The Memes of August
How a motley coalition of “brain damaged” pro-Ukraine shitposters took on Russian trolls - and won
After President Trump’s shock election victory in 2016 and the revelation that Russian troll farms pumped shoddy memes into the Facebook feeds of millions of Americans, online disinformation and trolling have been all the rage in Washington. Just this week, for instance, one New York Times article attempted to pin the blame for the dissolution of the Women’s March not on the organization’s own well-known internal dysfunctions or its leadership’s close associations with anti-Semitic cranks but on Russian trolls. In the minds of many in DC, Russia’s keyboard warriors have a godlike power to manipulate public opinion with lies disseminated largely via crude memes and shitposts.
For its own part, America’s national security establishment has struggled to find its own answer to the disinformation question. Official efforts to counter disinformation have come to ignominious ends, with one Trump-era State Department-funded program targeting American analysts, activists, and journalists before being shut down. A more recent Pentagon effort to seed disinformation via fake Facebook and Twitter personas has rightly come under internal scrutiny. More broadly, though, it’s just hard to imagine that anyone seriously believes the State Department’s Global Engagement Center and its “Disarming Disinformation” campaign represents an effective counter to Russian or Iranian or Chinese propaganda – and the less said about the comically inept meme-smithing of U.S. Cyber Command, the better.
But where the United States government and other official counter-trolling endeavors have failed, the North Atlantic Fellas Organization (or NAFO) has succeeded – and succeeded spectacularly. A loosely organized volunteer army of pro-Ukraine shitposters – or, as one prominent NAFO member put it, a coalition of “brain damaged cartoon dogs” – NAFO has proven to be the single most effective trolling weapon in the Western arsenal. It has gone on the offensive against outlandish and risible claims made by Russian diplomats and propagandists since the start of the war, relentlessly trolling them with nothing but low-quality memes, Shiba Inu avatars, and dogged determination.
NAFO first burst into the wider consciousness of the Internet in June, when Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov foolishly responded to a NAFO troll on Twitter. His words have since become immortal among NAFO and its fellow travelers: “You pronounced this nonsense. Not me.” But the intense stupidity of NAFO’s own memes (witness “HIMARS: The Opera”) serves a real purpose: it punctures the aura of sophistication and success that’s surrounded Russian disinformation and propaganda over the last several years, exposing its obviously moronic nonsense for all to see. To do that, NAFO does what democratic governments cannot and should not do: descend to a level of juvenile idiocy that the Kremlin’s online provocateurs cannot possibly match. When Russian trolls spread excrement online, NAFO picks it up and launches it right back at them – along with some return fire of their own.
Perhaps the strongest sign of NAFO’s success is the degree to which it’s crawled under the skin of Russian propagandists and their useful idiots in the West. Television propaganda network RT, for instance, ran an exposé purporting to demonstrate that NAFO’s mass of “brain damaged cartoon dogs” were merely bots run by the CIA and other intelligence agencies with the nefarious purpose of silencing Russia’s own trolls. These ludicrous claims have been echoed by Moscow’s useful idiots in the West, who likewise posit a vast online conspiracy orchestrated and overseen by Langley and Kyiv. But it simply strains credulity to believe that any U.S. government agency possesses the requisite combination of creativity and stupidity to conceive of anything remotely like NAFO.
Unlike most shitposters, moreover, NAFO and its members have had real-world effects: its members have raised money for the Ukrainian military and foreign volunteer units. (That’s how one Ukrainian artillery piece wound up with the moniker “Superbonker 9000.”) Ukraine’s own Ministry of Defense has praised the work of NAFO as well, thanking this demented band of brothers for its “fierce fight against kremlin’s propaganda &trolls.”
So what can we learn from NAFO’s success?
First and foremost, troll campaigns work best when they’re organic, bottom-up affairs. Attempts by the U.S. government to counter disinformation have either failed miserably or gathered dust like musty museum pieces, while efforts to sow disinformation overseas have run afoul of basic democratic norms and threatened to seep back into the United States itself. By contrast, NAFO arose from genuine concern and outrage over Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine – not in response to bureaucratic imperatives or policy fads. As Eliot Higgins of the open-source intelligence agency Bellingcat put it, NAFO is “an example of online communities organically responding to disinformation from governments and counterfactual communities via shitposting.” In their occasional earnest moments, NAFO members make that much clear: they see themselves as a group of “individuals brought together by their shared belief in a cause greater than themselves, and working selflessly in service to that cause” – their particular form of service just happens to be shitposting.
Second, Russian disinformation campaigns were never as impressive or effective as many of us believed. During the moral panic about fake news and troll farms that followed the 2016 election, Russian disinformation operations acquired a grossly inflated reputation that never matched the reality of fairly shambolic operations dependent on luck and external help as much as anything else. (As Thomas Rid details in his excellent 2020 book Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, it was the East German Stasi – not the Soviet KGB – that conducted the most effective disinformation operations during the Cold War.) If NAFO had done nothing but deflate this reputation for godlike competence, it would have performed a vital service. The fact that the Kremlin propagandists and useful idiots see NAFO as such a threat testifies to their underlying weaknesses; the fact that they have been outmaneuvered by an international alliance of pro-Ukraine shitposters merely substantiates these fundamental deficiencies.
Finally, governments should leave trolling to the professionals. The success of NAFO and the bureaucratic ineptitude of official U.S. government attempts to counter – or spread – disinformation raises the question of whether government agencies should even be involved in such an endeavor. They cannot match the agility or alacrity of a group like NAFO, nor can they descend to the depths of memetic madness that only dedicated shitposters can ever hope to reach. It’s probably best if governments leave trolling and counter-trolling to the true professionals: Extremely Online obsessives with too much time on their hands. That doesn’t mean the U.S. or allied governments should stop producing stodgy but informative fact sheets debunking prominent propaganda claims made by rivals and adversaries. But they should absolutely cease and desist from any attempts to manufacture their own memes or spread disinformation on social media sites. There are things the State Department, Pentagon, and NATO Headquarters simply aren’t good at and shouldn’t even try, and shitposting is most certainly one of them.
It's likely the case that the influence of memes on recent history has been vastly exaggerated. But that doesn’t make NAFO any less fascinating or any less of a soft power asset for the United States and its NATO allies. This informal online coalition arose when the free world needed an army of deranged shitposters – and it shows no sign of giving up the fight anytime soon.
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