A meme-driven community has risen to become a formidable force in the fight against Russian propaganda.
In the midst of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, a group of intrepid individuals came together to take on Russia’s formidable propaganda machine.
Dubbed the North Atlantic Fellas Organisation (NAFO), this decentralised community was born out of a viral internet meme and social media movement forged in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
By design, the organisation is nearly impossible to shut down, as it lacks a centralised structure that could be targeted. As a result, NAFO has become a crucial player in the ongoing battle to fight Russia’s efforts to spread misinformation, all while trying to fundraise and bring awareness to the war abroad.
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Despite the current perception that the West is gaining the upper hand in the ongoing information warfare against Russia, this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, for years Russia has employed a highly effective hybrid warfare strategy, including the widespread dissemination of disinformation – false or misleading information designed to sow confusion, discord, and distrust.
Disinformation had been one of Russia’s most effective weapons for attacking the truth and undermining support for Ukraine.
By publishing false stories, manipulating social media, and using state-controlled media outlets like RT (formerly known as Russia Today) to spread propaganda, Russia has been able to spread lies at an alarming rate. In fact, research from MIT shows that fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than the truth. It’s clear that Russia understands the power of fake news and the algorithms that help propagate it and is using it as a powerful tool to achieve its strategic goals.
Russia’s information warfare tactics have included funding and operating “troll factories” that have been causing chaos on the internet for years. These paid trolls have been attempting to sway elections globally, including the infamous 2016 US presidential election. President Putin has been working tirelessly to manipulate public opinion in the Western world and even Yevgeny Prigozhin, one of Putin’s top associates and a Russian oligarch, has publicly admitted to interfering in US elections.
Russia’s disinformation campaign has had great success in Africa, according to researchers at Brookings Institution. They discovered that around 80 per cent of tweets about Russia’s war in Ukraine “spread the false claim that Ukrainians are Nazis, and/or that Russia is fighting fascism in Ukraine”.
Despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s request, it took the African Union two months to hold a hearing on the matter, and only four heads of state participated in the live event.
The rise of the Fellas
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a global resistance emerged to fight back against Putin’s propaganda and information warfare. Fed up with the constant stream of lies and manipulation used to justify the invasion, people from all walks of life came together to defend democracy and the truth.
With the power of the internet at their fingertips, anyone who cared about justice could join the ranks of the internet warriors, standing up to Russia’s disinformation and lies.
NAFO’s decentralised group on Twitter made a major impact early on in the war by taking down Russia’s top diplomat in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, for spreading disinformation. In a fit of anger, Ulyanov responded to a NAFO tweet with the now-infamous phrase: “You pronounced this nonsense, not me.” This blunder turned Ulyanov into an internet joke and propelled NAFO’s slogan to viral fame.
The mighty meme-driven community has risen to become a formidable force in the fight against Russian propaganda. With its sharp wit and unifying power, it has brought together internet users from all corners of the web to ridicule Russian aggression and expose its lies.
In September 2022, RT even tried to discredit NAFO by claiming it was a pro-Ukrainian “bot army”. But the truth is clear: NAFO is a powerful force for truth and justice, feared and hated by those who seek to spread misinformation and sow discord.
When Russian officials or bots attempt to spread misinformation on social media platforms, they are met with a barrage of clever memes and responses from the Fellas. As the trolls try to defend themselves, they are met with even more resistance from the Fellas, who continue to swarm and expose their lies. It’s a David and Goliath battle, but the Fellas are proving that one person’s voice, amplified by many, can make a powerful impact in the fight against disinformation.
NAFO offers a unique and enjoyable way to join the fight against disinformation. Its inclusive approach means anyone can get involved, fostering a sense of camaraderie as members work together to counter propaganda. While Russia relies on paid troll factories to spread its approved messaging, NAFO is powered by volunteers around the world who have the freedom to be creative in their responses. By contrast, the low barrier to entry means that anyone can join in and make a difference in the battle for truth online.
With no financial limitations or hierarchy holding it back, the potential for NAFO to wield immense power is virtually limitless. Its decentralised structure allows for organic growth and flexibility, as members are free to participate and leave as they please. This fluidity is what gives the organisation its formidable strength.
A centralised organisation would be slow to act and vulnerable to infiltration and corruption by bad actors like Russia. But with no central leader to target, Russia is powerless to stop the collective force of NAFO. Even if individual accounts are attacked or doxxed, the organisation as a whole remains resilient and undivided. Its decentralised structure allows it to move quickly and adapt to the constantly changing world of information warfare, making it a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Nothing can bring down NAFO
Even the most nefarious of actors can’t bring down NAFO. When imposters try to infiltrate the decentralised community and spread hateful messages, they are swiftly reported by vigilant members. In trying to undermine NAFO, these bad actors are only wasting their resources. Without a central structure to target, there’s nothing for them to attack.
NAFO boasts a diverse community of over 80,000 members, who come together in a fluid network of loosely connected patches. These Fellas are able to quickly assemble and reassemble as needed, forming cohesive groups to tackle disinformation or raise funds for important causes. In fact, the organisation’s Fellas recently raised an impressive 279,303 US dollars for a naval drone in partnership with the Ukrainian government charity United24.
Despite coming from different countries, cultures, religions, and political backgrounds, NAFO members have found common ground and worked together to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of information warfare. The decentralised organisation is a testament to the power of collaboration and continuous learning, and serves as a model for how future information battles will be fought.
While it remains uncertain what the future holds for NAFO, one thing is certain: its impact has been profound, and it will be remembered as a beautiful force for change, even if it does not last forever.
Photo: Ukrainian Ministry of Defence official Twitter account.
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