When Kamil Dyszewski from Poland started tweeting a meme with doggies in May 2022, he had no idea that he was starting a global mass movement. So far, several thousand people from all around the world have participated in it, collecting money for the defence of Ukraine and fighting against the Kremlin’s propaganda on the Internet. Leading officials and celebrities have joined and it has been widely praised by Ukrainians fighting against Russia’s brutal invasion. And they are all invited to the NAFO Summit!
As strange as it sounds, it all started with a Japanese breed of dog known as the shiba inu.
The birth of NAFO
Every internet addict will recognize the shiba inu immediately. One of them went viral in 2010 when the entire internet fell in love with a picture posted by its owner, in which the dog appears to be lying on a chair, smiling at the camera and raising its eyebrows. It has since inspired countless memes and is also the basis for a funny cryptocurrency called Dogecoin, which was originally a parody of Bitcoin but has become surprisingly valuable.
In support of Ukraine, Dyszewski made his own versions of shiba inu memes, adding the dog to pictures of the Ukrainian war to praise the defenders of Ukraine and mock the Russian military, which he then posted on his Twitter account @Kama_Kamilia. His memes developed a small following, and as a result, he started doing commissions for people who donate to the Georgian Legion, a unit fighting for Ukraine made up largely of Georgian volunteers.
It soon became clear that his amateurish artwork was not just a thank you, but an incentive for donations from people who wanted to join a growing community of pro-Ukraine internet users whose profile pictures were Dyszewski’s personalized shiba inu avatars. This sparked a “fella forging” industry on the internet as more and more people donated their time to create images for new donors.
The growing community decided they needed a name. At the same time, their online haters had started accusing them of being a secret NATO-backed operation, so they had no choice but to accept the accusation as a joke. They are ordinary guys who belong to “The North Atlantic Fella Organization”. NAFO is an internet movement that uses humorous memes, ironic responses and simple facts to take scalps from Russian internet trolls and disinformation spreaders.
NAFO was born.
„You pronounced this nonsense, not me!“
Donating to Ukraine is not too time-consuming, so the community channelled the rest of their free time into supporting Ukraine online, largely using Shiba Inu memes to mock Kremlin propagandists and other supporters of Russia’s war. In another nod to NATO, they announced their own Article 5 #NAFOarticle5. When you encounter a pro-war lie or hate speech on the Internet, you inevitably have to respond with massive corrections and mocking memes.
While NAFO was growing in the corners of the internet, they inadvertently became more widely known thanks to Russian ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov.
Ulyanov was one of many well-known Kremlin propagandists who began to notice how the guys mocked and refuted their claims in their responses. In one now infamous encounter, a NAFO figure paraphrased Ulyanov’s post to emphasize that he was advocating the bombing of civilians. Anxious Ulyanov retorted: “You pronounced this nonsense, not me”.
His clumsy English and the mere fact that he was arguing with cartoon dogs to justify Russia’s war caused widespread outrage. “You pronounced this nonsense” quickly became NAFO’s catchphrase, inspiring endless memes and soon being emblazoned on t-shirts and other merchandise sold to raise additional funds for Ukraine.
After a few days of futilely trying to quell the backlash and accusing the guys of being bots, Ulyanov went offline for a week before returning to correct his posted responses, all of which added to the sense that Russia’s wider disinformation machine is confused about how to handle the NAFO phenomenon, while also turning the Internet trolling organized by the Kremlin on its head.
Since then, NAFO has continued to grow, much to the chagrin of the Kremlin’s media and supporters, of course. Funds are no longer only raised for the Georgian Legion, but a variety of credible pro-Ukraine organizations are recommended, including stores like SaintJavelin, which sells NAFO-themed merchandise and donates the proceeds to support Ukraine.
To join NAFO, donors simply need to take a screenshot of their donation or order confirmation and send it along with a description of the desired character to [email protected] or @fellarequests on Twitter. One of those fellas will then reply with a picture, but it may take a while to get a reply.
NAFO in Estonia
In Estonia, the NAFO movement has taken off remarkably well. Former President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves was an early enthusiast, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas also temporarily changed her Twitter profile picture to a picture of a NAFO fella.
But the movement here is carried by men and women from all over the country, with very different backgrounds and political affiliations. A large part of the direct support to Ukraine organized under the banner of NAFO in Estonia takes place in the startup community.
Lift99, Tallinn’s coworking space, has become NAFO’s actual headquarters in Estonia. It was founded by the co-founder of Pipedrive, Ragnar Sass, who decided to open a second Lift99 in Kyiv a few years before full-scale war.
As a result, strong ties emerged between Estonian and Ukrainian entrepreneurs, who immediately started organizing supply convoys at the beginning of a full-scale war. They launched their fundraising platform, Help99. Sass, as a keen NAFO supporter, later decided to mark the supply convoys as a NAFO brigade with its own badge and the vehicles were painted with shiba inu NAFO camouflage.
So far, they have sent at least 128 vehicles to Ukrainian units, all filled with various equipment, such as drones.
As a result, NAFO received the prestigious title of the largest social contributor at the Estonian Startup Awards, recognizing the cooperation of Estonian and Ukrainian entrepreneurs as part of the wider NAFO movement worldwide.
How effective is NAFO?
The idea of NAFO as an organization was always intended as a joke. It has become more organized over time through its “fella forging” activities and a growing list of recommended charities, although it does not raise money itself, has no financial resources or any formal structure, not even in its essence. It’s still a decentralized movement that spreads organically and that people contribute to as an online community.
This is the greatest strength of such an organization, as well as a source of problems. Anyone can be a member of NAFO or advertise their membership online, which inevitably means that bad actors will join, either as deliberate attempts to discredit the community or simply because some people who really want to be part of the movement may behave badly.
But that’s the nature of the decentralized movement. This can be judged both by its actions and by how the community responds to its own challenges. To be fair, there is often a lively debate within NAFO about appropriate behaviour and it is not uncommon for NAFO members to call members of the community to order. For example, those who express misogynistic views.
As for NAFO’s central purpose of raising money to support Ukraine and fighting pro-Kremlin disinformation and hate speech online, it has been an enormously powerful force that has surprised even disinformation experts. While Russian propagandists have long been adept at coordinated trolling to spread disinformation and bully opponents, it is incapable of dealing with mockery, especially on this scale.
“To better understand NAFO, you have to compare it to [Russia’s] Syrian propaganda, which often goes viral and receives virtually no backlash,” British-Lebanese journalist Oz Katerji explains. “What was once an effective disinformation operation is now struggling to achieve the same effect in Ukraine.”
Despite opponents accusing the movement of being a government-produced information campaign, the reality is that even with the best social media advisors, governments could not replicate anything like NAFO. Even if they tried. In light of Russia’s brutal actions against Ukraine, it should come as no surprise that several thousand people, including those familiar with Internet culture and with a sharp sense of humour, spend their time online in this way and have managed to organize themselves organically. The accusations reflect the desperation of opponents, but also a broader tactic to disable opponents of Russian imperialism.
But embracing and subverting propaganda is NAFO’s speciality, even when it concerns them. After being regularly accused of secretly working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), many NAFO members began relocating to Langley, Virginia, the home of the CIA. Some opponents of NAFO, unable to realize that this too was a joke, began to point out as proof that they believed NAFO was under the control of the CIA, which only led to further taunting of NAFO’s opponents.
NAFO is just one of many groups and many approaches trying to combat misinformation online, but it has shown that anyone can participate, whether or not they belong to NAFO. Long before NAFO, there were “fairies” in Lithuania who were dedicated to the fight against internet trolls. One great example here in Estonia is the Facebook group “Valguse Võit!: järg” (“The Power of the Light: A Sequel”) where Estonian-speaking people work together to refute the propaganda directed against Estonia. Ultimately, a society thrives when there is a vibrant civil society made up of many different groups and individuals who contribute. The same applies to combating disinformation, which requires different approaches to add resilience to society. This is also why we do what we do at Propastop.
At this point, we salute you and everyone else fighting disinformation.
Screenshots are from sources used in the story.