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Earthquake, Covid, WWIII: Why Do We Meme So Much About Our Worst Fears? Explained

By: Vidushi Sagar


Last Updated: November 30, 2022, 12:47 IST

New Delhi, India

Gallows humour is a concept that dates back centuries. Disaster-related memes may be a modern version of the same (Meme tweeted by @memevigilant3)

Gallows humour is a concept that dates back centuries. Disaster-related memes may be a modern version of the same (Meme tweeted by @memevigilant3)

Explained: As a minor earthquake shook Delhi, the memes began. But why do we joke so much about our worst fears? There's a deeper reason

After a minor earthquake occurred in Delhi Tuesday night, it was memes galore on Twitter and other social mdia platforms. The Delhi junta, lamenting on the myriad of problems faced by them, poked fun at the third time tremors were felt in the seismic-prone city within the last couple of weeks.

According to the National Centre for Seismology, the epicentre of the quake with a magnitude of 2.5 was eight km west of New Delhi. It occurred at 9.30 pm.

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While the fun nature of the memes may help lighten the situation, the possibility of a major earthquake is terrifying; due to the immense loss to life and property it can cause. But why is it that everytime an earthquake strikes, citizens resort to a widespread array of memes? The answer is deeper than it seems. News18 explains:

A Human Reaction?

A report by Vox on the meme-trends in 2020 when it was found out that then-President Donald Trump had ordered the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani said that the plethora of memes that emerged ‘may appear juvenile or dismissive, but was simply human’.

Memes are frequently used as examples of larger trends, as well as stand-ins for cultural anxieties and methods of expressing and alleviating fears or other emotions through humour. Meme collectivism is also an important part of their popularity, because their rapid and visible spread helps us all figure out how we feel about a particular news trend or other issue, the report said.

Memes about Soleimani’s assassination exploded on Twitter, TikTok, and other social media platforms after the news broke on January 2 that year. The memes spread ideas about the possibility of World War III, Iran and its culture, and the absurdity of sending a modern generation of teenagers and young adults to war.

Despite some common themes across platforms, most memes about the war looked and felt very different from one another. The vast majority of them, however, joked about people being drafted to fight in the war, the report said.

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World War III memes have been circulating for a while now, especially after the conflict between Trump and North Korea in 2017. They made a comeback recently after a missile hit Poland, and people wondered whether NATO would retaliate ‘against Russia,’ which was initially ‘pointed at for the incident’.

Dr. Saleem Alhabash, professor at Michigan State University’s media psychology department (who studies social media and the way people use memes as intercultural communication) told the Vox in 2020, that “part of the meme response is about “glorifying the war for sure, but also not realizing what war really is and what it means…so dealing with it in a laissez-faire kind of way.”


Laissez-faire is a free-market economic philosophy that opposes government intervention. During the 18th century, the French Physiocrats developed the laissez-faire theory. Laissez-faire advocates believe that when governments intervene in business and markets, economic success suffers. In modern interpretation, the term has come to signify carelessness, a sloven attitude.


But according to Alhabash’s research, when social media users participate online, they frequently ‘do not think too deeply about what to post or share’. He said that users are also motivated to create content based on what we believe other people want to see on social media, which may explain why memes are so easily reified: they show us what we believe people want to see, so we make more of it. The professor further explained that the non-linear nature of memes in spaces like TikTok played a significant role in shaping public discourse. “There’s a certain level of originality [on TikTok] and putting yourself within the narrative of that specific team," Alhabash explained. “You become a part of the story, and the story becomes a part of you."

Despite his reservations about how effective the WWIII memes were at making salient political points, Alhabash noted that the anxiety expressed by the memes is real. “These memes, the way people communicate, could be a reflection of the general feeling that people have — this uncertainty about what will happen and how severe this trend is." As a result, while they may appear amusing or dismissive of the seriousness, they can reflect [public] sentiment."

As Alhabash points out, the memes are about the broader cultural mood and how we receive, express, and amplify it. Alhabash questioned how self-aware this process was. However, for a subset of meme creators and their audiences, war jokes help to alleviate anxiety and keep things lighthearted; it being more like a coping mechanism.

A Control in Humour

When the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020, meme-trends were not limited to one country, but saw a global uptake. “Terrifying situations produce anxiety," Janet Gibson, a psychology professor at Grinnell College, told Gizmodo. “In some ways, getting the joke is like having control over our fears, like knowing we’re alive."

For centuries, dark humour has been a coping mechanism ingrained in human nature. The term “gallows humour," which dates back to the 1848 European revolutions, refers to a type of cynicism in the midst of traumatic situations.

On Dark Humour

Alex M. Borgella, Assistant Professor, Psychology, Fort Lewis College, whose research focuses on the consequences of disparagement humour, told Gizmodo in an interview, “When I’m speculating about the reasons why humour is used in a seemingly inappropriate situation, I first look at its potential to reduce anxiety and stress. The extant research on the general benefits of humour typically home in on its use as a method of anxiety-reduction in a variety of different situations, like team-building, memory, student performance in schools, and a variety of others. Broadly speaking, the vast majority of research on humour reports it as an incredibly powerful tool that facilitates social bonds and increases psychological well-being."

She says, that even though it seems even more counterintuitive, dark humour might be an equally viable method of anxiety reduction in dire situations that seem completely hopeless or out of a person’s control.

“This type of humour is typically found alongside death and destruction: amongst doctors and nurses in hospital ERs and oncology units, soldiers in the trenches during wars, wartime refugees, first responders, and many others and serves an important, albeit a seemingly callous, function: to keep spirits high, stress low, and maintain a sense of humanity where none seems to exist," she said.

“The jokes told by folks in these situations might seem inappropriate or even intolerable to an outside observer, but are commonly reported to be integral to the well-being of the humorists themselves," she added.

Memes Helped Us Deal With the Pandemic, Study Found

According to a study published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of California Santa Barbara, memes helped Americans cope with life during the COVID-19 pandemic. A news release from the American Psychological Association, which publishes the journal, those who viewed memes — a type of humour described as funny or cute pictures that reference pop culture — reported “higher levels of humour" and more positive feelings, a report by NPR said.

They surveyed 748 people online December in 2020: 72% were white, 54% were women, 63% did not have a college degree, and their ages ranged from 18 to 88. They were shown various meme types with various photos and captions and asked to rate the cuteness, humour, and emotional responses elicited by the materials, as well as how much the memes in question made them think about COVID-19.

Those who saw pandemic-related memes experienced less stress than those who saw non-pandemic-related memes. According to the study, they also felt more capable of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and were better at processing information. They were also less likely to be stressed about the pandemic than those who did not see any COVID-19 memes, according to the researchers.

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first published:November 30, 2022, 10:07 IST
last updated:November 30, 2022, 12:47 IST
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