NAFO works – a fella shares his experience combating propaganda online

18.03.2024

NAFO are its dedicated members, affectionately known as “fellas,” who tirelessly battle Russian disinformation daily. Probably, no one has encountered more interactions with vatniks than them. Estonian NAFO fella Jaanus is an online fighter against propaganda, working tirelessly to debunk falsehoods and promote truth in the digital sphere. His efforts are instrumental in countering the spread of Kremlin narratives online. 

In our recent discussion, Propastop sat down with Jaanus to delve into their experiences combating disinformation online. Jaanus shared insights into their journey so far and the challenges they’ve encountered in their battle against false narratives.

Do you personally, or as a NAFO member, get attacked a lot on social media?

Jaanus: Lately, I’ve only been active on social media (Twitter) as a member of NAFO, and that’s why I’m getting some attacks. Can’t say a lot, I don’t have a good yardstick to judge by. I think, for example, many women’s accounts are attacked more. Attacks go to the information war, I take them as inevitable. If the opportunities and tools provided by the platforms are used, it is possible to deal with the attacks, and they will not cause major inconvenience.

Who are your main attackers?

Jaanus: 80% of Russian troll factories around the world. 20% Western people, whose brains Russia has managed to poison.

Do the attacks involve personal threats, or are they more targeted as general attacks and insults?

Jaanus I’ve faced attacks both as a member of various groups, such as being Estonian or a supporter of Ukraine, and also on a personal level where trolls have tried to use personal details against me. However, since I haven’t hidden my identity and have nothing to be ashamed of, these attacks don’t affect me much.

Russian troll attacks serve two main purposes: flooding the internet with lies and attempting to demotivate those who oppose them. Despite their efforts, the themes of their attacks remain stagnant, with tired narratives like labelling all Estonians as Nazis persisting as common tactics.

Have you identified specific patterns of where/when/how attacks typically originate?

Jaanus: Russian bots frequently spam me with nonsensical articles in various languages, aiming to disrupt my notifications and hijack comment threads with propaganda. These attacks typically coincide with the visibility of my content in the Twitter algorithm. Seeing these attacks as positive feedback, I disrupt their efforts with my actions. Attacks are often coordinated, with many troll accounts posting identical content simultaneously. Additionally, there are spontaneous individuals posting as directed by their own beliefs or mental state.

What do you think is the most effective way to combat Russian propaganda, and why?

Jaanus: Two main strategies for combating propaganda are deplatforming and education. Deplatforming involves removing accounts with ties to the Russian state or troll factories, while education aims to empower readers to recognize and resist propaganda. Pekka Kallioniem and I have discussed these topics at some NAFO events. I am more in favour of deplatforming, he supports more freedom of speech and media education, which in Finland is really at a very good level compared to the rest of the world. Regulatory measures are also seen as crucial in holding social media platforms accountable for spreading illegal propaganda.

What would you recommend to someone joining NAFO? What’s the best way to bonk? What to be aware of?

Jaanus: When engaging with NAFO on social media platforms like Twitter, it’s important to consider your profile visibility and whether you want to maintain anonymity. While some members use real names, others opt for pseudonyms, and both are acceptable. Protecting your mental health is paramount, as NAFO activism can be consuming. Maintaining a humorous and light-hearted approach can help mitigate the stress of engaging with malicious actors. Reporting illegal content and adhering to platform rules are vital aspects of NAFO’s work, as removing harmful content diminishes its impact. However, be mindful of potential repercussions, as Russian trolls may report NAFO accounts in retaliation. Lastly, embracing NAFO as a community fosters connections with like-minded individuals worldwide, amplifying collective strength and resilience.

Are there different types of vatniks? How many types can you name? How do they differ from each other? How would you tell a Russian troll account pretending to be MAGA from the real MAGA?

In the realm of online adversaries, there are four main categories to consider. 

Firstly, there are low-quality trolls whose primary objective is to inundate the internet with Russian propaganda and falsehoods. These trolls are uninterested in meaningful dialogue and are best dealt with by blocking and reporting them.

Secondly, there are the proud “vatniks,” openly spreading Russian lies and attacks without reservation. While similar to trolls, vatniks often have a longer history of engagement.

Thirdly, there are the “useful idiots” of the West, such as journalists or academics, unknowingly contributing to the spread of the Russian narrative under the guise of discussion.

Lastly, Russian trolls are posing as Western users, often adopting personas like MAGA supporters. Their attempts to infiltrate Western discourse can backfire spectacularly, as seen in the recent Tex secession campaign debacle. NAFO is adept at identifying and exposing such attempts, turning them into memes and diminishing their impact.

Ultimately, whether real or fake, these trolls share similar traits – they spread lies, incite hatred, and are resistant to meaningful dialogue. 

As the digital landscape continues to evolve, the North Atlantic Fella Organization (NAFO) has emerged from its humble beginnings as an avatar trend to assert itself as a formidable force in global activism. Boasting thousands of members worldwide, NAFO is not only making significant strides in raising crucial funds for Ukraine’s defence but is also spearheading efforts to combat Kremlin propaganda on the internet. 

With its growing influence and dedicated community, NAFO stands as a beacon of solidarity and resistance in the face of disinformation and aggression. By leveraging the power of online connectivity and collective action, NAFO exemplifies the potential for grassroots movements to effect meaningful change on a global scale. As the latest addition, the Estonian site NAFO.ee was created.

As the organization continues to expand its reach and impact, one thing remains clear: NAFO’s commitment to truth, justice, and the defense of democracy serves as a testament to the enduring power of unity and activism in the digital age.