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As the world undergoes complex changes, a hidden uprising is shaping the fundamental aspects of our collective destiny: the rapidly expanding domain of online intercountry conflicts. These contemporary clashes, fought not with conventional arms but with a specialized and perhaps not widely recognised set of war weapons that include an arsenal of memes and cultural references, have unveiled a new model in the historical records of warfare. This article embarks on a journey into the complex areas of these unconventional confrontations, dissecting their distinctive or peculiar qualities, and discerning their omnipresent resonance within the intergenerational dialogue.

At the epicentre of this novel theatre of conflict lies an intriguing division: the clash between memes – the currency of digital expression – and the retreat of traditional armaments. One cannot overlook the alarming dominance of Kenyans on Twitter (KOT), whose prowess in meme warfare has spearheaded a new frontier in geopolitical discourse. They have gone to war with countries like Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, USA and even with individuals like TD Jakes. This phenomenon illustrates a seismic shift from traditional warfare methodologies to a realm where wit, satire, and cultural references reign supreme. 

In the digital landscape, being a Kenyan on Twitter has parallels with the experience of a young adult male in present-day Ukraine. It’s akin to involuntary conscription into a virtual army, where one must be prepared to engage in a war if the situation demands it. There’s an implicit understanding that at any moment, you might find yourself thrust into the midst of a virtual conflict, much like being caught in the crossfire of a missile exchange, although in the digital realm. In these instances, civility often takes the backseat as the imperative becomes participating in the war of memes until a perceived victory is claimed. The expectation is to leap onto the battlefield without hesitation, deferring questions or sometimes never asking them at all.

Distinction between these digital wars and their physical predecessors 

The distinction between these digital wars and their physical predecessors is both stark and multifaceted. Unlike traditional conflicts that are characterized by physical battlegrounds and overt hostilities, these virtual battles are waged on the planes of social media. Memes, the primary arsenal in this domain, act as catalysts for shaping public opinion, propagating ideologies, and igniting global discourse. They go beyond linguistic barriers, resonating universally and wielding immense influence on perceptions and narratives.

For example, KOT would find a seemingly harmless tweet, often non citizens making a joke about a problem the country is facing,  then sparked a rapid 48-hour virtual battle between countries. This results in numerous casualties, bruised egos, tarnished reputations, and a war of harsh exchanges among soldiers on the digital battlefield. However, while Kenyans often emerge victorious in Twitter wars, it’s essential to consider: Was the other side equally engaged? Did they participate with the same zeal as KOT or did they choose to retreat? KOT might come across as a band of spirited troublemakers, often amplifying misunderstandings, jumping into unprovoked battles, and engaging in juvenile disputes seemingly just for the thrill of it.

The universality of these virtual wars raises serious concerns about the trajectory they chart for our collective future. Should we sound the alarm bells amidst the escalating prevalence of online conflicts, or is this evolution merely an inevitable facet of our technologically-driven era? From an international point of view, these wars have proven to be dangerous. For instance, in as much as  the Russia-Ukraine war was physical, some of it was fuelled online. Surprisingly, the official Twitter account of the Government of Ukraine shared a meme (which was later named Living Next to Russia) illustrating the levels of headaches and humorously suggested that living next to Russia is the most challenging headache. 

The government of Russia responded with the Red Wine Headache meme which diagnosed Ukrainians of Red Wine Headache (RWH) and jokingly told them to choose their wine carefully or order them from Russia. Other examples where twitter fingers have become trigger fingers on the international front include Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s tweet of an image resembling Barack Obama with a gun pointed at his head. He accompanied it with a text that reads, “We welcome no war, nor do we initiate any war but if any war happens the one who will emerge loser will be the aggressive and criminal U.S. ” 

Gen Z on the battlefield 

Central to this discourse is the role of Generation Z, the torchbearers and unwitting casualties of this digital battlefield. Navigating the maze of global dynamics, these young individuals find themselves entangled in a perplexing landscape where the lines between reality and the virtual realm blur constantly. The challenges they encounter in deciphering the nuances of these conflicts and navigating their impact on societal narratives are profound.

The imperative question surfaces: How do we shepherd a generation embroiled in this finely detailed and complex piece of virtual warfare, fostering resilience and steering them towards a future that transcends the echoes of digital conflict? The answer, it seems, lies in a nuanced understanding of the interplay between technology, cultural dynamics, and the innate resilience of Gen Z. It is a well understood and widely known unwritten rule: on platforms like twitter (now X), before the war goes cross-border, do not be the main character or, to put it better, do not be on the frontline in these battles. This is because every day there is a war waged against individuals, this war includes but is not limited to airing people’s dirty linen and abusing anything soldiers find fit to abuse in the process.  This can take a toll on people’s mental health.

It is also crucial to recognize that while memes and online conflicts wield immense power, one that can fuel an actual war or take a toll on someone’s mental health,  they are also symbolic of the creativity and adaptability of this generation. Gen Z’s adeptness in navigating the digital realm, coupled with their innate capacity for empathy and inclusivity, serves as a beacon of hope amidst the chaos.

To decipher the trajectory of these unconventional conflicts and their implications for the future, it is imperative to delve into the metamorphosis of warfare. The evolution from physical munitions to memetic warfare necessitates a change of our understanding of conflict resolution, diplomacy, and the dynamics of power in the digital age. Does deleting a tweet suffice as an apology? What happens when someone uses a deleted tweet to still propagate hate?

This metamorphosis of warfare also demands introspection into the ethical considerations inherent in wielding memes as weapons. The fine line between humour and propaganda, satire and manipulation, necessitates a conscientious approach to recognise the ethical boundaries of digital conflict.

Social media revolutions 

Research on memes highlights their ability to influence how issues are framed, inform individuals, shape attitudes, and mobilize various forms of political action. While there is limited social psychological research directly examining memes and the underlying social communication processes, studies within the social identity and relative deprivation traditions reveal how the sharing of information, emotions, and intentions can reinforce individual psychology, increasing the likelihood of concerted and coordinated action across individuals.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) meme gained widespread traction in US society in a relatively short span of time, particularly among those historically most concerned with racial inequality and injustice. For instance, in the three weeks following officer Darren Wilson’s non-indictment for the killing of Michael Brown, the “BlackLivesMatter” hashtag was used 1.7 million times on Twitter, predominantly in support of the movement. Over nearly 17 years since Twitter’s inception, both “BlackLivesMatter” and “Ferguson” have consistently ranked among the most used hashtags referring to a social cause, even outpacing keywords like “Trump” in 2016. However, it’s important to note that support for Black Lives Matter is not universal. Despite its significant online presence and influence, there are varying opinions and levels of support for the movement.

Real-time examples abound, showcasing the profound impact of social media sharing of memes  in shaping global narratives and catalysing socio-political movements. The media’s role in shaping a country’s national identity is crucial, and this is particularly evident in the Arab world where a media revolution is fuelling a renewed sense of regional Arab awareness. The upsurge of mass protests in the early months of 2011 across the Middle East underscored the significance of cutting-edge information communication technologies (ICT) and digital social media tools and networks.

These technological advances have had a profound impact globally, disrupting both developed and developing countries. The term “Arab Spring” is often associated with various descriptors like the “Twitter Revolution“, “Facebook Revolution,” “Mobile Phone Revolution,” “Internet Revolution,” and “Skype Revolution”. Each of these played a major role in facilitating communication among people, a feat that would have been nearly impossible without the use of modern technology.

From the Arab Spring to contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter, memes have served as catalysts for change, amplifying voices, and challenging entrenched power structures.

In this landscape, fostering resilience amidst the chaos entails equipping Gen Z with critical thinking skills, media literacy, and an unwavering commitment to inclusivity and empathy. Nurturing their ability to discern between authentic information and propaganda is paramount in steering them towards becoming architects of a harmonious and equitable global future.

In conclusion, the rise of online conflicts and the power of memes mark a new chapter in the history of warfare. These battles deeply influence Generation Z, urging us to approach this new landscape with strength, understanding, and moral judgment. As we navigate the complexities of online battles, our goal is clear: to build a future where digital conflicts are overcome, guiding us to a more connected, accepting, and enlightened world.