Image: NAFO Discord.
An unofficial army of cartoon Shiba Inu dogs is making life hard for people who post Russian disinformation about the war in Ukraine online. They are known as NAFO, the North Atlantic Fellas Organization, a small but growing cadre of shitposters who’ve gathered to raise money for Ukraine and call out obvious propaganda when they see it. It’s getting hard to tow the Kremlin’s party line on Twitter without them showing up in the replies to mock and counter it.
If you’re plugged into the U.S. military social media sphere, they’re impossible to miss. They’re cute and ludicrous anthropomorphic Shiba avatars. They’re cute faces poking over track suits and army fatigues, some wear suits, some carry military equipment. These are the Fellas. Jack McCain, helicopter pilot and son of John McCain, uses a Fella avatar. CNN analyst and retired U.S. Army officer Mark Hertling is sharing the meme. U.S. Army Major General Patrick Donahoe is using a Fella avatar.Where did these cartoon dogs come from and why are they suddenly everywhere on military Twitter?It all started back in May when an artist named Kama started designing the little guys because he thought the Shiba Inu looked goofy. “Out of boredom, I started making other Fellas and imprinting them on random images from Ukraine,” he told Motherboard.People started asking Kama if he’d design avatars for them and he began taking requests. Around the same time, the Georgian Legion—a volunteer military unit of Georgians fighting in Ukraine—was seeking donations for equipment. To manage demand and raise money for a good cause, Kama started designing Fella avatars for people who’d donated to the Legion.The NAFO movement gained popularity and mainstream attention with a surreal moment in June. Longtime Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov tussled with the Fellas and lost. Ulyanov is active on Twitter, typically posting pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian sentiments and retweeting official Kremlin sources. On June 18, Ulyanov was posting as he normally does.
“The most popular Western narrative: Russia undertook unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Unprovoked? The shelling of civilian population in the Donbass by the Ukrainian army started in 2014 and continues right now,” he said. This, of course, ignores the very real invasion of East Ukraine that Russia conducted in 2014.The prolific shitposter, military twitter e-celebrity, and NAFO member @LiveFaustDieJung replied to the diplomat. “You: ‘We have to bomb all of Ukraine’s civilians because Ukraine was fighting an internal war and some civilians got shelled,’” he said.Then Ulyanov broke one of the cardinal rules of posting: he replied to his troll. “You pronounced this nonsense, not me,” he said.
Ulyanov’s reply became a meme among the fellas, a rallying cry for the obvious stupidity of so much Russian disinformation. Replies and quote tweets from other Fellas poured in. People began parroting the phrase. Now, you can buy it on a T-Shirt from the St. Javelin charity that donates cash to Ukraine.
Ulyanov tried to play the whole thing off for the next few days and pondered aloud if some of the Shibas were bots. Then he vanished from Twitter for a week before returning on July 1 with the explanation that he’d taken a pre-planned vacation. “Now is the time to resume tweeting,” he said. The first reply is from a Fella account. They will not leave him alone.Sending a Russian diplomat’s Twitter feed to reply-guy hell is one of the funniest things the Fellas have done, but they’re also raising a lot of money for Ukraine. St. Javelin reached out and now there’s a separate page on its store just for Fellas-branded merchandise. When I spoke to Kama, they’d raised about $47,000 just for the Legion and “at least another $10k for other causes and we have roughly made $30 to $50k through the St. Javelin store.”
In addition to the St. Javelin store and the Shiba avatars, the Fellas have set up a Discord server where they organize charitable acts, debunk Russian propaganda, and share news from Ukraine from vetted sources. Military twitter shitposter and former U.S. Marine @IamtheWarax is one of the mods on the Discord server. His real name is Matthew, he asked Motherboard not to use his full name. He first noticed the Shiba dogs around May. “I just thought it was funny,” he told Motherboard. “I don’t really do much serious stuff with my Twitter account. I really just shit post. I saw people doing funny stuff so it caught my attention.”
As one of the more popular Fellas accounts and the person who set up the Discord server, people keep asking him if there’s a plan. He said there’s not. “What this is, is it’s funny,” he said. “It’s funny little pictures…and it caught on organically and it’s connected to a good cause. Helping Ukrainians defend themselves had broad appeal.”In the years after its invasion of the Donbas in 2014 and now, Western media has painted Russia as a master of disinformation. One of the popular narratives about the 2016 election was that Russia used clever social media manipulation to swing the results of the election in favor of Donald Trump. A few months into its disastrous war in Ukraine, Russia no longer seems like the elite masters of online manipulation some in America had come to believe they were.
The internet is full of memes making fun of Russians and their own soldiers are posting disasters to Telegram daily. The Russian army’s war crimes in places like Bucha are so well documented that no amount of official counter-narrative seems believable.And in every thread from a Russian official, you’ll find the Fellas posting memes. “The Russians are good at disinformation,” Matthew said. “They’re good at controlling it and processing it, but they’re not used to any kind of operation at this scale. So now what they’re dealing with is trying to control up to 100,000 soldiers who are just doing soldier shit.”
On July 6, a video of a Russian soldier firing a machine gun at an abandoned surface-to-air missile system at close range and probably blowing himself up made the rounds on the internet. Someone who filmed the explosion posted it to Telegram. This is the kind of soldier shit Matthew is talking about. “This would happen in any army on Earth,” Matthew said. “But it does show that this myth of the ultimate control of the Russian government over information is not true.”Matthew said he’s been watching the Russian military and its activities for a long time. The horrors it's unleashing in Ukraine right now were practiced and honed in Syria. He said humor has helped him cope. “It has kept us sane throughout this entire process,” he said. The Fellas are great, he said, because there’s a charitable component to it.
“It felt good to log on and make fun of whatever Russian government employee you would engage with,” he said. “Now you’re able to tie that to donating to people who are fighting in Ukraine or donating to relief organizations, which is what we’ve been doing. I’m never going to sit here and pretend that we’re beating Russia. That’s never been the goal. It’s always just been to do whatever we can within our means to help.”Why does Kama think the Shiba caught on? “Personally, I think it’s the Fella’s face—it’s goofy as hell,” he said. “But I know that many people find the loafers/shin kickers endearing. But in all seriousness, I believe that people are able to find a refuge in Fellas. There’s a lot of doom, gloom and horror when it comes to the war in Ukraine, but Fellas are very much centered around good vibes and the possibility of making a change.”
The fellas are currently raising money to buy the Georgian Legion anti-drone rifles. Before that, they used the money to buy armor for the soldiers. “People knew that each donation got us closer to another plate and that each plate is another life saved,” Kama said. “At the end of the day, it’s a just cause dressed in a goofy facade, which allows people to comprehend the difficulties which come with a war, but not be traumatized by them. I make a very conscious effort to keep Fellas as welcoming and open as it is possible. No matter your beliefs, faith or creed, everybody is welcome.”