Paricipation in modern hybrid warfare is accessible for everyone. The creativity of civilian participants across the world fighting the Russian propaganda messages never ceases to amaze. After all, some battles are not fought by armies, and their weapons are not necessarily made of metal. This is proven by a squad of Twitter users who use silly dog memes as their avatars and make life difficult for the Russian propagandists across the internet. Branding themselves as “fellas” of the so-called North Atlantic Fella Organization (NAFO, not NATO) they have struck upon a funny yet effective way to fight on the information frontlines, while also collecting donations for the volunteers fighting alongside the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
“We usually express gratitude to our international partners for the security assistance. But today we want to give a shout-out to a unique entity – North Atlantic Fellas Organization #NAFO. Thanks for your fierce fight against Kremlin’s propaganda & trolls. We salute you, fellas!,”
tweeted the official account of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. Later on, the Defense Minister of Ukraine Oleksiy Reznikov posted his own avatar with a Shibu Inu meme that personificaties the NAFO movement along with a meme-inspired t-shirt.
While encountering meme dogs and the Ministry of Defense in one sentence is unusual, this is a modern day reality and a signature manifestation of modern hybrid information warfare in action.
Internet memes have grown into real informational weapons during the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion, raising morale, uniting the Ukrainian civil society, ridiculing the wretchedness of the Russians, while also focusing keeping attention to the Russian aggression among the international community. The meme creators can be called an information army, with NAFO movement as a kind of a “Twitter legion” that actively fights Russian propaganda and collects donations for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. NAFO is not an organization or an institution, but a meme-powered community of like-minded people who help Ukraine win.
NAFO got its start in May of 2022, when a Polish Twitter user Kama began creating avatars for Twitter users, building on a well-known internet meme featuring Shibu Inu dog breed and creating pro-Ukrainian characters in exchange for a proof of a donation to the Georgian Legion of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Kama named his characters “fellas”. The Twitter community, united by these meme-inspired avatars, joined the fight against the Russian aggression against Ukraine on the social network, and quickly dubbed itself the North Atlantic Fella Orragization (NAFO), a nod to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military defence alliance.
Starting in the early 2010s, the phenomenon of the Japanese Shibu Inu hunting dog breed has grown into one of the most popular animals on the internet. Most internet users are familiar with the seemingly surprised look of Kabosa, the dog that started the meme. Cryptocurrencies and hundreds of memes dedicated to this canine pop culture phenomenon were born since. NAFO is now building on this meme by “dressing up” avatar meme dogs in military uniforms, business or sports suits, adding musical instruments, weapons, and much more.
The popularity of the NAFO community grew rapidly among the international Twitter users who actively support Ukraine. Members of NAFO systematically troll the official pages of the Russian state institutions and openly harass Russian propaga pushers, public figures, and politicians. This Twitter legion writes mocking replies to their tweets, creates and shares memes with their faces and reports their pages en masse. Unable to withstand the onslaught, the Russian ambassador to Austria Mykhailo Ulyanov wrote in June of 2022 that he needed a break from social networks. For NAFO, this was a sign that their tactics were working.
The goal of the NAFO community is to identify and debunk Russian disinformation and propaganda. Russia has been nurturing bot farms and spreading fake narratives on social networks for years. Now, it has received a well-deserved retribution: thousands-strong meme-inspired dog patrol debunk their “special operation” on the information front.
The NAFO community has been growing rapidly. Power Twitter users such as the senior political advisor of the US Helsinki Commission Paul Massaro, US Congressman Adam Kinzinger, former President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Minister of Defense of Ukraine Oleksiy Reznikov, and others have already joined in. “Fellas” have collected over $200,000 in donations for the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the Georgian Legion in particular. To become a “fella”, you have to donate to the Armed Forces or buy official Saint Javelin merchandise.
“I think people are capable of taking refuge in Fellas. When it comes to the war in Ukraine, there is a lot of horror in it, but the “fellas” are focused on the positive mood and the opportunity to make a difference. It is a good cause under a silly facade, which allows you to understand the difficulties associated with war, but not to be traumatized by it,” according the founder of NAFO, Kama Kamilia.
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