Ivana Stradner opened her iPhone and typed a simple call-to-arms: Unleash the hounds.
A Washington think-tanker and an expert in Russian propaganda, Stradner is also a member of NAFO — or the North Atlantic Fellas Organization — an informal alliance of internet culture warriors, national security experts and ordinary Twitter users weaponizing memes, viral videos and, yes, dog photos to push back against Russian online disinformation.
“I see myself as a NAFO civilian propagandist,” said Stradner, an adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank. “Until now, Russia has been the only ones willing to play a dirty game.” By posting on Twitter, she was letting her 26,000 followers know who they could turn to if they needed to deal with an infestation of “Vatniks” — a Russian pejorative for Kremlin sympathizers.
The group — which includes ordinary foot soldiers like Stradner, as well as political heavyweights like U.S. Congressman Adam Kinzinger, former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and, as of this week, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov — uses as its weapon of choice a badly-drawn image of Shiba Inu, the Japanese dog breed that became an internet sensation a decade ago and is referred to as a “doge” in internet culture.
NAFO “fellas,” as they prefer to be called, emblazon their Twitter accounts with the Shiba Inu avatar. They overlay the image on TikTok-style videos of Ukrainian troops set to dance music soundtracks. They pile onto Russian propaganda via coordinated social media attacks that rely on humor — it’s hard to take a badly-drawn dog meme seriously — to poke fun at the Kremlin and undermine its online messaging. [Continue reading…]