When Kamil Dyszewski from Poland began tweeting memes with cartoon dogs in May of 2022, he had no idea he was about to start a mass global movement. It now involves many thousands of people around the world raising money for Ukraine’s defence and combating Kremlin propaganda online. It’s been joined by leading officials and celebrities, and earned high praise from Ukrainians battling against Russia’s brutal invasion.
As unlikely as it sounds, it all started with a breed of Japanese dog known as shiba inu.
The birth of NAFO
Anyone who has spent too much time online will immediately recognise the shiba inu. One in particular achieved viral fame in 2010 after the internet fell in love with a picture posted by its owner in which the dog appeared to be reclining in a chair with a smile and raised eyebrow towards the camera. It has since inspired countless memes, as well as being the basis for a joke cryptocurrency named Dogecoin, initially a parody of Bitcoin, but which has become surprisingly valuable in its own right.
While supporting Ukraine, Dyszewski made his own versions of the shiba inu memes by inserting the dog onto images of the war in Ukraine in order to praise Ukrainian defenders and mock the Russian military, which he then posted to his Twitter handle, @Kama_Kamilia. His memes developed a small following and, a consequence, he began making personalised versions on request for people who were donating to the Georgian Legion, a unit fighting for Ukraine largely comprised of Georgian volunteers.
It soon became apparent that his amateurishly designed artwork was not just serving as a thanks, but actually incentivising donations from people who wanted to join the growing community of Ukraine-supporting internet users with Dyszewski’s personalised shiba inu avatars as their profile pictures. It sparked a ‘fella forging’ industry online as more people donated their time to craft the images for new donors.
This community decided it needed a name. Their online opponents had begun to accuse them of being a secret NATO-backed operation so they decided to embrace the joke by saying they were just ordinary fellas who were part of a ‘North Atlantic Fellas Organisation’.
NAFO was born.
You pronounced this nonsense
Donating to Ukraine doesn’t take much time so the community spent the rest of its time supporting Ukraine online, largely by using shiba inu memes to mock Kremlin propagandists and other supporters of Russia’s war. In another nod to NATO, they developed a practice of declaring their own #Article5 when they encountered pro-war falsehoods and hate speech online, which was the cue for fellas to reply on mass with corrections and mocking memes.
While NAFO was growing in the corners of the internet, an interaction the following month would propel them to wider notoriety online thanks inadvertently to Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov.
Ulyanov was one of many prominent Kremlin propagandists starting to notice the fellas mocking and debunking their statements in their replies. In one now infamous engagement, a NAFO fella paraphrased a post by Ulyanov to highlight that he was advocating the bombing of civilians. A rattled Ulyanov snapped back: ‘You pronounced this nonsense, not me’.
His clunky English and the mere fact that he was arguing with cartoon dogs to justify Russia’s war drew widespread mockery. ‘You pronounced this nonsense’ quickly became a NAFO catchphrase, inspiring endless memes of its own and was soon being emblazoned onto t-shirts and other merchandise sold to raise further funds for Ukraine.
After a few days of attempting to downplay the reaction and accuse the fellas of being bots, Ulyanov took himself offline for a week before returning and temporarily restricting his replies, all of which added to the perception that Russia’s wider disinformation machine was perplexed about how to deal with the NAFO phenomenon while it turned the tables on Kremlin-organised trolling online.
Since then, NAFO has continued to grow, much to the ire of Kremlin media and supporters online. It no longer just raises money for the Georgian Legion but recommends a wide range of credible organisations supporting Ukraine, including shops like SaintJavelin, which sells NAFO-themed merchandise with proceeds going to Ukrainian causes.
To join NAFO, donors just need to screenshot their donation or order confirmation and send it, along with a request for what their fella should look like, to [email protected] or @fellarequests on Twitter. One of their fella forgers will then reply with the image, although there’s often a bit of a backlog.
NAFO in Estonia
The NAFO movement has taken off particularly strongly in Estonia. Former President Toomas Hendrik Ilves was an early enthusiast, while Prime Minister Kaja Kallas also temporarily changed her Twitter profile picture to her NAFO fella image.
However, the movement here is powered by men and women across the country with a vast range of backgrounds and political affiliations. A lot of the direct support to Ukraine being organised under the NAFO banner in Estonia takes place within the startup community.
Lift99, a coworking space in Tallinn, has become the de facto headquarters of NAFO in Estonia. It was set up by Pipedrive cofounder Ragnar Sass who decided to open a second Lift99 in Kyiv a few years prior to the full scale war.
As a result, strong connections have been developed between entrepreneurs in Estonia and Ukraine who immediately began organising supply convoys when the full scale war began. They launched their own fundraising platform, Help99. As an enthusiastic supporter of NAFO, Sass later decided to brand the supply convoys as a NAFO brigade with its own patch and the vehicles were painted with shiba inu NAFO camouflage.
They have so far sent 128 vehicles to Ukrainian units, all of which are filled with a wide range of supplies such as drones.
As a result, at Estonia’s recent Startup Awards with the President of Estonia, NAFO was awarded the prestigious title of the biggest social contributor in recognition of how entrepreneurs in Estonia and Ukraine were working together on these supplies as part of the wider NAFO movement globally.
How effective is NAFO?
The idea of NAFO as an organisation was always intended as a joke. It has become more organised over time through its ‘fella forging’ operation and growing list of recommended charities, although does not itself collect any money, have any finances, or any formal structure, even at its core. It remains a decentralised movement that spreads organically and which people contribute to as an online community.
That is both its greatest strength and a source of challenges. Anyone can be part of NAFO, or say they are online, which inevitably means there will be bad actors associating themselves with it, whether as deliberate attempts to discredit the community or simply due to the fact that some people who genuinely want to be part of the movement may behave poorly.
But that is the nature of a decentralised movement. It can be judged on the sum total of its actions, as well as how the community responds to its own challenges. To be fair, there is often a lively debate within NAFO about appropriate conduct and it is not uncommon to see members of NAFO call out fellow members of the community, such as those who express misogynist views.
With regards to its central purpose, which is fundraising for Ukraine and combating pro-Kremlin misinformation and hate speech online, it has been an immense force for good in a way that has taken even the experts on misinformation by surprise. While Russian propagandists have long been adept at coordinated trolling to spread misinformation and bully opponents, it is far less capable of handling mockery, especially at this scale.
“To better understand NAFO you need to compare it with [Russia’s] Syria propaganda, which would often go viral and receive virtually no pushback,” explains British-Lebanese journalist Oz Katerji. “What was once an effective disinfo’ op is now struggling to make the same impact in Ukraine.”
Despite being accused by its opponents of being a government-manufactured information campaign, the reality is that governments even with the best social media advisors couldn’t replicate something like NAFO if they tried. It should not be surprising, in light of Russia’s brutal actions against Ukraine, that many thousands of people, including those immersed in internet culture and with a keen sense of humour, will spend their time online in this way and have been able to organise themselves organically. The accusations reflect a desperation by opponents, as well as the wider tactic of denying agency to those opposed to Russian imperialism.
Yet embracing and subverting propaganda is NAFO’s specialty, including when it’s about them. After being routinely accused of secretly working for the CIA, many NAFO fellas began changing the location to Langley, Virginia, which is the home of the CIA. Some opponents of NAFO, unable to understand that this too was a joke, started pointing it out as what they thought was proof that NAFO was controlled by the CIA, which merely led to further mockery of NAFO’s opponents.
NAFO is just one of many groups and many approaches to pushing back against misinformation online, but it has shown that anyone can get involved, whether part of NAFO or not. Long before NAFO, there were the ‘Elves’ in Lithuania dedicated to combating online trolls. Just one great example here in Estonia is the Facebook group Valguse Võit! järg where Estonian speakers work together to debunk propaganda aimed at Estonia. Ultimately, a society flourishes when there is a vibrant civil society comprised of many different groups and individuals contributing in their own way. The same is true when it comes to fighting disinformation, which requires a variety of approaches to add resilience to society. That’s also why we are Propastop do what we do.
Fellas, we salute you and everyone else fighting misinformation.