At first, news that a submersible had gone missing during a voyage to the Titanic wreckage site ignited a wave of shock and concern. The five people on board, now presumed dead, faced a dwindling oxygen supply and a harsh and unforgiving environment deep underwater.
But as more details emerged — about the wealth of those on board, the known concerns with the Titan submersible and comments from the CEO that seemed to disregard safety — empathy gave way to crass humor, with memes mocking the victims appearing across platforms including Twitter, TikTok and Instagram.
“It’s crazy to think we might only have another 30 hours or so of being able to make fun of the people on the submarine,” said one TikTok user in a video uploaded Tuesday that has 1.4 million views, an apparent reference to the hours of oxygen the passengers had left. Many of the 1,000 or so commenters also made jokes about the voyage. The user did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Research has shown that many use humor — and memes — to cope with tragedy. But as jokes surrounding the missing vessel circulated online, some said they felt the dark humor was ill-timed and in poor taste, given that the rescue operation was ongoing.
Then on Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Coast Guard said debris from the vehicle had been discovered and was “consistent with a catastrophic implosion of the vessel." All on board are believed to be dead.
David Pogue, a CBS News journalist who attended a Titan expedition last year, said he saw “horrible” memes after the Titan news broke.
“Obviously, when it comes to what we know now, joking is inappropriate and a little bit sick,” Pogue said. “Five people died. They had spouses, they had families. It’s really sad.”
Read more of NBC News' coverage of the Titanic submersible
Jessica Myrick, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies the psychology of media use, suggested that the reaction to the missing submersible could be driven by schadenfreude, or pleasure derived from a disliked person’s or group’s pain.
With the Titan, Myrick said, "the specifics of rich people taking a dangerous voyage in what looks like a tin can just for fun and just because they could also likely evokes some schadenfreude from people who could never afford to do that and probably wouldn’t do it even if they could afford it."
A trip on the Titan costs each passenger $250,000, limiting the experience to those wealthy enough to pay for it. But despite this hefty fee, some elements of the submersible were jerry-built, as Pogue described, noting that it seemed like the company, OceanGate Expeditions, “cut corners.”
It [the Titanic] was this luxury cruise that basically risked everything — went way too fast, was way too reckless — and at the end it became a death sentence for those on it. Much like this Titan sub.
-Shane Tilton, Ohio Northern University
Many memes featured photos of the vessel’s interior, with people pointing out how it’s steered with a video game controller and suggesting passengers should have known not to go. Others began using the expression “eat the rich.”
“Making memes about this event, especially early on before there was any bad ending, is likely a direct response to the past decade of news coverage heralding billionaire explorers with their own companies — think SpaceEx, Blue Origin, etc. — by showing that money alone may not make someone a hero or smart or successful,” Myrick said.
People are also drawn to this story specifically because “history is repeating itself, basically,” said Shane Tilton, associate professor of multimedia journalism at Ohio Northern University, citing the sinking of the Titanic.
“It was this luxury cruise that basically risked everything — went way too fast, was way too reckless — and at the end it became a death sentence for those on it. Much like this Titan sub,” Tilton said. “The memes kind of make themselves because you have a parallel story that makes it very easy to tell and very easy to communicate.”
As the search continued throughout the week, more memes emerged. Some joked that orcas could be to blame, referring to widely circulated reports of orcas seemingly attacking and sinking boats off the southwestern tip of Europe in May.
Some made memes and posted videos as a way to add commentary, as evidenced by the more than 71 million people who have used the #titansubmarine hashtag on TikTok.
“Given that we also cannot visually see any suffering, it is not a big leap for many people to poke fun at the irony of it all and connect with other people who likewise find it humorous,” Myrick said. “It builds group cohesion amongst those who will never have the opportunity to explore just for fun.”
Still, criticism of the dark humor began bubbling up over the course of the week.
“idk man i know we hate rich people but i think if you’re laughing at the idea of any non-evil person dying perhaps the most nightmarish death imaginable, it may be time to log off for a little,” wrote one Twitter user.
“I know it’s all 'eat the rich' vibes but I also don’t think I’m going to laugh at the potential death of multiple people just because they wanted their thing they spend unapologetically on to be a once in a lifetime experience. Despite their lack of researching before paying,” wrote another user.
Myrick said the discourse is not unexpected, given that “our society has even more income inequality than before.”
Another reason the conversation has occurred online is a bit less surprising.
“The internet is generally not a warm and fuzzy place, and especially platforms like Twitter that no longer do a lot of content moderation,” she said. “Dark humor is a natural byproduct for some of the most fortunate people on earth being in an unfortunate situation and lots of internet users wanting to talk about this really unusual event with others who have a similar sense of humor.”