With NAFO, North Atlantic Fellas Organization, Ukraine turns trolls against Russia

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More than six months later, the war in Ukraine has become a bit surreal. Last weekend, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry shared a doctored photograph of a Shiba Inu dog wearing military uniform, apparently springing at the site of a missile launch.

“Today we want to honor a unique entity,” the tweet read, before pointing to an unusually named group – the North Atlantic Fellas Organization.

If you’re the type of person who gets your news from a newspaper website, for example, you may have no idea what NAFO is. But if you’re the kind of person who has spent the last six months scrolling through Twitter for news about the war in Ukraine, signing up for obscure Telegram accounts and reading accounts of the latest Ukrainian strikes against Russia on open source intelligence (OSINT) blogs… well, chances are you’re already a guy yourself.

For the first, let’s explain. Over the past few months, pro-Ukraine netizens have come together in support of Kyiv’s war effort. The Shiba Inu is a distinctive dog breed from Japan that has been a recurring motif in internet culture for over a decade. You may recognize him as a “doge”, loved by Elon Musk and millions of other internet users.

Vice’s Motherboard dates the use of Shiba Inu as a “guy” fighting the war in Ukraine to May, when an artist named Kama began creating custom images of the “guys” for those who donated money to the Georgian Legion – a voluntary military unit in Ukraine which embarked many foreigners. “Out of boredom, I started creating other Fellas and printing them over random images from Ukraine,” Kama told Motherboard earlier this summer.

The movement then had a historic moment in June, when Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov argued with a “guy” over threats against civilians. Ulyanov, Russian Ambassador to International Organizations in Vienna and a strong advocate of Russia’s position on social media, made the mistake of responding to a NAFO member.

“You said that nonsense. Not me.” would become a rallying cry for NAFO (if you hadn’t guessed it, a play on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). It showed that the tables could be turned against Russia, when it comes to trolling. The guys quickly found they had a growing following in the West — most recently, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) joined the Army of trolls.

On Tuesday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov changed his Twitter profile picture to what he said was a personal tribute to #NAFOfellas.”

It was a troll war. That in itself is hardly a surprise. For years, Russia has used online tactics to spread division and create diversions. Perhaps the most notorious are the St. Petersburg “troll farms” used in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election.

It wasn’t always hidden. The Russian Embassy in London’s Twitter account has become famous for its meme-filled posts, often hijacked from Reddit, 4chan and other dark corners of the internet, designed to both rally support and spark outrage. . It wasn’t always the most thoughtful thing:

But it seemed to be an officially sanctioned policy. After the Guardian reported in 2017 that the tweets could have been the work of Deputy Ambassador Alexander Kramarenko, the Russian Embassy suggested it was more of a “collaborative effort”.

What is different this time is that Russia is not responsible for trolling. Russia has largely been stuck with the turgid ideological propaganda about Ukraine (a 7,000-word essay written by Russian President Vladimir Putin last summer was a taste of the horrifying sincerity of Ukraine’s view of the conflict Moscow).

Meanwhile, Ukraine supporters rallied around groups like NAFO, while pro-Ukrainian memes flooded the internet. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was quickly meme-ified. An online language has developed, from “Rashist” (a derogatory word that combines Russian, racist and fascist) to “Tractor Troops” (Ukrainian farmers who towed Russian heavy machinery abandoned at the start of the war).

And the Ukrainian government embraced it, using official websites to highlight memes and personally thanking those who spread them online. Official accounts mocked not only Russian leaders and soldiers, but also its citizens. Images of tourists fleeing Crimea after unexplained explosions last month have been linked to a song by 80s pop group Bananarama and the message: “It’s time to go home”.

The story goes back some time. Writing in Slate earlier this year, Charles Shaw, assistant professor of Soviet history at the Central European University in Vienna, argued that Ukraine was reusing old Soviet tactics against Russia. Kyiv “consciously deployed laughter to define its position on the right side of a just war, which is a playbook the Soviets used to good effect against Nazi Germany,” Shaw wrote.

All of this may seem frivolous. It is anything but.

NAFO, for example, served as a fundraiser for the Ukrainian military, even raising money for Ukraine to paint its memes on a tank, aptly dubbed “Super Bonker 9000”. Indirectly, the largely English-language memes have drawn Western attention to the war in Ukraine – attention that is vital given the importance of Western weaponry to Ukrainian forces.

The group also undermined both Russia’s gloomy justifications for the war, as well as accounts of Russian allied states that had tried to show that the conflict was playing out in a better light than it actually was. . It should be noted that many supporters of NAFO come from the OSINT community.

Eliot Higgins, the founder of the best-known OSINT website BellingCat, tweeted this week that he would speak about NAFO at a conference “as an example of online communities responding organically to misinformation from governments and counterfactual communities”, adding that it was “good for morale”.

But there are also risks to the tactic. The surreal nature of memes should not obscure the bloody reality on the ground or become dehumanizing, as Soviet propaganda against Germany did during World War II, according to Shaw. Notably, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry decided to embrace NAFO the same week it banned journalists from visiting parts of the country, sparking speculation that a counterattack was imminent. .

Is a counter-attack really underway? So far, Ukraine’s response has been not to respond, but to do what it knows best: troll the Russians, once again.

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