NAFO Claims Another High-Profile Victim: Fighting Back Against Disinformation

1 Jul 2024

NAFO (North Atlantic Fella Organization) recently commemorated its second anniversary as a group dedicated to supporting Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion. This decentralized group of individuals from around the world, often unorganized, can organically assemble with great passion to make a mockery of those spreading Russian disinformation when needed.

The group has shown no signs of relenting in its fight against pro-Russian narratives and propaganda on the internet. Its most recent target was former Trump administration official, Elbridge Colby.

According to the Department of Defense, Elbridge Colby was the “Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, in which capacity he was responsible for defense strategy, force development, and strategic analysis for OSD Policy.”

He is also the grandson of William Colby, who was the head of the CIA under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. As a CIA Deputy in Vietnam under Lyndon Johnson, he was responsible for the Phoenix Program.

Colby’s primary argument centers around the idea that aid should be reduced to Ukraine, in favor of shifting America’s focus to the Asia-Pacific. However, this was not the primary driver leading NAFO fellas to attack Colby with counterpoints and memes.

As Ed Scarce wrote in Crooks & Liars, Elbridge took issue with a video from last month of the head of NATO's military committee Bob Bauer giving praise to the efforts of NAFO as a group in helping fight Russian disinformation.

Elbridge’s reply to the video already has over 260k impressions on X (formerly known as Twitter).

Elbridge then began complaining about his posts and account timeline being inundated with “NAFO accounts.” Seeking a defensive alliance, he tried to engage Elon Musk and pro-Kremlin commentator, David Sacks. However, disinformation expert and founder of Vatnik Soup, Pekka Kallioniemi, pointed out that the treatment Elbridge was getting was “the exact treatment that people talking against the Kremlin have been receiving for the last 10 years.”

It was quite the sight to see on X that a former Trump official was sitting behind a screen, ferociously engaging with random individuals with profile images of cartoon dogs. One fella on X with the username osint_69 commented, “The funny thing about Mr. Elbridge Colby is that he thinks of himself as a serious person who should be respected but he is engagement farming by arguing with cartoon dogs. His grandfather would surely be ashamed.”

Even former US House representative, Adam Kinzinger, who is a fella himself, joined in on the mockery. Kinzinger, responding to Elbridge, commented “you don’t get to feign seriousness now that you tried pretending NAFO was CIA, got schooled, and for months refused serious convos.”

Elbridge joins a long list of officials who have been humbled by a random group of cartoon dogs on the internet. First, it was the infamous Mikhail Ulyanov who found himself in a spat with NAFO fellas in 2022. He made the mistake of replying to a cartoon dog, with the words heard around Twitter, “You pronounced this nonsense, not me.”

Ulyanov was humiliated and took down his social media for some time. As Vice News put it, “Shitposting Shiba Inu Accounts Chased a Russian Diplomat Offline.”

Russian state media was left licking their wounds as they finally felt the momentum shift as Russian troll farms finally met a worthy opponent fighting back against Russian information warfare. RT, the official Russian state media, made an attempt to discredit NAFO by labeling it as “a vast pro-Ukrainian 'bot army' designed to influence Western policy makers.”

Russia uses troll factories to try and spread disinformation across the internet. For years, the West lacked an effective response. In a democratic society, governments can’t restrict the open flow of information, which makes it easier for authoritarian governments to influence Western societies. There is a reason China has never allowed TikTok to be available domestically but supports its functioning in the West.

It is difficult to doubt the effectiveness of NAFO. There isn’t any better alternative in the democratic world as a counterweight to the Russian information offensive on the internet. Before NAFO’s existence, a prominent official or pro-Kremlin commenter like David Sacks could spread propaganda without ridicule, and the average person reading the posts and comments was more likely to accept it as fact. It was estimated that around 126 million Americans saw Russian-backed content on Facebook during the 2016 presidential campaign.

With NAFO’s intervention, if someone is reading a post spreading Russian disinformation and sees the comments full of memes ridiculing the posted statements, it might give the reader pause and the idea to further research what is being discussed. As Pekka Kallioniemi puts it: By ridiculing Russian propaganda, NAFO disarms it since the disinformation is so unbelievable and poorly executed.

The danger of not fighting Russian disinformation will have impacts on the battlefield itself. While the US Congress was splintered and debating aid for Ukraine, Russia's disinformation played an important role in helping delay aid. In December 2023, US Senator Thom Tillis said that talks on Ukraine aid were bogged down as some lawmakers had concerns that “people will buy yachts with this money.”

This was a popular point of disinformation pushed by Russian intelligence services that had been spreading throughout the internet, even retweeted by the US House Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Elbridge Colby has now joined the ranks of esteemed company. Republican Senator Mike Lee also found himself in a feud with NAFO fellas in 2023. Lee appeared to have lost his mind with NAFO fellas crashing his Twitter polls surveying whether the U.S. should send aid to Ukraine. In his attacks against NAFO, he linked a pro-Kremlin website to try and support his point.

In the end, his spat with the fellas led to a very unhealthy obsessionwith NAFO for Lee and resulted in him blocking NAFO accounts en masse from being able to view posts on his @BasedMikeLee account.

NAFO, as a random group of individuals, has shown how information warfare is becoming decentralized, with the average person playing an important role as a member of a larger group supporting similar objectives. It’s the organic formation of a response from the democratic world to fight Russia’s troll farms on the internet with memes to help influence perceptions.

Not only do the fellas fight back against the Russian trolls, but they also combat those spreading Russian disinformation at the highest levels.

As Senator Mike Lee has demonstrated, NAFO’s mocking of their peddling of Russian propaganda drives those officials to frustration when confronted by such a ‘menacing’ force on the internet.

Ukraine needs all the support it can get. Awareness of Ukraine’s plight connects back directly to support on the battlefield for Ukraine. Russian disinformation is a key war strategy by Russia to undermine support for Ukraine abroad.

Serhii Kuzan, chair of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center think tank and a former adviser to the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, told me in a recent interview that Russia’s information war is focused on destabilizing Ukraine and also working to undermine support for Ukraine internationally.

While some may look at NAFO and have a chuckle at their work, the group is playing a vital role in supporting Ukraine, no matter the scale. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself stated that “Attention equals help. No attention will mean no help. We fight for every bit of attention.”

Every individual behind a computer who logs on every day and posts memes ridiculing Russian disinformation and propaganda is playing a much larger role than they realize. The NAFO fellas, from across the political spectrum and from around the world, are all united by the cause of Ukraine and its fight for freedom.

Somewhere out there, Elbridge Colby, Mike Lee, and the fan-favorite, Mikhail Ulyanov, must be thinking to themselves how they ever bothered to try responding to a bunch of random cartoon dogs on the internet.