The war in Ukraine is not funny, yet online warriors and sympathizers know how to use humor as an effective weapon. Memes and funny videos celebrate Ukrainian success and mock the Russian occupier, and merchandise and fundraisers raise millions for the Ukrainian army and specifically the Georgian volunteer legion.
Meanwhile, the twitterers, tickers and redditors have united into an increasingly serious organization: the NAFO. That stands for North Atlantic Fellas Organization, in which anyone can join as a fella. The fellas' informal leader is a Shiba dog, photoshopped – in deliberately amateurish fashion – in a military outfit.
Several politicians, such as Estonian former President Ilvis, and foreign military leaders have declared themselves “members” of NAFO. Ukraine's defense minister also recently joined the parody of NATO. NAFO expansion is non-negotiable, he tweeted with a wink.
My personal salute to #NAFOfellas. I’d like to thank each person behind Shiba Inu cartoon. Your donations to support our defenders, your fight VS misinformation is valuable.
I’m changing my profile picture for a few days. Cheers @marlowc2324
NAFO expansion is non-negotiatiable! pic.twitter.com/SapxtsVsS5
— Oleksii Reznikov (@oleksiireznikov) August 30, 2022
It is entirely new form of war participation. Just as the Gulf War was the first war we could follow via TV, this is the first war where social media plays such a major role, says Tom Dobber, researcher of political communication at the University of Amsterdam.
Creating and spreading memes is an effective means of keeping people involved in the war, he observes. NAFO is very much focused on the West. Not for nothing are most messages in English. Dobber expects the public's involvement in the war to fade less quickly: After all, you change from a passive news consumer to a more active participant in this conflict.
In addition to humor, NAFO has another weapon: shitposting around Russian propaganda aimed at having support for Ukraine diminished. When someone signals such a post, NAFO's “Article 5” is triggered by responding with the hashtag #NAFOArticle5. Then NAFO members spam in the comments that there is fake news. This is an effective form of counter-propaganda.
In addition, Russian military personnel are mocked in memes:
— Sniper Fella?????? (@SniperFella) September 22, 2022
NAFO's most profitable ally is Saint Javelin by Canadian-Ukrainian Christian Borys, who lived and worked in Ukraine until 2019. With merchandise of an armed saint named after the effective Javelin anti-tank weapons, he already managed to raise 1.3 million euros. The proceeds will go toward medical support and the purchase of drones.
Borys decided to sell Saint Javelin stickers on Feb. 16, just under a week before the Russian invasion began. Friends in Ukraine told me it was really serious, so I wanted to support them, he says via Zoom from Toronto. I thought I could raise at most a few hundred dollars with the stickers, because that meme was only known to a small group of people at the time.
It became a resounding success, partly because of the important role that the real Javelin, that is, the weapon, turned out to play on the battlefield. People therefore wanted to show appreciation for the Javelin. From rock band Nine Inch Nails to popular youtubers, the stickers appeared everywhere. We got especially many orders from Finland, Sweden and England. The Netherlands accounted for 1.2 percent of sales, representing about 1,800 purchases.