simpsons character with the text: “Stop saying ‘Ukraine crisis.’ There is no crisis. There is a bad neighbor."
Cook added that memes can’t effectively combat what’s happening on the ground, but humor can grab people’s attention and communicate Ukraine’s need for help from the rest of the world. “They're desperate at this point,” Cook said. “They’re being beaten up by a bully. And when you're being beaten up by bullies, you grab a rock or stick or anything to try to defend yourself.
Russia’s Twitter account, notably, doesn't acknowledge Ukraine. In general, Russia’s account posts photos of different destinations in the country and historical facts about it. On Saturday morning, for example, the account retweeted a post from a Russian travel page about the “most beautiful railway stations in Russia.” But Ukraine is quick to respond to Russia’s tweets: For example, when Russia tweets about Crimea, a region it invaded and annexed from Ukraine in 2014, Ukraine often quote-retweets the posts with jokes.
Memes have changed political discourse in other countries, too, including in the United States. A meme likening Sen. Ted Cruz to the Zodiac Killer during the 2016 presidential election, for example, prompted more political engagement, while memes in India have been used to demonstrate where people stand on party lines and issues, according to a 2017 report on internet memes and political discourse.
Ramesh Srinivasan, an information studies professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the tweets may not be a sign of weakness, but a soft power tool the country can use to assert its sovereignty over Russia. “It's important that we look at social media as sort of a propagandist media wing of any sort of political entity,” Srinivasan told Protocol.
“[Ukraine is] pushing the aggressor back to where now what we see is absolute desperation,” he added. “And that's why we see a different sort of set of tweets occurring now.”
Ukraine’s Twitter account hasn’t been humorous as of late. On Friday, the account posted a Twitter thread detailing ways users can help Ukraine. On Saturday morning, the account posted a video depicting Russia’s attack on Ukraine and calling on fellow countries to help it defend itself. “Hit Russia with severe sanctions. Ban it from SWIFT. Isolate it fully. Stop Putin. Stop Russian aggression. Save Ukraine,” text on the video read.
Srinivasan added that Ukraine is portrayed by the western world in a generally positive light, and tapping into the humor understood by the West and more specifically young people helps the country remain in a favorable light. “I don't think these tweets are necessarily presenting Ukraine so differently than what most of the western world at least sees as a country that's being unfairly invaded,” he said.