You may have heard of “main character syndrome,” a term popularized on TikTok and Instagram. It’s what happens when someone’s desire for individuality mixes with the desire to romanticize their own life, which leads to them feeling (and acting) like life is a movie starring them.
In some ways, this little bit of egoism may be harmless — but when you blend main character syndrome with social media and privilege, it can be a recipe for clueless, insensitive and downright strange behavior. Responses to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine have demonstrated this.
It’s no surprise that main character syndrome is so intricately linked with social media — after all, what’s the point of acting like your life is a movie if nobody is around to watch it? It becomes problematic, however, when this desire to center yourself in every discourse, dialogue and disaster takes precedence over everything. Even a major European war.
As commentator and YouTuber Natalie Wynn put it: “I always hated war, hated Twitter. But somehow I wasn’t prepared for how much I would hate war Twitter.” The past few weeks, timelines have been littered with takes and discourses so atrocious that I find myself wondering if social media can possibly get worse — and then something else goes viral and I remind myself that yes, it actually can.
“This person posts a lot, but there’s always this feeling that there’s something left unsaid in their posts: namely, the desire for you to pat them on the back and tell them what a good person they are.”
Take, for example, clairvoyants using their tarots to predict the death toll, people fetishizing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a “heartthrob” as he evades assassination attempts, and “90210” star AnnaLynn Mccord’s spoken-word poem in which she somehow positions herself as the would-be savior of Ukraine, if she only had the chance to be Vladimir Putin’s mother.
Then there are the particularly egregious Marvel comparisons, such as Twitter threads detailing how Avengers characters would react to the conflict; editing Zelenskyy as Captain America and dubbing him “Captain Ukraine”; or “fan-casting” Jeremy Renner to play the Ukrainian president in an eventual movie about an event that is continuing (and worsening) each day. There are the numerous jokes about being “drafted” coming from people who, unlike the men in Ukraine being pulled out of cars at the border and forcibly conscripted, are tweeting from the middle of the United States. There is the flood of comments on a fake Putin Instagram page calling him “Vladdy Daddy” and begging him to “Plz wait until the next euphoria ep.”
We also need to talk about the “slactivists.” Not to be confused with an actual activist, a slacktivist will take pictures of themselves at an anti-war protest like it’s Coachella, then post screenshots of all the money they’re donating to help Ukrainian citizens. This person posts a lot, but there’s always this feeling that there’s something left unsaid in their posts: namely, the desire for you to pat them on the back and tell them what a good person they are.
Sometimes, these “activists” may take to social media to explain just how hard it is for them to do the bare minimum. They may confess that they’re suffering from “allyship fatigue,” or say that as an empath, they know exactly how it feels to be a Ukrainian citizen as they tweet from their idyllic bedroom in the suburbs. The only cure for their angst is sharing memes about how they’re “living through a historical event,” even though their lives haven’t changed at all.
That isn’t to say that people outside of Ukraine struggling with their mental health are invalid. It’s not wrong or insensitive to be triggered by these current affairs — the problem lies with those people who try to claim that their experiences are equivalent to those of people who are facing injury, death, bereavement and displacement.
There’s a multitude of reasons why (mostly white) Westerners centering themselves during the Ukraine crisis is problematic. For one, it’s incredibly dismissive of the pain and day-to-day struggle that Ukrainians are experiencing. By treating themselves as the “main character” of the Ukraine crisis, these people are diminishing its very real importance and far-reaching implications, equating it to being the next big blockbuster starring them.
It’s concerning, too, that these kinds of posts also have the potential to drown out Ukrainian voices that are also trying to be heard on social media. Even if many of these posts are going viral because they’re being mocked, that is still a high level of engagement that could have been better utilized elsewhere.
And let’s not forget: None of these posts actually help Ukrainians in any way. They might make the poster feel better about themselves, or elevate their self-importance as a part of this “historical event,” but these words and gestures are ultimately hollow — especially if they aren’t followed up with any meaningful action.
Rather than centering ourselves in marginalized groups’ crises and yelling into our own echo chambers, we can do three simple things: stop, listen and amplify.
Stop sharing posts that spread misinformation, diminish the struggles of Ukrainian people and center yourselves. We need to listen to Ukrainian citizens and reliable, unbiased news sources about ways we can help. And finally, most importantly, we need to amplify the voices of those who are directly involved: sharing their words and their stories rather than constructing our own. For Ukrainians, this is their reality.
Do you have a compelling personal story you’d like to see published on HuffPost? Find out what we’re looking for here and send us a pitch.