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Opinion | What Elon Musk’s Putin Challenge Shows About the Meme-ification of War

What’s the harm, you might ask? For one thing, some of what we see on social media is simply untrue, which can mislead us about the facts of what’s happening. Take, for example, a video of what appeared to be a young Ukrainian girl confronting a Russian soldier, which went viral at the end of February. In fact, the video was from 2012, and showed the Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi confronting an Israeli soldier. Besides raising important questions about why certain conflicts seem to garner our clicks and others do not, the mislabeled video is illustrative of the kind of broken-telephone messaging that happens when we mindlessly “like” and share. Even without blatant untruths, by compressing complex global events into flat images that can be understood with little context, social media tends to promote simplistic narratives that confirm existing biases. This leaves users incredibly vulnerable to misinformation and propaganda — as in Russia, where misleading videos, images and clips present the war as a righteous conflict.

All this scrolling can also lead to compassion fatigue. For Mr. McLuhan, who famously declared that “the medium is the message,” the tactile experience of media — in his time print publications, radio and television — was an essential component of its effect on the audience. On social media, as we banish posts to the ether with a flick of the thumb, we caress their images, gently touching the army tanks, the faces of celebrities, the bodies of civilians in the street; we wear them close to our chest and sleep next to them at night. This intimacy with violence and suffering can feel disturbing or emotionally triggering; it can also be desensitizing.

It also promotes a sense of complacency; we believe we already know what is happening, and can be downright smug in our convictions about who are the “bad guys” and who are the “good guys.” For Putin supporters, Mr. Musk’s tweet was further evidence of the West’s plot against Russia; for Mr. Musk’s fans, it was just another reason to love the irreverent billionaire.

Some of the strangest replies to Mr. Musk’s tweet were the ones thanking him for “helping” Ukraine. It’s unclear how, exactly, they believed the tech executive was helping the country, or why they would think Ukraine was his to gamble, but it’s indicative of how attention is often conflated with activism on social media.

This isn’t to say that nothing good can ever come from attention garnered on social media. For a counterexample, see President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine’s effective pleas for international support, which have raised morale and helped to raise substantial funds for Ukrainian people (including, according to Zelensky, $35 million, thanks to the efforts of Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, largely through social media). The videos he has released have helped him come across as statesmanly and unifying, a leader who has been compared to Winston Churchill.

In the foreword for “The Mechanical Bride,” Mr. McLuhan references Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “A Descent Into The Maelström,” in which a sailor saves himself from drowning in a whirlpool by studying its currents and observing its movements with detachment. In this same way, we might try to identify and recognize the algorithmic undercurrents at the center of social media — but for most of us, the more practical solution is probably to just step away, and to find a better way to stay informed about world events.

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