The U.S. military is extremely online. Most of the Twitter accounts for the armed forces’ branches boast followings in the millions, but that’s no surprise in a country whose military capabilities are national legend. What is surprising is the way these accounts choose to tweet, and the anger they’ve inspired in the past few months.
There were the cheerful cartoon shamrocks the Army superimposed over gunshots and explosions on St. Patrick’s Day, and half-anguished, half-elated camo-helmeted faces it photoshopped onto soldiers’ shoulders on Emoji Day. There was, of course, the #BRRRT tweet heard ‘round the world: “The Taliban forces in Farah city #Afghanistan would much rather have heard #Yanny or #Laurel than the deafening #BRRRT they got courtesy of our #A10,” the Air Force account proclaimed after its planes were called in to hold off a May attack.
And Wednesday night, there was the compilation of clips the Marine Corps cut together to create a trailer aping the crossover Nintendo fighting-game series “Super Smash Bros.”: “Choose your character!” says a sound bite from the franchise, before some aggressive electric guitar kicks in and men in full military gear start running around and shooting things. “MARSOC Raiders Hit the Big Time!”
The military, it seems, has decided it is a smart messaging move to co-opt and capitalize on internet culture. This approach not only aims to sanitize the reality of international conflict and the killing that comes with it; it aims to coolify it.
Propaganda from our armed forces is nothing new. Uncle Sam has wanted America’s youth for the U.S. Army ever since this nation has had wars. But there’s something about these tweets that elicits even more squeamishness than your standard strategic valorizing. This has a lot to do with the internet itself.
Internet communities suck netizens into their vortexes. People panic over how sites’ algorithms promote extremism or conspiracy theories because what we see on the internet, unmediated, has a scary amount of sway over our thought processes and decisions. That means these military accounts can influence the people who see them more than a propaganda poster on a wall would have a century ago — especially if whoever’s behind the computer knows what buttons to push. And they do know.
The “Super Smash Bros.” tweet is an impressive example: The military and the gaming industry have long operated in a sort of symbiosis, the former providing funding and expertise to help developers craft first-person shooters and the latter creating specialized versions of those games for soldiers to train. The Army has even used games to entice civilians to enlist. “Super Smash Bros.” is no first-person shooter, but Wednesday’s tweet tells its fans the on-screen battlefield and the real-life one really aren’t so different after all. It’s a specific application of the military’s general goal online to convince users that soldiers are just like them.
Then there’s the other reason the military’s humor hits so far off the mark. Instead of sharing straightforward messages of might and majesty, the armed forces’ accounts are borrowing the quirkier conventions of online dialogue. They think it’s OK to attach silly symbols like emoji to such serious subjects despite the mismatch because they see the internet as a place of lightheartedness, where nothing makes much sense.
But these military accounts are misunderstanding the world. Yes, internet humor is full of nonsense and incongruities — “hacks” to make things easier that actually make them worse, “advice” that conveys a sense of existential dread, tweets funny only for their outlandishness. Yet satire and absurdism thrive on the web because, for many who spend time in Twitter’s jokier corners, the internet space exists in its own reality. It operates on a different set of rules.
Military messaging, on the other hand, can’t exist only in the land of online. It’s impossible to separate what one of these accounts says on the web from what those words are actually aimed to achieve: recruiting people to fight for the U.S., and perhaps to take others’ lives or risk their own. “Lol nothing matters,” goes the internet’s consummate meme. The problem is, this does matter. And that makes laughing a whole lot harder.
Molly Roberts is a columnist with The Washington Post.