If a picture is worth a thousand words, than a snappy line along with the photo is sure to get shared, tweeted, tagged, and otherwise circulated around the social media ether. Memes have surfaced recently as social media's ideal blend of wit, opinion, and brevity. A short and snappy line is much more likely to stick in a viewer's mind, and so these memes might be a way to increase the public awareness of international issues that otherwise might miss out on attention.
In light of the untapped potential of these memes, what do we make of the viral photos of the "ridiculously photogenic Syrian soldier?" A photo taken on June 15 in Syria of an unidentified man has gone viral within the past few weeks, accompanied by varying degrees of sexual innuendo and no mention of actual events in Syria.
Funny? Yes. Morbid? Probably. The U.N. has evacuated its observers from Syria, after realizing their helplessness. Presdient Obama has recently indicated that the United States could become involved in Syria should President Assad appear to mobilize any of the biological or chemical weapons the regime is now known to possess.
Americans have become so accustomed to wielding such unchallenged military superiority (see this chart if you don't believe me) that we have a skewed understanding of what qualifies as a "long war." The global public eye is diverted by other distractions, like the Olympics or the upcoming U.S. election. This post in Foreign Policy argues that the hard-pressed rebel forces "may finally grab the headlines" now that they have a hot cover-boy to sell the cause.
While the memes of this man are garnering their share of attention, public attention from the people who are enjoying them, i.e. Westerners, is unlikely to have any productive result. The much-touted effect of social media in the Arab Spring resulted from the people of those countries using technology as a forum to air grievances and consider injustices they had suffered for many years. Revolutions are effective only when the people initiating them are unified around common ideas, and they must be judged by the way of life the rebels choose once they have become the lawmakers. While a show of support from other nations is beneficial to an uprising, these memes can hardly be seen as a principled source of encouragement and will probably not sway the American public one way or the other if the administration decides to become involved in Syria.
That said, social media certainly has its role to play, and it might make a big difference in cases such as the Russian government's persecution of rock band Pussy Riot. Reminding the world that the flagrant disregard for the law still exists even in some nations usually seen as modern could galvanize support and affect Russia's image, international investment, and ultimately political reform.
It's a common proverb that "any press is good press." That may eventually prove true with the Syrian soldier memes, but there is a dark twinge to some of the publicity. Maybe I've seen The Hunger Games film one too many times, but cracking jokes about a sexy photo of a man while his fellow Syrians die every day does not seem like something to be proud of.