Hello, all! I'm back this week with a special treat for you about the endless ways we can use the Internet and online humor. By now, you've probably seen people talking about NAFO. Maybe some of the people you follow suddenly have #NAFO in their Twitter bio or started calling themselves a NAFOfella. Maybe, like me, you've only had a vague idea of what the NAFO people do. After all, they suddenly catapulted from oblivion into ubiquitousness, the way that so many online things do.
This week, NAFO – which stands for North Atlantic Fellas Organization – got a couple of special shoutouts from Ukraine's Ministry of Defense, including the Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov himself. Aside from spreading some arguably adorable memes, officials in Ukraine say this new Internet phenomenon is making a noticeable difference in a war. See below:
So I think it's time to break down exactly what NAFO is, and I decided to ask Ivana Stradner, an information warfare and cyber security expert who also happens to be #NAFO. You might remember Ivana from our conversation last year about Montenegro (when religious leaders were helicoptered into a 15th-century monastery under a kevlar blanket? Yeah. That conversation.)
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Anyway, here's our latest talk:
Cristina: The question people online are asking is, what exactly is NAFO?
Ivana: The North Atlantic Fellas Organization, known as NAFO for short, is a group of Shiba-Inu-dog-meme-wielding Internet warriors who believe in the Free World. I am fortunate enough to count myself as a member of the group, which is an essential non-nuclear weapon in the fight against Russia. In other words, NAFO counters Russia’s information operations online and brings the truth to light by exposing the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns. NAFO’s most powerful weapons are (un)sophisticated memes, as we use humor and satire to hurt the feelings of sensitive Russian trolls.
Cristina: I see a lot of scholars and serious people on Twitter suddenly involved in NAFO, which is, as far as I can tell, an online meme phenomenon. How do you explain that? And how did you personally become involved in NAFO?
Ivana: As so often happens, humor conceals something very serious. I learned about NAFO a few months ago. Because my research focuses on Russia’s information warfare, their efforts were right up my alley. I was monitoring the information space, and I noticed how successfully they closed numerous troll accounts and went after Russian propagandists. Once I joined the group, people were shocked that, as a professional think tanker who is working on serious security topics, I suddenly started posting memes with Shiba Inu dogs and began using an Avatar. I’ve really believed in their mission from the very beginning.
I have noticed that many journalists, former and current military members, politicians, etc. have joined the mission. I am not surprised, because this is the future of countering foreign information operations. Russia’s military openly says that they use information as a weapon, and we should believe them when they say it. Many of my colleagues are now NAFOfellas, and we love to share memes and have a good laugh about Russian propaganda in our private chats.
Cristina: Can anyone identify as NAFO and join the movement? What is the organizational structure like, if there is one?
Ivana: Anyone can identify as NAFO and join our mission. There is hardly any formal organization. People can donate to the Georgian Legion or buy something from Saint Javelin and tag our “boss” Kama Kamila on Twitter and ask for an avatar that you can use along with the memes that are available online. Other than that, it is mostly a free-for-all.
The Kremlin, of course, sees something much more sinister and organized here. Russian propagandists have peddled conspiracy theories that NAFO is a CIA-run project. Thankfully, U.S. intelligence agencies have gotten in on the fun in mocking these claims, too.
A few weeks ago, the CIA posted on Twitter, “Can you tell us what type of animal #CIA employs?… Join the fun!” Then the NSA joined the conversation by answering “dogs.”
The responses in the comments were hilarious. NAFO began to mock the CIA, claiming that they control the CIA, which they then claimed does not exist. Many NAFOfellas even changed their locations to Langley, Virginia, where the CIA is headquartered, to mock Russian trolls. This exchange was a step in the right direction. Everyone took the initiative from the Russian trolls and put them on the defensive.
Cristina: Are there any limits or restrictions to what you can post as part of NAFO?
There are no official rules. Some people post more or less sophisticated mems. Some people do use inappropriate language. The majority of fellas have a great sense of humor and fight this war with bonhomie. You can make your memes or borrow them online. Oh, and of course, fellas should not discuss the CIA, which does not exist 😉.
Cristina: Why a Shiba Inu? They're cute, but what do they have to do with Russia or Ukraine?
Ivana: Shiba Inus have nothing at all to do with Russia or Ukraine! A meme of a silly-looking Shiba Inu got wildly popular on the internet in 2013 and has been a reoccurring staple of internet meme culture since. The silliness of the dogs in question pairs nicely with the general silliness of the meme campaign. And the general silliness of the idea that the CIA exists.
Cristina: What does the emergence of NAFO tell us about the state of the information war?
Ivana: It tells us that the information war is serious. Russia’s military has been using information as a weapon to interfere in elections globally, drive certain narratives, and polarize societies along ethnic, religious, economic, and social lines.
Russia’s military strategists openly say that information and psychological warfare will largely lay the groundwork for victory. In 2017, Russian officials acknowledged the establishment of a new military unit of information warfare. They also run the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, a notorious troll farm.
Cristina: How does NAFO measure its success? Can it?
Ivana: It is difficult to measure its success. I think NAFO has been doing an outstanding job on Twitter, where [Russian President Vladimir] Putin may have already lost the information war. For instance, most people in the West do not believe Kremlin propaganda about U.S.-led bioweapons labs that train migratory birds to kill Russians.
Ivana: Yes, it doesn’t stop there. Russia has also been accusing the U.S. of using drones to spread bioweapons. And the latest disinformation on bioweapons is that Russia’s Ministry of Defense says the U.S. developed monkeypox in its bio lab in Nigeria and is responsible for the outbreak.
Some analysts say that Russia has already lost the information war, but I think they are sorely mistaken, as Moscow has been quite successful in waging its information war globally in places like Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
The U.S., during the Cold War, ran successful information operations campaigns against the Soviets by winning hearts and minds. Most of us who lived in Eastern Europe understand the tremendous clout that American jazz and rock’n’roll, Hollywood films, and modern art had on our worldviews. Since the Cold War, America’s use of information operations has deteriorated amid a fixation on hard power. Russia, meanwhile, has achieved its greatest successes through information warfare. It is long past time for the U.S. military to catch up, update its information operations against Russia for the 21st century, and revive its once-robust tradition of winning hearts and minds.
While NAFO is focusing on Twitter, Russia is successfully waging information war on other social media platforms like Telegram, VK, TikTok, etc. The West must counter Russia globally. Also, the greatest challenge will be to win the information war inside Russia. Of course, well-crafted messaging is useless if it fails to reach Russians. Putin has shuttered what was left of Russia’s independent media and restricted Russians’ access to major Western social media platforms and various Western news agencies.
We live in a world where it’s difficult to fight wage an information war with the old tools. Sadly, Russia employs numerous dirty and authoritarian tactics that make the fight more difficult. Democratic countries are often reluctant to use those tactics in response. Also, social media makes information flow so fast that it strains bureaucracy to the point that I doubt that we can counter Russian propaganda in real-time. This is where NAFO comes in – they provide a real-time, immediate response to Russian propaganda.
Cristina: Is NAFO raising money? And if so, for whom?
Ivana: NAFO raises money for the Georgian Legion and Saint Javelin, two organizations that support the Ukrainian war effort. In order to become a NAFOfella, you are supposed to donate to either of these organizations. I “bought” my membership by buying a mug that says NAFO on it, which gives me energy every morning to fight the good fight in the information space.
Cristina: Is there anything else you want to tell me about NAFO? Something you're proud of?
Ivana: I am honored to be a NAFOfella, as I want to devote my career to fighting Russian disinformation campaigns. Given that I am originally from Serbia, a country that suffers tremendously from Russian information operations, I understand just how important this endeavor is.
Russia has been waging the information war globally, and the West must stop labeling Russian disinformation as merely “harmful rhetoric.” The West must call a spade a spade, and label Russian disinformation as a targeted weapon. The best way to win the information war is to make people aware of the danger it poses, and I (probably a little naively) believe that I can help this mission.
What I'm writing:
Everything I'm working on for National Journal will be online next week, so you'll have to watch this space or follow me on Twitter for updates. Take a look at this data from our presentation center in the meantime:
What I'm reading:
• For Fun: Daiva Repečkaitė has a piece for Coda Story about how Lithuania and Belarus fight over the legacy and symbolism of the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
• Ukrainian forces launched ground assaults along the front in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, stepping up a counteroffensive aimed at recapturing territory seized by Russia, the New York Times reports.
• The Ukrainian military used a fleet of decoys resembling advanced U.S. rocket systems to trick Russian forces into wasting expensive long-range cruise missiles, the Washington Post reports.
• Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin and head of the Wagner mercenary group, reportedly recruited almost 1,000 inmates from penal colonies in Russia's Rostov region, promising them early release if they fight in Moscow's war against Ukraine, Radio Free Europe reports.
• Reminder: Austria, Bulgaria, Italy, Latvia, and Sweden will all hold elections over the next several months. Take a deep breath.
• Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, died at age 91. Gorbachev was revered in the West for ending the Cold War. But many noted that Soviet troops killed protesters in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, and Latvia, all while Gorbachev was in power. Politico Europe has an obituary.
• The chairman of Russia's oil giant Lukoil, Ravil Maganov, died after falling from a hospital window in Moscow, the BBC reports. Maganov is the latest of a number of high-profile Russian business executives to die in mysterious circumstances.
• North Korea wants to send workers to disputed regions in eastern Ukraine. Pyongyang could to dispatch laborers to the Russia-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine—Donetsk and Luhansk—giving North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime a much-needed source of overseas income, the Wall Street Journal reports.
• The Biden administration will nominate an ambassador-at-large for the Arctic, Reuters reports. The appointment is a response to Russia reopening hundreds of military sites in the region. China has also declared its intention to build a “Polar Silk Road” and acquire the Arctic’s mineral resources and shipping routes.
• Four members of the Georgian parliament left the ruling party and formed a movement they have called a “Popular Force,” propagating anti-Western conspiracy theories, EurasiaNet reports. The four deputies are: Sozar Subari, Mikheil Kavelashvili, Dimitri Khundadze, and Guram Macharashvili.
• Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announced that EuroPride, an annual weeklong gay pride event, would be canceled, the New York Times reports. But the move likely aimed to pander to the far-right and distract from the following piece of news.
• Serbia and Kosovo finally reached an EU-facilitated deal on how to handle the free movement of citizens from Kosovo in Serbia and vice versa. Serbia agreed to abolish entry-exit documents for people with IDs from Kosovo, and Kosovo agreed not to introduce them for Serbian ID holders. This is a huge f-ing deal. Politico Europe has the report.
• The FBI is deploying a team of cybersecurity experts to Montenegro to investigate a massive cyberattack that hit the country’s critical infrastructure last weekend, the Associated Press reports.
• In the United Kingdom, environmental activists from the group Extinction Rebellion entered the House of Commons debating chamber and superglued themselves around the speaker’s chair, Al Jazeera reports.
• Iraqi government security forces shot and killed twelve people during protests in Baghdad. Violence erupted after the powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced he was leaving politics. Sadr’s followers marched into the streets, where they breached concrete barriers guarding the so-called Green Zone, the site of Parliament, Iraqi government offices, and diplomatic missions, the New York Times reports. Around 24 people reportedly died during the unrest.
• Ethiopian and Eritrean government forces launched an attack in Ethiopia's northern region of Tigray, Reuters reports, citing a Tigrayan military spokesperson.
• The U.S. will return $23 million in funds stolen by former Nigerian leader Sani Abacha, CNN reports. Abacha ruled Nigeria from 1993 until his death in 1998 and was estimated to have stolen around $5 billion of public money. U.S. Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard said the cash was in British accounts but was identified and frozen by U.S. officials.
What the State Department says:
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