A popular Nafo meme with a Shiba Inu in combat gear: If you want to post officially, you have to donate to a Ukrainian aid organization
Photo: Twitter / Ivana Stradner
While the Ukrainian army is recapturing areas occupied by Russia in eastern Ukraine, Marco Stein sits in front of his computer in northern Hesse and posts a dog meme on Twitter.
He and the Ukrainian soldiers have a common enemy,
he finds: Russia.
Some fight him - very real and to the death - with rockets and bombs.
Stein devotes himself to the propaganda and disinformation that pro-Russian accounts spread on the Internet.
The 44-year-old is part of Nafo, short for North Atlantic Fella Organization.
This is a loose international association of thousands of social media users with their own symbols, their own vocabulary and a common mission: not to give up the field to pro-Russian voices.
Sometimes they try it with fact-based, argumentative counter-speech, sometimes with more or less funny pictures with Shiba Inu dogs.
"I felt so incredibly helpless and wanted to do something that my Twitter account came back to me," says Stein from the early days of the Russian war of aggression, as he followed the news day after day as if spellbound.
So he plunged into the online fray, amid propaganda posts from the Russian embassy and anti-Ukrainian tweets from right-wing populist and left-wing circles.
Russia is struggling for the sovereignty of interpretation on Twitter
Not least via Twitter, Russian actors have been trying to spread propaganda for some time.
However, the service has been blocked in Russia since the beginning of March 2022, which is why the Russian campaigns are primarily aimed at unsettling people in Ukraine, according to a report by Tagesschau on an analysis of pro-Russian online communication.
In addition, the propagandists would try to spread pro-Russian narratives justifying aggressive war in Germany and around the world.
Marco Stein tries to counter this with humor but also with facts.
"It felt like a fight against windmills," he says.
That changed when a Twitter user named Kama founded Nafo in May 2022.
Out of boredom, he began mounting Shiba Inu dogs—an animal that had been popular in internet culture for some time—onto images of the Ukraine war, creating memes.
The memes spread quickly and shortly afterwards the North Atlantic Fella Organization was born.
Not only the name is an allusion to NATO.
There is also Article 5 in Nafo, through which individual members, called fellas, can call on other fellas for help.
The »Fellas« donate to army equipment
The fight against Russian propaganda was not the original intention, Nafo founder Kama explains to SPIEGEL: "Nafo has slowly developed into what it is today," he says.
The Pole has always been much more concerned with collecting donations for the armed forces through the Nafo community.
Because in order to officially become part of Nafo, users have to send in a donation receipt, and then Kama and his team will create his own unique Shiba Inu avatar.
Donors can use this as a profile picture to identify themselves to other fellas.
In the early days, Kama designed many avatars himself, but now a team of 73 other Nafo members help him to deal with the influx of requests.
A total of 20,000 official fellas have already been created in this way, says Kama.
One of them is Marco Stein, who also submitted a donation receipt this summer: $25 to the Georgian Legion, a Georgian foreign legion that supports Ukrainian forces at the front.
Kama himself doesn't take money or keep a checkbook, but he estimates that Nafo members collectively donated nearly $500,000.
According to Kama, $290,000 of this went to the Georgian Legion, and the money is needed for equipment: diesel generators, sleeping bags, storm masks.
Dog pictures on rockets
Not only the Georgian Foreign Legion, of which individual fighters are said to have been involved in a possible war crime in the spring, is benefiting from the donations from the Nafo-Fellas.
The online shop Saint Javelin, for example, offers Nafo fan articles and claims to support Ukrainian aid organizations with the proceeds.
Dog mugs, t-shirts and stickers are available for purchase.
According to Saint Javelin, among other things, it has already earned more than $ 1.5 million.
Another fundraising destination popular with Nafo members is the signmyrocket.com website.
The unusual business works like this: for a donation of several hundred to thousands of dollars, you can send a message that a Ukrainian soldier then writes on an artillery shell in the middle of the war zone.
This is how a Ukrainian man recently proposed to his girlfriend, the New York Times reported.
And Shiba Inu dogs have also found their way onto Ukrainian military vehicles.
As early as World War II, it was customary for soldiers to paint messages on their projectiles.
On the other hand, the fact that it is now possible to order such news from thousands of kilometers away from your living room seems at least absurd, if not macabre.
According to its own information, the Ukrainian aid organization behind signmyrocket.com has already collected more than $500,000.
»Shitposting« and educational work
In the meantime, NAFO has developed a momentum of its own, as is often the case with Internet movements, and is primarily dedicated to combating disinformation.
Founder Kama explains it like this: »When you are part of Nafo, there are more people behind you, so you are more self-confident in what you do.« This is how Marco Stein comes to his office four to five hours before he finishes work Computer sets and dives into a virtual world full of lies, fake news and conspiracy stories.
Sometimes he posts a self-created meme under a tweet from the Russian embassy, sometimes he answers with a statistic to support his argument.
He makes that dependent on who he's dealing with.
"In many places you notice that the supposed trolls are also just poorly informed people," says Stein.
However, Nafo does not have a fixed tactic.
The fellas use hashtags to draw each other's attention to posts by "vatniks," as they call those who spread pro-Russian propaganda, and bombard them with so-called "shit posts."
But the members also keep in touch away from the online public, exchange information in private chat groups and encourage each other, reports Stein.
The German Nafo community now includes around a thousand fellas, he estimates.
In the summer, the fellas tricked the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, into temporarily disabling his Twitter account after littering it with anti-Russian memes.
Kama says Ulyanov himself was to blame: "If you're an official like him and reply to someone on Twitter who has a dog with a hat as their profile picture, you lose immediately."
"We're just sitting in front of a screen"
In this way, Nafo has now attracted the attention of prominent actors.
The Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, for example, had her own avatar created by the Fellas and thanked them on Twitter for their support, as did Claudia Major, head of the Security Policy research group at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik.
Even the Ukrainian defense minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, has already thanked NAFO for its commitment.
Are the dog memes now an official mission?
Nafo founder Kama contradicts: »We are not part of this war.
That would be highly disrespectful [to claim, d.
Red.], because there are people out there who are being wounded, losing their lives or family members.
Meanwhile we just sit in front of a screen, argue with people on the internet and donate money.«
If equipment for fighters at the front is financed with the donations, the NAFO members nevertheless have an indirect influence on the course of the war.
And the online use is more than just a joke.
Simone Bunse, peace researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, researches the peace-promoting role of social media and describes her impression of NAFO as follows: »What they do is interesting to watch because they make propaganda against propaganda.
In a humorous and inclusive way.« In this way, NAFO manages to counter Russian propaganda with a different point of view through the mass posting of its members.
If fellas like Marco Stein not only ridicule other accounts, but also argue based on facts, this counter-speech could even help to find a more peaceful approach.
But that is rarely the aim of the fellas.
More often the aim is either to annoy the pro-Russian voices and possibly even to silence them, or to signal to readers from outside that the propaganda should not be believed.
According to Simone Bunse, the Nafo is quite effective.
"Everyone works together to prevent the online space from being used as a weapon," says the peace researcher.
By this she means that Russian propaganda does not remain unchallenged on the Internet.
Memes as a coping strategy
But are more or less funny dog pictures the right way to do this?
From the very beginning, the Russian war of aggression was accompanied by memes on the Internet, with the Economist even describing it as the “most viral war ever”.
You can find that macabre or glorifying war.
Nafo founder Kama says: »People understand what terrible things are happening, but the whole Nafo thing helps them to come to terms with it – in a rather sarcastic and cynical way.«
Marco Stein is also aware of the sometimes strange external effect: "It definitely feels a little strange, so I try not to lose the seriousness completely on my account." Post prisoners of war who are lying in some humiliating pose.« Not all Nafo members share this view, in case of doubt for some the alleged end justifies the means.
There are numerous posts by Nafo members that can simply be described as anti-Russian propaganda - such as a Shiba Inu posing with the severed head of a Russian soldier stylized as a pig.
Irrespective of this, the solidarity of the fellas is strong, says Marco Stein, he has successfully overcome an interim crisis of meaning with the support of the Nafo community.
He never tires of replying to propaganda posts with dog memes. On the contrary, says Marco Stein: "I have the motivation to keep going until there is lasting peace in Ukraine."