Approximately three hours ago, the official twitter account of the United States Embassy in Kiev posted this meme. 1
U.S. Embassy Kyiv, tweet, 22 February 2022.
The meme is idiotic at even the surface level: in face of Russian claims that Ukraine is a 20th century political fiction artificially dividing the Russian people into national categories that would not have made sense to any European who lived before Lenin, and that this cradle of Russian culture should not be allowed to fall within the geopolitical ambit of a hostile anti-Russian alliance, the American embassy tweets a meme that highlights Kiev’s role as the origin point of Russian civilization. This is not hard. A Russian sixth-grader could explain why celebrating the glories of Kievan Rus does not subvert Putin’s claims about the history of the Russian nation so much as reinforce them.
The American diplomat who posted this meme should have known this. He or she was almost certainly a Foreign Service Officer in the Public Diplomacy cone; a public diplomat’s first charge is learning how to communicate persuasively to the people of the region stationed in. It is not that this officer lacked the raw intelligence to fulfill this role: four out of every five applicants fail the Foreign Service’s selective entrance tests. It is what this diplomat did after receiving his or her post that mattered. This diplomat did not study. Memes like these are the product of a culture that retweets more than it reads.
The internet operates on its own logic. In the world of Twitter, Twitch and Tiktok, fame is the aim and exposure the goal. The influence of an influencer is measured in retweets, reblogs, and runaway memes. The internet-addled man glories in the hashtag that takes on its own life; he revels in the image that entire subcultures make their own. His battleground is “the discourse.” In this ethereal realm of images and threads, prestige comes from being clever, being funny, and being first. One’s internet enemies are to be cancelled where possible, and lampooned when not. The social media addict knows victory when the right words are used by the right sorts.
But not all enemies can be cancelled. Not all fights can be won through clever retweets. The world of flesh and blood does not always work like the world of memes and tweets. Those given responsibility in the world of physical things court disaster when they confuse internet politics with the real thing.
This was the lesson we all should have learned from the fall of Hong Kong. Here is how the internet’s most thoughtful tankie described the lessons of Hong Kong for revolutionary leftists of the future:
It’s my belief that the Hong Kong protest campaign has had good (not perfect) tactics and a very distorted strategy, that has caused it to throw away some absolutely monumental gains in favour of the maximum possible international media outreach – I believe this strategy was pursued not even wholly consciously, but partially because of the history and culture of the movement and also because of the warping nature of one of the main mediums of organisation and communication of the movement: that being the internet.
…The movement that emerged in 2019 has proved through its internet-savvy and energy quite masterful at controlling the narrative, at imposing upon the whole world – not only Hong Kong – a story of heroic underdog youth versus a corrupt government and a capital-c Communist superpower. The number of amateur and professional photographers and reporters who followed the protests, capturing both the worst moments of the police and best, most surreal and exciting moments of the protesters themselves, was remarkable. The images and rhetoric employed, whether a simple HONG KONG ADD OIL, the stark, powerful LIBERATE HONG KONG REVOLUTION OF OUR TIMES, or the by-now iconic FIVE DEMANDS AND NOT ONE LESS, all stuck out in contrast to the muddled symbolism of past HK localist efforts…. All of this created an atmosphere of delirious, incredible unreality, where the movement had power far beyond its actual ability, where it seemed for a while that all of the impossible things the first and second phases of the democracy movement had balked at really were possible, or at least were impossible and worth dying gloriously for.
…And yet these dizzying heights and the incredible global reach of the protest movement came at a cost that those paying for it didn’t really understand. In a revolutionary moment – and in the sense of its definitive break with the prior reality, the seductive touch of its ideas, Hong Kong represented the vague stirrings of one – the most important thing, once the structure has fallen in, is to consolidate it… The Hong Kong protestors did not go for this. They did not attempt to create a dual power system in the Soviet style in 1917, or attempt to build alternative structures or forces that could rival the HKSAR government; they did not bide their time or wait or plan. The truly revolutionary impulse – of construction rather than destruction – escaped them, and after their victory in the fight over the Extradition Bill they immediately escalated, and they escalated in the stupidest possible way. Five Demands that were impossible, that trapped the HKSAR government, and increasingly strident rhetoric that was designed to irritate Beijing, and ever-increasing acts of violence and disruption, and finally the HK PolyU siege, a pointless act of supreme grandstanding that gave the police everything they wanted…
And they saw their own photographs and memes being uploaded and looking great and the mass hashtags showing their numbers, and they saw foreign newspapers fawning and international leaders speaking out, and with that all the disinformation of modern social media, of Epoch Times articles and clickbait journalism and people from all over the world who they’d never met expressing support, and this became their new reality; the world versus ChiNazi. Their behaviour became unmoored from strategy and their tactics thus dissolved.
And so in the end China, roused by LIBERATE HONG KONG and the American flag and their own flag being burned and tossed aside, by so much intentional provocation on the side of the protestors for the whole of the course of the movement, finally pushed back; it didn’t give them what they wanted, the Tiananmen 2.0 that would have vindicated all the suffering they endured by at least proving them right. Instead it slammed Hong Kong shut with the National Security Law, destroying them with bureaucracy instead of bullets. And the 2019 that set Hong Kong ablaze, its end delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, finally came to a close just as unsatisfying and meaningless as the Umbrella Movement before it.2
“Yoshimi,” “The Revolution Will Not Be Trending – Hong Kong, Social Media, and The Failure of Attention Politics,” Video City (blog), August 16, 2020,
How many divisions does Twitter have?3 That question is the lesson of Hong Kong. Victory in the meme wars means nothing when actual war comes knocking. If success on the webz convinces activists that they have more momentum and outside support than is really available, meme victories may undermine the greater cause. As in Hong Kong, the energy of a movement “too online” perpetually threatens to shift from strategic calculation in the real world to chasing performative victories in the virtual.
I have taken this line from Robert Tracinski (tweet, 22 February 2022). The phrase is an allusion to an apocryphal statement by Stalin, the history of which is traced in Pascal Tregeur, “The History of the Phrase ‘How Many Divisions Has the Pope?” Word Histories, 23 August 2019.
Our unnamed diplomat is not the leader of a movement. He is a junior representative of a government that is unable to stop the Russian attack on his new home. Forced to evacuate in chaos, this diplomat must hate the autocrat who turned his life upside down, fear for the friends he left behind, and feel the guilt that stalks all privileged survivors of catastrophe. Behind this poorly conceived tweet is a broken young 20-something raging at the powerlessness of his position. Who am I to judge his actions from the safety and comfort of a DC suburb? My life has not been upended. No one I know will die this week. Judgements cheapen with distance.
Yet in politics intentions shrink before outcomes. No Ukrainian in two weeks’ time, mourning the death of a family member in the rubble, or shivering in a foreign refugee camp, will say “at least in the lead-up to war the American embassy pwned the Russians with a dank meme!”4 And that would be true for a meme that actually pawned the Putin, instead of one that inadvertently reinforces his cause.
Thought adapted from Adam Elkus, tweet, 22 February 2022.
This meme is an isolated diplomat’s attempt to reclaim his agency and fight back the only way he knows how. That our diplomat’s first impulse is to resort to a self-defeating meme speaks to a broader problem—the sort of cultural problem instinctual reactions to crisis make most clear. This is a problem of an entire generation—my generation. We are a people that retweets when we could be reading. The minds of best and our brightest have been poisoned by ratios, “god tweets,” and memes. We came of age on Twitter, Tumblr, and 4chan, and still see the world through their frames. We find it harder and harder to distinguish the actual from the image; we struggle to disentangle perception management from problem management. This is what it looks like when the terminally online ascend to positions of real responsibility. Welcome to the age of shitpost diplomacy.
If you would like to read some of my essays on similar topics, you might find the posts “So Begins the Age of Instagram Diplomacy,” “The World That Twitter Made,” and “On Cultures That Build” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.