The shit-posting, Twitter-trolling, dog-deploying social media army taking on Putin one meme at a time

1 year ago 310

Ivana Stradner opened her iPhone and typed a simple call-to-arms: Unleash the hounds.

A Washington think-tanker and an expert in Russian propaganda, Stradner is also a member of NAFO — or the North Atlantic Fellas Organization — an informal alliance of internet culture warriors, national security experts and ordinary Twitter users weaponizing memes, viral videos and, yes, dog photos to push back against Russian online disinformation.

“I see myself as a NAFO civilian propagandist,” said Stradner, an adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank. “Until now, Russia has been the only ones willing to play a dirty game.” By posting on Twitter, she was letting her 26,000 followers know who they could turn to if they needed to deal with an infestation of “Vatniks” — a Russian pejorative for Kremlin sympathizers.

The group — which includes ordinary foot soldiers like Stradner, as well as political heavyweights like U.S. Congressman Adam Kinzinger, former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and, as of this week, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov — uses as its weapon of choice a badly-drawn image of Shiba Inu, the Japanese dog breed that became an internet sensation a decade ago and is referred to as a “doge” in internet culture.

NAFO “fellas,” as they prefer to be called, emblazon their Twitter accounts with the Shiba Inu avatar. They overlay the image on TikTok-style videos of Ukrainian troops set to dance music soundtracks. They pile onto Russian propaganda via coordinated social media attacks that rely on humor — it’s hard to take a badly-drawn dog meme seriously — to poke fun at the Kremlin and undermine its online messaging.

Whenever a NAFO fellas spots a Russian official or sympathizer posting a pro-Kremlin take on Twitter, for instance, they can use the hashtag #Article5 — a nod to the part of the NATO treaty that calls for collective defense — to bombard these accounts with support for Ukraine. They’ve also flooded Twitter with viral memes attacking Russian President Vladimir Putin and videos mocking the Kremlin’s war effort. On an average day, there are now more than 5,000 Twitter posts linked to NAFO versus a mere handful in May, according to an analysis shared with POLITICO by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks online activity.

The coordinated shit-posting is ultimately deployed in the service of Kyiv’s war effort. NAFO started in late May as an online fundraising tool for Ukrainian troops. Anyone who donates money via PayPal (NAFO never touches the actual cash) to groups like the Georgian Legion, a military unit created soon after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, can ask the group for their own doge avatar.

“This is something we’ve just never ever seen before,” said Emma Salisbury, a doctoral candidate at Birkbeck, University of London, who studies Western military tactics. “This organization just emerged from what has been a very in-depth, but very niche, part of the internet.”

Salisbury is now deciding what type of Shiba Inu avatar she wants before donating. Her preferred choice: “Warrior goddess,” she said.

Weaponizing meme culture

Even answering a Twitter account whose avatar is a “doge” can make a Russian diplomat look foolish | Matt Cardy/Getty Images

To delve into NAFO is to get a crash course in how online communities from the Islamic State to the far-right boogaloo movement to this rag-tag band of online warriors have weaponized internet culture.

With the rise of social media, would-be political groups have sought to harness cultural iconography once reserved for internet chatrooms in pursuit of recruits, attention and impact. Jihadists produce slick YouTube clips depicting fighting in the Middle East. Western extremists use the “Pepe the Frog” meme to punctuate their online messaging.

For NAFO, it’s the humble Shiba Inu avatar — a goofy-looking dog breed popularized by Tesla’s chief executive and would-be online troll Elon Musk and his support of Dogecoin, the cryptocurrency.

As the community has grown, its members started to copy online tactics straight out of the Kremlin’s disinformation playbook, sprinkling in a heavy dose of internet culture and humor to undermine Russian propaganda.

The work is obviously appreciated. On Tuesday, Ukraine’s defense minister Reznikov tweeted a “personal salute to #NAFOfellas” and changed his profile pic to a bespoke doge avatar dressed in a suit, carrying a Ukrainian shield and standing in front of a bombed-out bridge.

“I’d like to thank each person behind Shiba Inu cartoon. Your donations to support our defenders, your fight VS misinformation is valuable,” Reznikov wrote. “NAFO expansion is non-negotiatiable!”

For Jamie Cohen, an internet culture expert at City University of New York, NAFO has tapped into the social media culture becoming part of people’s everyday lives. Where Russia’s propaganda remains tightly-controlled via Kremlin-backed media, this group won people over because anyone can join, its focus is on humor and it gives people a positive way to show their support for Ukraine.

“This is an actual tactical event against a nation state,” he said. “They have a very specific tactic. It’s very simple to do, and they have a mascot.”

NAFO 1, Russia 0

Russian influencers have struggled to respond to the badly-drawn Shiba Inu memes, YouTube-style viral videos and the power of ordinary social media users debunking Kremlin talking points. Even answering a Twitter account whose avatar is a “doge” can make a Russian diplomat look foolish. In essence, NAFO can swim in online waters that governments would struggle to enter.

Five Western national security officials, almost all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, welcomed the rise of such pro-Ukrainian internet warriors. Unlike the usually colorless official efforts at dispelling Kremlin’s falsehoods, NAFO has tapped into wide public anger against Russia via popular culture references and laughter, they added. 

“Employing humor to counter disinformation is a brilliant strategy,” said Jakub Kalenský, a senior analyst at the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, a joint initiative between NATO countries and the European Union. “One inspiration we should take is that it is possible to fight back. It is really possible to do something — so stop being lazy and trying to look for excuses.”

One Russian official who tangled with NAFO is Mikhail Ulyanov, Moscow’s ambassador to international organizations in Vienna and a well-known peddler of Kremlin propaganda via his 30,000 Twitter followers.

Since the Kremlin ramped up its assault in February, the Russian diplomat has accused the United States of creating a “ministry of truth,” berated social media users for peddling “fake news” and claimed Russia only invaded Ukraine in response to Kyiv’s aggression. That last declaration caught NAFO’s attention.

When someone from the movement accused Ulyanov of rewriting history, the Russian responded with a line he would later regret: “You pronounced this nonsense. Not me.” After more fellas piled on, his message became a meme, quickly emblazoned on NAFO mugs and T-shirts. Ulyanov first accused his Twitter critics of being bots, and then took himself offline for a week after NAFO fellas bombarded his social media account. He later said the social media detox was because he was on vacation.

“This is a group that has done something. It’s a social media force against Russian propagandists,” said Benjamin Tallis, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Berlin, who secured his own “doge” avatar after donating to Ukrainian causes. “They were able to take Ulyanov offline in a week.”

Matthew, an ex-U.S. marine who goes by the Twitter handle @iAmTheWarax and is one of the leading NAFO accounts, is surprised how far the movement has come since he and other early-adopters began posting “doge” memes early into Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He helps out by running the online forum used to coordinate avatar requests but tries to keep his involvement separate from his offline life (and declined to give his last name for security reasons).

“I thought it was really funny, just the pictures of the little dogs, but also the way that it was used to shit on Russian government officials,” he said. “One of the funniest things about the fella character is that if you’re tweeting at one of these Russian government accounts or sycophants and they respond, now they’re engaging with a cartoon dog.”

As alleged Russian interference remains a bogeyman ahead of a spate of Western elections between now and 2024, the American military veteran says NAFO is a reminder that Moscow isn’t the disinformation juggernaut many believe it is. If the Kremlin can’t handle an unorganized mob of “doge” social media accounts, he adds, how can its propaganda machine be taken seriously?

Full-time Fella

Kamil eats, drinks and breathes NAFO.

The 27-year-old Pole (whose last name POLITICO is not disclosing for security reasons) gets up at 5 a.m., opens his Twitter account and gets to work on creating Shiba Inu avatars, selling NAFO merchandise — everything from doge-inspired T-shirts and mugs to hoodies and badges — and coordinating an online movement that he started by accident.

“I never expected to be where I am today,” he said after posting the first NAFO tweet in late May as part of a fundraising effort for the Georgian Legion. He started peppering Twitter with doge memes, splicing them into war footage to mock Russia’s military and praise Ukraine’s soldiers. When others started donating, too, they began messaging him on the social media platform with requests for their own Shiba Inu avatar.

“Slowly but surely they started piling up,” added Kamil, who has made at least 500 avatars over the last four months with little-to-no artistic training. “The last thing that I had drawn was when I was 15 years old in secondary school. I do not call myself an artist. That would be an insult to artists.”

Kamil now works 20-hour days to coordinate a team of 34 people around the world who churn out “doge” avatars for anyone who sends money in support of Kyiv’s war effort. The requests have become so frequent — more than 1,000 a day — that they’ve created an online forum to dole out the work. Individuals specialize in certain types of avatars, for instance those associated with World War II iconography. Typically, it can take between a few hours and a couple of days to produce a new avatar.

Kamil says NAFO’s rise is down to a lack of organization, inclusiveness and humor.

The group decided to call itself NAFO — a hat-tip to NATO — after opponents speculated the group worked for Western national security agencies. When Russian influencers accused NAFO of being a smokescreen for Western spies, many members changed their Twitter location to Langley, Virginia, home to America’s intelligence agency.

(When the CIA asked its followers on Twitter in August what type of animal the agency deploys, one NAFO Fella answered: “I swear if the answer is not Shiba Inu dogs, you’ve missed a real opportunity.”)

Come for the shitposting, stay for the fundraising

Like many who have joined NAFO since the war in Ukraine began, Kamil, the Pole who started the movement earlier this year, takes the invasion personally.

He views what’s unfolding in Eastern Europe as similar to the Soviet Union’s expansion in the wake of the World War II, and that if Kyiv were to fall, other European capitals would be next in line. He says he’s never voted in an election before. But the war has made him politically active and he wants NAFO to focus on fundraising for frontline troops — with any Russian online trolling an unexpected bonus.

So far, the group’s efforts have raised roughly $400,000 for the Georgian Legion and other projects like “Sign My Rocket,” in which people donate to have messages written on Ukrainian artillery shells, according to Kamil. POLITICO could not independently verify those figures.

“People feel very strongly about it. But before they didn’t have a vessel to do it,” he said about how people had responded to Russia’s invasion. “But since they transferred to the fellas, they no longer feel like individuals. They feel like they’re supported, and they can support others through it.”

Matthew, the ex-U.S. marine, agrees. As much as people enjoy piling onto Russian trolls — or getting shout-outs from Ukraine’s defense ministry on Twitter — NAFO’s primary objective is sending funds to Ukrainian soldiers. “The dog was very funny. That’s what caught my attention,” he said. “But what really kept my attention was the idea of raising money for people who are actually fighting.”

That’s certainly true for Stradner, the Washington think-tanker who used her large Twitter following to call on others to join the movement. Stradner, whose Shiba Inu avatar sports long blonde hair and a blue power suit, is reminded of her donation each morning when she uses her NAFO mug for her first cup of coffee.

“I use this mug to get even more energy to fight Russia,” she said.

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