If you’ve been on the internet since 2013, good chances are you have encountered at least one doge. Just like the word, it’s a dog… kind of.
What was initially born as a simple cute picture of a kindergarten teacher’s dog became a huge meme, being used, changed and shared among thousands of different internet communities. I’m pretty sure even my mom has sent me one at some point. How does that cute and seemingly dumb dog turn into the symbol of Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s propaganda and misinformation war?
You heard me right. Let me introduce you to NAFO, the North Atlantic Fellas Organization. Their mission? Exactly that, supporting Ukrainian forces in the still-ongoing struggle against Russian invasion. Their methods? Well… shitposting.
NAFO can be understood as an internet community that took the usual tendency of turning anything into a meme a bit further than usual, only this time for a good cause.
Mostly active on Twitter and Reddit, NAFO’s most recognizable symbol is the Fella, a customized and readapted version of the famous doge meme, oftentimes in Ukrainian military outfits.
These Fellas are supposed to represent every person that supports Ukraine, either by donating to the cause, buying official NAFO merch, or simply trolling pro-Kremlin accounts. For the average Fella, the highest ambition is that to be blocked by a Russian politician.
How do they achieve such a high honor? Well, simply by scouting the digital environment in which the Russian invasion also takes place. Fellas, or Fellas-adjacent accounts, navigate social media and forums with the primary goal of finding “vatniks”. This name, of Russian origin, is a derogatory term associated with individuals who are deemed to not be letting go of the past – as in, missing the Soviet Union (Devlin, 2017).
Fellas usually target Kremlin-adjacent accounts, be they official politicians or normal individuals, and taunt them with anti-Russian memes or mere conversations about military or political matters. Once they get their attention, they further engage them in absurd conversations, with the sole intent of getting blocked on the platform.
As absurd as it may sound, this silly pastime easily turned into a global movement, counting thousands of active members worldwide.
This movement has come so far as to collaborate with the brand Saint Javelin, an online retailer whose whole mission is to gather funding to aid Ukraine. In particular, NAFO-related merch’s proceedings are completely devolved to helping frontline defenders (NAFO FELLAS, n.d.).
What initially started as mere fun pastime for normal guys trying to get a quick laugh online, soon started in a global movement that actively tries to contrast propaganda and help out through the power of memes.
SOCIAL MEDIA WARFARE
I can’t wrap my head around what this phenomenon could really entail. It genuinely feels like a hybrid of different types of conflict. On one hand, there is the aspect of information warfare, as the main targets of these Fellas are users associated with pro-Russia propaganda. On the other hand, it is a media warfare in the sense that it tries to gain popularity within the cyberspace by how it uses popular, as in, of the people, “tools”, such as memes. Social media warfare? It is a newly coined term and its use may apply to the situation – “the use of social media as a kind of weapon with the aim of causing lasting damage to certain actors such as governments or companies.” (“What Is Social Media Warfare?,” 2020).
Social media warfare is a recently-coined term, which deems it as a tool of hybrid warfare. If there is something that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown us, it is that hybrid warfare touching digital media has been rampant in examples and wide in reach. Not only that, but this tool has allowed for “safe” civilian involvement like never before.
Devlin, A. M. (2017). Lard-eaters, gay-ropeans, sheeple and prepositions: Lexical and syntactic devices employed to position the other in Russian online political forums. Russian Journal of Communication, 9(1), 53–70. https://doi.org/10.1080/19409419.2016.1219642
NAFO FELLAS. (n.d.). Saint Javelin. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.saintjavelin.com/collections/fellas-of-nafo
What is Social Media Warfare? (2020, June 12). PREVENCY®. https://prevency.com/en/what-is-social-media-warfare/