Actually it was just a meme – with a dog, more precisely a Shiba Inu, in war uniform. Nonetheless, the movement that sprang up after that harmless tweet has become the enemy of pro-Russian trolls, who have been flooding the web with false information for years. “For many years, Russia has been waging a veritable information war worldwide,” says Ivana Stradner, NAFO member and author of the Ukrainian weekly Kyiv Post. At the beginning of the Ukraine war in February, the West did little to counter Russia’s fake news with “offensive information campaigns,” according to Stradner.
NAFO wants to correct this discrepancy in information warfare – starting with its name, which deliberately alludes to the North Atlantic alliance NATO. Their “favourite” opponent: The Vatniks, a group of Russian trolls and “hurray patriots”.
The NAFO “fellas” – that is, the members – create humorous memes with which they satirize or ridicule Russian claims. For example, that Russia wanted to rid Ukraine of Nazis by invading Ukraine – ironic, considering that Ukraine has a Jewish president.
NAFO sprang up spontaneously in May when the @Kama_Kamilia Twitter account offered a “Fella” (in the form of a Shiba Inu dog avatar) to help fundraise for the Ukrainian military and other groups. Anyone who donates gets a Shiba Inu avatar and can immediately make themselves useful – NAFO now has around 80,000 supporters.
The group pays particular attention to “whataboutism” – the strategy of focusing on another grievance in order to distract from the actual topic. Self-declared anti-imperialists justify the Russian attacks by saying that NATO has already practiced this, with its wars in the Balkans or in Iraq.
A month after the formation of NAFO, the Russian ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov became involved in a debate with some “fellas”, which significantly increased the group’s online profile. As Stradner wrote in a tweet, “#NAFOfellas use the strongest weapons: (un)sophisticated memes and satire to hurt sensitive Russian trolls’ feelings. And yes, we will win the info war.”
Jordan Maris is also a member of NAFO. He says previous attempts to fight Russian propaganda with nothing but the truth have rarely been successful. And he adds a quote attributed to Winston Churchill who never said: “A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can even put its pants on”.
mockery instead of truth
So why are NAFO’s memes mocking pro-Russian accounts so effective? “We don’t try to refute their propaganda because it’s extremely easy to invent lies and very difficult to refute them,” Maris told DW. “Instead, we openly make fun of them.”
Ivana Stradner says countering official Russian narratives with ridiculous dog cartoons was so effective in part because “humor is hugely important to Russian society.” Instead of painstakingly refuting Russian claims, NAFO launches memes — say, against Russian diplomats — that “are so absurd that they can’t really do anything about it and respond to it,” she said. “In my opinion, NAFO is doing a wonderful job here.”
United in struggle for self-determination of Ukraine
The influence of NAFO is also related to its development into a global movement with a common goal – namely Ukrainian self-determination, says Jordan Maris. Another advantage is that the NAFO are not paid trolls on behalf of a government, but an independent, spontaneous grassroots movement. “The diversity of NAFO is also a testament to the organic and diverse nature of our movement,” explains Maris. “Politicians, ambassadors, former prime ministers, academics, anarchists, retirees, former army officers, farmers and engineers, old and young, left and right and of all skin colors, origins, genders and sexualities,” says Maris.
In contrast to the Russian bots, who appear as supposed individuals with opinions that are also supposedly independent, the NAFO members are committed to solidarity and to a common cause. “We all felt powerless when war broke out and we all wanted to do something to help. That’s what brings us together.” According to Maris, “very talented people” are defying Russian tyrants and propagandists on the Internet, not only with funny memes, but also with detailed videos that draw attention to the war.
Can troll armies win a war on the web?
NAFO received praise for its commitment against Russian trolls from the highest level: The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense tweeted: “Usually we thank our international partners for the support. But today we want to commend a unique organization – the North Atlantic Fellas Organization #NAFO . Thank you for your fierce fight against Kremlin propaganda and trolls. We salute you, fellas!”
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov then proudly adopted his own canine avatar, a token of his appreciation for the info warriors. “The NAFO is also so important for many of us because it levels the rules of the game and gives us the opportunity to actually defend ourselves,” says Maris.
With only three percent of Russians using Twitter, NAFO’s main platform, Ivana Stradner says the eventual success of the movement will depend on establishing its profile on other social media platforms such as Facebook or Telegram.
Jordan Maris hopes that the main focus should continue to be on the Ukrainian people – in his opinion they are defending all of Europe against possible Russian aggression. “Countries around the world must provide Ukraine with everything it needs for victory, including modern tanks and aircraft. As for the propaganda war – you can leave that to us!”
Adaptation from English: Silke Wünsch