Seizing the memes of advantage in the Ukraine war and beyond
15 Nov 2022|

Of all the vagaries we label as ‘non-traditional security’, none is more amusing or indicative of the role of digital networks than that of a compressed, grainy image of a Shiba Inu—a Japanese dog breed that the North Atlantic Fellas Organization uses as its sign. With a swarm of members that include social media researchers, a former president of Estonia, US congressional representatives and military personnel, NAFO is living proof of the importance of memes in contemporary information warfare.

NAFO, and other distributed information campaigns, have become a hallmark of the highly mediatised Russian invasion of Ukraine. These informational insurgencies aim to counter propaganda initiatives with sarcasm and wit. Any post on Twitter or elsewhere advocating support for the Russian invasion, or the legitimacy of sham referenda to annex parts of Ukraine to Russia, is met with relentless mockery, sarcasm and memes from NAFO members, colloquially referred to regardless of age, gender or location as ‘Fellas’.

Contemporary information warfare is often rolled into wider issues involving cyberspace and cybersecurity. The link is usually made based on information warfare being most easily undertaken today through social media and other digital technologies, while requiring a significantly different skillset to propagate and analyse.

If we’re to understand contemporary information warfare, we must recognise that it is fundamentally and by default memetic. The approach taken by the US Department of Defense, which is now under review and that Twitter and Facebook have described as an instance of coordinated inauthentic behaviour, demonstrates a pressing need for this. Meme warfare favours not the frontal assault, but insurgency. Pumping content into the digital aether is unsubtle and ineffective in shaping the narrative to suit strategic ends. There is a better way.

Memetic warfare, more commonly known as meme warfare, has floated around the fringes of the information warfare discourse for quite some time. The ‘meme’—defined by Richard Dawkins as the smallest possible unit of human culture—is at the core of this subset of information warfare. By progressively injecting small cultural elements into discourse on a matter, such as an invasion or other military operation, the idea is that a message can be spread unwittingly—using infection, rather than broadcast, as a medium of transmission.

As far back as 2006, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization recognised that meme warfare should be central to its defence initiatives. Of particular note was a proposal to integrate information operations, psychological operations and strategic communications in the form of a ‘meme warfare centre’ that would advise NATO commanders ‘on meme generation, transmission, coupled with a detailed analysis on enemy, friendly and noncombatant populations’.

These ideas have influenced NATO’s and the European Union’s efforts to expand their involvement in this space. In 2017, NATO and the EU established the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, which has a general focus on hybrid warfare across a number of domains, including the information domain. There’s also the Latvia-based NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, established in 2014, which provides tailored advice on information warfare, with a focus on its conduct online.

But analysis since then has cropped up rarely, and has tended to integrate meme warfare into wider information warfare to the point of conflating the two. One significant exception is the excellent piece published on this forum by Tom Ascott of the Royal United Services Institute in 2020. Ascott provides a highly informative overview of the history and contemporary applications of memetic warfare, from its pedigree and relationship to Soviet dezinformatsiya campaigns to its deployment in the 2016 US election. Alas, content in the space is perilously thin on the ground relative to its deployment, including crowdsourced disinformation campaigns such as the #DraftOurDaughters initiative deployed by a group of 4chan users in a bid to dent the national security credentials of US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In a networked environment in which individuals are empowered with all the publishing force of the Gutenberg press in the palms of their hands, empowering users to generate a suitable narrative is critical. If Australia and its allies are to replicate the successes of contemporary information warfare operations in Ukraine, an understanding of memes is more critical than ever. The role of NAFO in Ukraine is proof of this. Meme warfare is distributed and participatory, and understanding its power requires an understanding of internet culture.

What much of this relies on—and indeed, how the US, Australia and other like-minded countries may be able to leverage memetic warfare to their advantage—is the ability to create participatory online insurgencies. The best digital marketing initiatives are participatory—Spotify Wrapped, for example, enables users not only to collate data about their music habits for the year, but to share that data with others, contributing to narratives and meta-narratives about popular music. In effect, meme warfare draws from the same playbook by providing a series of cultural objects for individuals to latch onto, remix and reproduce online.

So, back to NAFO. To understand what’s significant about posting a compressed image of a Shiba Inu in reply to disinformation content on social media we need to have an understanding of its history. The Shiba Inu has a surprising history of use online as a meme symbolising irony, irreverence and wholesome clarity in the face of challenging circumstances. This includes the Doge meme, which appeared on Reddit and 4chan in 2010. That in turn influenced the development of a number of other Doge-like memes (usually in the form of edited iterations of the original). One of them, a compressed image of a Shiba referred to as Cheems, was shrunk further, applied to an edited image of the NATO logo, and proliferated widely on Twitter from June 2022 onwards.

On its own, the edited form of the NATO logo wouldn’t have spread. But, by applying a meme with wide awareness and a spirit of irreverence to it, the movement began to grow. It enables users to create their own. There is no central authority. Members of the swarm create their own NAFO ‘Fellas’ avatars or gift them to others. Fellas work together, coordinating responses to drown disinformation content and highlight instances of war crimes or Russian military failures.

Understanding this approach and reproducing it in a deliberate and targeted way in future conflicts can result in similar, highly effective memetic insurgencies in cyberspace.