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  • Luc van der Linden

Winning the Information War: The Online Efforts of NAFO

As Ukraine enters its eighth month of defying Russia’s invasion, the war has only grown more detrimental to all. Ukraine’s recent advances near Lyman and Cherson have left Russia on the retreat, as Putin responded by striking civilian targets behind the frontlines. This, while Russia’s violent rhetoric threatens the possibility of nuclear Armageddon once more. One may wonder whether this situation can get any more surreal. And yet, seeing the British minister of defense Ben Wallace retweet an image of two badly-photoshopped Shiba-Inu pups in Ukrainian military gear standing in Kyiv as fighter jets fly by, I realize that it can.

Indeed, the movement which Mr. Wallace so happily welcomed is that of NAFO: the North Atlantic Fellas Organization. What started as a grass-roots undertaking of internet-savvy Ukraine supporters sharing information and memes has become a movement legitimately challenging Russian authority and propaganda, gaining respect across Europe. The Ukrainian ministry of Defense has even thanked the NAFO movement for their “fierce fight against kremlin’s propaganda and trolls.” And for good reason. For within the world of NAFO, the discourse surrounding Ukraine’s war does not concern genuine political nuance nor tactics of diplomatic conflict resolution. In fact, there seems to be a general lack of proper reflection on the morality of its actions. Rather, NAFO’s online efforts are fixed at making one point loud and clear: Ukraine is strong, has the will to fight, seeks to win, and may well do so, for it is by the unity and military superiority of the West that Ukraine may one day fully liberate their country from Russian occupation.

The effectiveness of NAFO’s efforts to convey said message may be debated. Can doge memes, badly-made video edits and general shit-posting really shift public opinion and fight the industrious Russian trolling machine? Apparently, yes. The emergence of the NAFO movement is a natural evolution of social media discourse and non-military conflict participation in what the CSIS has deemed an “information war”. The effective manipulation of internet discourse through trolling and the sharing of subversive memes can have a serious effect on a populace’s political alignment. Indeed, Russia itself practically perfected such tactics in its efforts to curtail Western liberal democratic elections. In this sense, NAFO’s brash efforts can be seen as giving Russia a taste of its own medicine. When an account tweets blatant Russian misinformation, a NAFO member can enact what they mockingly call “Article 5,” notifying their allies to barrage the tweet, debunking any false claims while preaching in favor of Ukraine’s military efforts. If their target responds, they only further lose credibility, as they are arguing with an army of trolls. The shame is doubled if it is a Russian official. See the curious case of Mikhail Ulyanov, who, after getting into an argument with one of the particular fellas, meekly responded with: “You pronounced this nonsense not me.” Of course, his response was swiftly turned into a meme.

NAFO’s efforts to shape the narrative around the war further bring a sense of community and authority to those behind their devices supporting Ukraine from afar. The creative edits surrounding current affairs allow the public to remain engaged with the war through means other than serious political journalism and war reporting. The authoritative and engaging power of such measures can be seen in the recent example of the ever-attention-deprived Elon Musk trying to solve the Ukraine conflict in a single tweet. Musk essentially reiterated Russia’s stance that the areas of the Donbas can legally belong to Russia following (faux) public opinion. After the fact, he was rightfully held accountable by an army of Twitter users aligned with NAFO, debunking his opinion and making many doubt his opinion. The efforts of NAFO can thus be felt. They get a youthful public to think critically about the war, remaining aware of current events through the power of humor.

Yet, should this situation even be humorous? The fact that a group of (un)ironic shitposters has taken over the war's online discourse may not be ideal. NAFO’s rhetoric poses the danger of dehumanizing the conflict and polarizing any debate just for the sake of having a good laugh. Many of the jokes excessively glorify Ukraine’s military and its lethal capabilities to the point of fanaticism. This, while the discourse often dehumanizes the Russian conscripts, derogatorily referring to any Russian-aligned individual as a ‘vatnik’ – a post-Soviet jingoist. One must remember, many Russians do not want to fight this war. The Russian conscripts and ‘vatniks’ are often not much older than the NAFO-geeks posting memes about their demise. This principle of dehumanization has further been heightened by NAFO’s alliances with organizations such as Saint Javelin or Sign My Rocket, both institutions that are having fun with genuine military operations. One can then donate to Sign My Rocket and get their own personalized message on a shell to be used in an artillery bombardment for the low price of forty dollars. It is all fun and games, until one realizes that heavy shelling is one of the most horrifying strategies used within conventional warfare. The true morality of NAFO’s intentions remains to be questioned.

For yes, NAFO’s efforts in curtailing Russia’s information war against the West are valiant and their support for the Ukrainian people is genuine. However, through their polarizing rhetoric and military glorification, NAFO allies must be careful to avoid becoming that which they despise most – warmongers advocating for anything to assure victory, online or offline. Certainly, the dehumanizing nature of observing the conflict through memes on your Twitter feed deserves nuanced introspection. But on occasion, a simple laugh from seeing a Shiba-Inu meme supporting a just cause may be just what one needs. Slava Ukraini.


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