The Internet’s Response To Ukraine Has Been Peak Cringe

From Zelensky thirst traps to Star Wars memes, the collective obsession with virality has led to some embarrassing and insensitive posts.

It has been nearly a week since Russian President Vladimir Putin made the decision to invade Ukraine. Since the conflict broke out, people have been posting some of the most cringeworthy, inappropriate, strange, or hilariously out-of-touch content that I have maybe ever observed.

It was one thing when a bunch of Americans were tweeting takes about the Trump administration or other facets of US politics. At least they probably had some knowledge of what goes on in their own country. But now the news dominating the platform is a complicated geopolitical conflict that few likely understand with any real clarity or nuance. Yet the take machine must churn on, so now some people on Twitter are weighing in on US foreign policy, or crowing about how they were actually not at all shocked by the invasion.

“Some of y’all went from COVID experts to foreign policy experts on The Twitter in a week,” political commentator Bakari Sellers wrote last week.

This rush for retweets is also leading to some truly embarrassing moments. If you want some highlights, a fiction writer named Emma Berquist helpfully rounded up what she deemed the “most insane takes” on the conflict shortly after Russia invaded. From people enjoying the ~war aesthetic~ (one of them later apologized) to this woman’s bright idea, to armchair diagnoses of Putin, to whatever the hell this is. If those aren’t your cup of tea, try taking a stroll down self-promotion lane, from this guy putting a positive spin on the whole “invade” thing to notorious author Seth Abramson using the conflict to sell his book?

As the days go by, the tweets have only gotten stranger. Some people are eager to distill the conflict into the lens of their own favorite science fiction series, comparing the war to Star Wars, Marvel, and Lord of the Rings. As one response to the Star Wars tweet put it: “This tweet made me want to encase myself in carbonite forever.” Same!

Another curious phenomenon has also emerged on Twitter over the weekend: thirst for Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

A man in a green t-shirt stands behind a podium.

“BREAKING: every woman in your life now has at least a small crush on Volodymyr Zelenskyy and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it,” one woman tweeted on Sunday, garnering more than 170,000 retweets. “He dances, he acts, he presidents, he fights, I’m a straight 41yo man and i think I’m pregnant just watching him,” another guy wrote. People are making fancams devoted to the “hot” leader, sharing memes about his survival and gleefully posting clips from his past career as an actor and comedian, including one of him dancing to Beyoncé.

“This right here i represent you the hottest, sexist, bravest man in the world. He's sexy, he has a lionheart and he fights for his country. He FIGHTS for his glory country,” one person wrote.

Have we learned nothing from the doomed “Cuomosexual” meme?

Going back to the pop culture references, many on Twitter are making memes that show Zelensky photoshopped as various Marvel characters, including Captain America. Some people have decided he resembles actor Jeremy Renner, who plays Hawkeye in the Marvel films, and have “cast” the actor in the role of Zelensky in…I guess…a war film? “Fans cast Jeremy Renner as Zelensky in fantasy Ukraine invasion film: Too soon?” a New York Post headline read. “Fans.... of what........,” one person responded.

Sellers on Etsy are even getting in on the action. On the platform, you can buy mugs with Zelensky’s face on them surrounded by the colors of the Ukrainian flag, a T-shirt with a quote from the president in flowery script, another with Zelensky’s face on the famous Barack ObamaHope” logo, or one that reads “President Zelenskyy, my hero.” Have we learned nothing from the doomed “Cuomosexual” meme? No politician needs this level of online fervor and thirst surrounding him, and Zelensky has enough on his plate. “Not sure twitter will survive a milkshake duck of this magnitude,” one person wrote in response to the hero worship.

Over on TikTok, things aren’t much better. As NPR reported over the weekend, the platform has been inundated with videos purportedly from the front lines of the conflict that actually show footage of “old conflicts, scenes from movies and even video game battles as if showing on-the-ground live footage.”

Media Matters even called out TikTok for “facilitating” the spread of misinformation, writing, “Videos of missile strikes, explosions, and gunfire exchanges are garnering millions of views, even though some contain older footage unrelated to this conflict or videos manipulated through audio to capitalize on an anxious audience.”

It blamed one of the app’s key features, the ability to reuse someone else's audio, as “a major source of digital misinformation,” as it allows people to upload new, false videos using old audio. One of the videos Media Matters called out, which purported to be from Ukraine and had more than 5 million views, used audio from a 2020 clip of an explosion in Beirut.

“TikTok’s platform architecture is amplifying fear and permitting misinformation to thrive at a time of high anxiety,” the watchdog wrote. “Though it’s crucial that the public remain informed of such high-stakes situations, it seems that the platform’s design is incompatible with the needs of the current moment.”

They are sharing details of the conflict, real or dubious, set to trending sounds on the app to try to reach the largest audience possible.

Why are people posting this Ukraine TikTok content? For the same reason people are sharing things on Twitter. They want to go viral and are using the war to try and do so. Besides the misinformation being shared, many TikTok users are hopping on the bandwagon by posting videos about Ukraine to try to get a ton of views. They are sharing details of the conflict, real or dubious, set to trending sounds on the app to try to reach the largest audience possible.

It’s pretty shameless, but it works. One video showing a map of planes avoiding Ukraine’s airspace, set to a sped-up rendition of Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry,” has more than 2 million views. Another video, featuring a slideshow of “the women of Ukraine standing up for their country” and set to Sia’s “Unstoppable,” has more than 3.5 million views. One user’s video that depicts two Russian and Ukrainian planes and set to audio of a cartoon, got 1 million views.

And then, of course, we also have the usual buffoonery and slacktivism during a global crisis, which happens every time something major is in the news. These include influencers posting thirst traps with captions about the war or shoehorning in sponcon, boomers saying something inane, and people tweeting about thoughts and prayers and then receiving backlash to said thoughts and prayers. And…whatever AnnaLynne McCord was trying to do.

For some reason, though, the reaction to Ukraine has pushed me over the edge. Maybe it’s the Zelensky thirst traps. OK, it is definitely the Zelensky thirst traps.

I think everyone who spends a lot of time posting content on the internet should use this moment to take a step back. What do they want to put out into the world? Is it helpful, or is it not? And maybe, just maybe, this is a time to keep your thoughts and opinions to yourself.

War, after all, is hard to sum up in a hot take.●

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