On Jan. 3, 20-year-old Anita Jalili awoke to disorienting news: Her boyfriend told her that “World War III” was trending on social media. Jalili — who migrated to the United States from Iran with her family when she was 6 — soon learned why: President Trump had authorized a strike against prominent Iranian commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.
On platforms like Twitter and TikTok, a popular video app among teenagers, young people weighed in on the news — with memes. The Internet jokes mostly involved Generation Z-ers (those born after 1997) musing about how to avoid a draft if a war were to erupt. Jalili, who attends college in Phoenix and still has extended family in Iran, says she believes Soleimani “was a bad person” (he has been tied to years of chaos and bloodshed in the Middle East). Still, she felt that riffing on the situation on social media was “insensitive.”
Trump’s decision to target Soleimani came after escalating rocket attacks culminated in the death of an American contractor in Iraq; the consequences of the U.S. strike are yet to be seen, but potentially war-inducing. The reaction from young people is reminiscent of earlier times, says Jennifer Miller, a history professor at Dartmouth: When the Korean War began in 1950 — amid heightening tensions between communist and non-communist countries — “a lot of people, including in popular media, like newspapers, talked about: Would this be World War III?”
For Generation Z, those anxieties have been playing out in novel ways. As The Washington Post reports, after the strike against Soleimani, Google searches for terms such as “conscription” and “Selective Service” spiked. Although there has not been a military draft since 1973 (and experts say a reinstatement is highly unlikely), men who reside in the United States between 18 and 25 are required to register for the Selective Service; women are not.
Perhaps it’s not a surprise, then, that 18- to 25-year-olds — those at the older end of Generation Z — were responsible for the draft-related memes. In the case of young women, gender became a factor, too.
Gen Z largely uses TikTok as an outlet for irreverent humor. That’s how 18-year-old Jillian Butler, a college student living in California, sees the platform. The morning of Jan. 3 was pretty typical for her: After waking up, she checked TikTok. That’s when she saw a meme about “World War III” pop up, and then another. She kept scrolling. The more “#WWIII” memes she saw, the more confused, and then slightly worried, she became: “I was like, is this serious? What is happening? It was kind of a moment of, wait, this isn’t a joke.”
Butler turned to a platform that she trusts more than TikTok to try to figure out what was going on: Twitter. After reading about the conflict in Iran and Iraq, Butler, who has more than 417,000 followers on TikTok, wanted to “chime in.” “The first thing I said to my dad when I was talking to him about it was, ‘Okay, I’m getting pregnant,’” Butler says. “And he was kind of like, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, if I get pregnant, I can’t get drafted, because no one is going to want to volunteer to fight this war, so they’re going to have to draft people.’”
Her TikTok video features a fake baby bump and the caption, “Me and the girls all getting pregnant the day before the WWIII draft.” Hers was just one of the memes to reference gender: Many others raised the notion of reverting to an earlier era, when stereotypes about chivalry and war fell along gender lines.
Writing in the Atlantic, Ian Bogost suggested that the memes are in part a consequence of the memory of war disappearing, that young people are indulging “the nostalgia of the mid-century.”
For young women, that also means imagining a time when restrictive gender roles meant women stayed home “to cook and clean.”
Jalili took issue with the ideas being expressed in some of the gendered memes, given that in Iran, women have limited rights. Americans are able to joke about men going off to war and women reverting to a time when they’d stay at home because of “privilege and these things that don’t affect us,” she says.
At the same time, some young women “appear to acknowledge that women can and do fight in wars,” says Jakana Thomas, a professor of political science at Michigan State University. Tweets such as the one below “suggest that women will step up if called upon,” says Thomas, whose research backs up this notion: “Recently, Kurdish women have stepped up in the fight against ISIS and women all around the world have joined other violent political organizations, including self-defense forces, rebellions and even terrorist organizations.”
Ultimately, the memes point to the fact that many young people appear opposed to the idea of a war, and especially a draft, says Thomas.
For Butler, the #WWIII memes are a way of “finding the humor in things that might actually be a little scary for us.” What’s more, she says, Internet jokes can “spark” teens’ interest in real issues, “and then people can go to other websites to find out what’s going on.” (She usually turns to CNN.)
Miller, the history professor, says that invoking WWIII is one way for young people to “grapple with the enormity of what might happen.” It’s also a reflection of the war on terror, she says, which “has been defined in such massive terms that you turn to the biggest war in history to try to help you understand it.”
Take a look at any of the comments on the WWIII-related posts, and it’s clear that while some Gen Z-ers want simply to inject humor into the situation, for others, the stakes are higher. Hila Baksay, a 24-year-old Iranian American living in Seattle, has “mixed feelings” about the memes. She says that while she finds some of them “funny and creative,” she also “thinks about the people who are directly affected by the attacks.”
Baksay believes that many in her generation don’t understand the gravity of the situation. Her mom lived through a war in Iran, she says, and told her about “things that you would only think exist in movies. But people are out there actually living it.”
For Jalili, it’s about acknowledging that whatever conflict takes place will most likely happen in the Middle East, far out of young Americans’ sight. On Saturday, Trump threatened to target 52 Iranian cultural sites. (On Monday, the Pentagon rejected this idea, citing laws prohibiting such attacks.)
“These people’s lives are at risk,” Jalili says. “Our lives aren’t, and that makes it very easy for people to forget.”