What a failing propaganda campaign tells us about pro-Kremlin influence operations in 2023

By: Elise Thomas

27 September 2023


As covert influence efforts go, Resistor Newswire – the latest attempt by Russian state media to be uncovered by ISD – is not going particularly well. Its audiences are tiny, and despite being in operation for over 18 months, it appears to have failed to gain any real traction.

This is just the most recent in a series of attempts by Russian state media to subvert restrictions and bans imposed on them by social media platforms following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Up to now, these tactics have involved creating spin-off or rebranded channels, as well as new brand identities for distributing their content.

Some of these are more or less overt, such as RT’s ‘Swentr’ Telegram channel and mirror domain. Others have shaded gradually from being semi-covert to covert, for example the Bloß mit Biss operation recently uncovered by ISD, which was determined to be run by the German arm of Russian-state media Sputnik. Accounts and channels which have never publicly acknowledged their link to Russian-state media are also likely to have been created.

In comparison to Bloß mit Biss and Swentr, RT’s creation Resistor Newswire has managed to gain only a tiny audience. While Resistor Newswire may not be very useful to the Russian state, it can still be useful to us, as analysts of pro-Kremlin disinformation and propaganda. The strategy which Russia Today (RT) has tried to pursue with Resistor, albeit unsuccessfully, can tell us something about the issues and social divisions which the Kremlin is seeking to exploit in Western nations.

Resistor Newswire’s RT roots

Resistor Newswire boils down to two small Telegram channels and a handful of mostly defunct accounts on other platforms including Reddit, X (formerly known as Twitter), Rumble and Truth Social. As of August 31, 2023, the original and largest Resistor Newswire channel, which targets US audiences, had 9,090 subscribers. The smaller UK-focused channel had 633 subscribers, and the X account had just 232. On August 26, the UK channel rebranded to Resistor Newswire Europe.

The original Resistor channel was created on March 9, 2022, five days after Telegram blocked access to RT’s channels for user accounts with European phone numbers. The platform did this seemingly in response to pressure from the EU in the immediate aftermath of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

As of early April, RT appears to have updated a page on its site that told readers how to continue to access RT content to include a direct reference to Resistor Newswire.

Figure 1: Screenshot of content from RT site, posted onto an online forum. Yellow box added by ISD to highlight the reference to Resistor Newswire.

Figure 1: Screenshot of content from RT site, posted onto an online forum. Yellow box added by ISD to highlight the reference to Resistor Newswire.

However, around mid-April it appears that RT decided on a different strategy for Resistor. The reference to Resistor on RT’s site was removed, replaced with a link to another channel ‘Swentr’ (‘RTnews’ spelled backwards). Multiple posts on the Resistor channel were also edited to remove references to RT, though it is unclear if this was done purposefully to obscure the connection between the two.

Figure 2: Archived Resistor Newswire post showing ‘Subscribe to RT t.me/rtnews’ tagline (right). Current version of the same post showing it was edited on April 15, 2022, to remove the reference to RT (left).

Figure 2: Archived Resistor Newswire post showing ‘Subscribe to RT t.me/rtnews’ tagline (right). Current version of the same post showing it was edited on April 15, 2022, to remove the reference to RT (left).

Almost exactly a year later, on May 10, 2023, a second Resistor Newswire channel was created with a focus on UK audiences.

On May 30, 2023, a Resistor Newswire account was created on Reddit. It made one post on the /r/Trump subreddit promoting a ‘Pro-Trump Telegram channel’. The post itself was subsequently removed by moderators, but an image which accompanied the post shows a screenshot of a Resistor Newswire Telegram post. Accounts on Rumble and Truth Social also appear to have been created for Resistor but have since been either deleted or abandoned. Resistor continues to run a small X Blue account as of September 20, 2023.

Despite no longer overtly acknowledging ownership of Resistor, RT continues to actively work to direct traffic to Resistor. Swentr, which is now RT’s main Telegram channel accessible from the EU and US, has shared Resistor posts over 200 times. Resistor channels make up two of the top five channels which Swentr shares content from, along with other RT properties including the original RT News channel (which is still accessible to users in most parts of the world outside the US and EU) and RT India.

Figure 3: Incoming and outgoing mentions for @swentr, which now acts as RT’s main Telegram channel for US and European audiences. Source: Tgstat.ru

Figure 3: Incoming and outgoing mentions for @swentr, which now acts as RT’s main Telegram channel for US and European audiences. Source: Tgstat.ru

Useless op, useful insight

The Resistor Newswire network channels provide a window into the kinds of issues and social divisions which the Kremlin is seeking to exploit and the kinds of tactics that state propaganda organizations like RT are seeking to use.

In terms of content, both the US and UK versions of the channel only occasionally post about the war in Ukraine, and rarely post about Russia more broadly. Instead, the key issues around which RT appears to be seeking to drive division using the Resistor Newswire network include:

  • Domestic partisan and election-related topics:
    • For the US, that involves:
      • Promoting and defending Donald Trump, including denigrating his Republican rivals. This includes both his rivals in the race for the 2024 Presidential nomination and anti-Trump figures in the broader party.
        • As of August, Resistor appears to be testing the waters when it comes to how to respond to the rise of previously fringe candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. Posts about Ramaswamy hint towards issues which might (in Trump supporters’ eyes) be seen as negatives, for example that he received a scholarship from the Paul and Daisy Soros Foundation, but these posts are currently framed in a “just asking questions” tone rather than outright attacks.
      • Criticizing and undermining Democrats and the Biden Administration, in particular by questioning President Biden’s mental acuity and VP Kamala Harris’ competence.
    • For the UK, that involves:
      • Equally negative attacks on high profile politicians from all sides of politics, including framing both Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Opposition Leader Keir Starmer as rich, elite, out of touch and potentially corrupt.
    • For the EU:
      • The main focus of the EU-related content so far has been the institution itself, for example criticizing EU climate policies and the spending of citizens’ tax money on support for Ukraine.
      • Some specific domestic political issues have been highlighted but have not developed into an ongoing focus.
  • The network also covers a range of broader domestic social issues, including:
    • LGBTQ+ rights
    • Climate change and associated measures to limit or mitigate it
    • Racial justice issues
    • Immigration
    • The January 6th insurrection
    • Generational divides.

The methods used may also tell us something about their approach ahead of the elections in the US and UK in 2024.

What they’re not doing is creating and spreading new disinformation narratives, generating their own AI content, or any of the other more elaborate methodologies which have recently been a source of consternation.

What they are doing instead is the easiest, cheapest and most obvious thing: amplifying real, wildly polarized and divisive debates in the media and online in both countries. This focus on deepening pre-existing social divisions, rather than attempting to create entirely new ones, is broadly consistent with Russia’s approach to influence operations targeting the US and Europe dating back many years.

US presence

As of August 31, 2023, the Resistor Newswire Telegram channel has 9,090 subscribers.

The channel is clearly strongly geared towards a pro-Trump audience. It primarily posts clips and images from mainstream US media outlets from across the political spectrum, particularly cable TV, with additional commentary which frames the content from a right-wing, ‘anti-woke’ or pro-Trump perspective according to the topic.

The channel presents its audiences with a smorgasbord of ‘culture war’ topics which together amount to an ‘anti-woke’ worldview similar to that presented by Newsmax or Fox News. Indeed, it often literally is clips from Fox News being reposted by the channel, usually with some additional commentary from Resistor which frames the content with a right wing, anti-woke, anti-Democrat or anti-Ukrainian lens.

Despite repurposing so much Fox content, Resistor also appears to seek to diminish opinions of Fox by implying that it is insufficiently ‘conservative’ or not backing Trump strongly enough.

Figure 4: Telegram posts from 4 August 2023, from Resistor Newswire

Figure 4: Telegram posts from 4 August 2023, from Resistor Newswire

 

Figure 4: Telegram posts from 9 August 2023, from Resistor Newswire

Figure 5: Telegram posts from 9 August 2023, from Resistor Newswire

 

Figure 4: Telegram posts from 9 27 July. 2023, from Resistor Newswire

Figure 6: Telegram posts from 9 27 July. 2023, from Resistor Newswire

In addition to media clips, the channel posts memes and snippets of information from a range of sources to flesh out its narratives. In the below example, a screenshot of a report on Democrats’ demographic diversity in the Senate is framed as showing that “a lot of the offices are pretty gay” (which, to the audience RT is seeking to cultivate, would be seen as a negative).

Figure 5: Screenshot of Telegram post on July 12 from Resistor Newswire

Figure 7: Screenshot of Telegram post on July 12 from Resistor Newswire

The channel is clearly aimed at an older demographic, with periodic derisive posts referencing millennials (Gen Z also makes an occasional appearance as the subject of mockery).

At times, the content dog whistles or overtly references conspiracy theories, and shares posts from QAnon and other conspiracy Telegram channels. This includes pro-Trump political conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and white nationalist conspiracy theories like the ‘Great Replacement’.

Figure 6: Post on August 8 from Resistor Newswire referencing the white nationalist ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory in relation to demographic change

Figure 8: Post on August 8 from Resistor Newswire referencing the white nationalist ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory in relation to demographic change

Figure 7: Post on June 7 from Resistor Newswire sharing a post from a QAnon channel featuring a Fox News clip

Figure 9: Post on June 7 from Resistor Newswire sharing a post from a QAnon channel featuring a Fox News clip

The channels (and by extension, RT) have also sought to contribute to and fuel other, newer conspiracy theories, for example inferring a suspicious connection between conspiracy theories surrounding the death of the Obama family’s chef in a paddleboarding accident and the death of someone who did Hunter Biden’s taxes years earlier.

Figure 8: Post on July 28, 2023, by Resistor Newswire insinuating that the death of Hunter Biden’s accountant is suspicious

Figure 10: Post on July 28, 2023, by Resistor Newswire insinuating that the death of Hunter Biden’s accountant is suspicious

At this stage, there is no question who Resistor Newswire is supporting in the Republican primary or in the US Presidential election next November. The channels not only show support for Trump but also denigrate his rivals for the Republican nomination, such as Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. It has also aggressively mocked Chris Christie, in particular for his support of Ukraine.

In addition to sharing content from other RT-connected channels, Resistor Newswire frequently shares posts from the channels of BlazeTV host Lauren Chen and, interestingly, from British far-right channels Tommy Robinson News and Traditional Britain. This is likely due to some crossover in content (and possibly the same staff running both channels) with Resistor Newswire UK.

UK & European presence

As of August 31, and after a rebrand from Resistor Newswire UK to Resistor Newswire Europe, the Resistor spin-off channel had 1,073 subscribers.

Prior to its rebrand, Resistor Newswire UK could be thought of as the GB News to Resistor’s Fox: a smaller, even more outlandish cousin with a clear agenda but so far apparently failing to reach large audiences.

This channel has so far relied less on clips from cable news shows (perhaps due to there being fewer UK cable shows overall). Instead, it uses relatively more clips and images from social media and other sources, accompanied by comments framing the content.

RT uses the channel to promote an ‘anti-woke’ worldview which is broadly consistent with the US channel, although with slightly different emphases – for example, more focus on immigration and more content relating to the EU and European politics. There is also a stronger focus on climate change issues, in particular ridiculing Just Stop Oil protesters and criticizing London’s ultra-low emission zone policies, known as ULEZ.

A significant point of difference is that there does not appear to currently be any particular partisan preference, at least while the channel was focused on the UK. Despite the main Resistor channel being decidedly pro-Trump, when it comes to British politics, its formerly UK (now European) offshoot paints both sides of the aisle in a negative light. This may be at least partially linked to strong bipartisan support in the UK for aid to Ukraine (in comparison to the US where multiple Republican candidates including Trump have expressed a desire to reduce support) and so it is less clear which party’s policies are likely to align with Russia’s interests.

Another notable difference is that the UK channel frequently shares content directly from far-right and white nationalist British sources. This includes, for example, posting videos watermarked with the website of far-right group Britain First, and sharing posts from the Telegram channels of convicted criminal and far right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (better known as Tommy Robinson) and from the far-right Traditional Britain Group. The content of these posts aligns with RT’s overall narrative push in English, for example denigrating LGBTQ+ people or criticizing immigrants.

Figure 9: Resistor Newswire UK Telegram post using a clip sourced from far-right organization Britain First. 

Figure 11: Resistor Newswire UK Telegram post using a clip sourced from far-right organization Britain First.

A house divided will not stand

Resistor Newswire offers a clear window into how RT, and behind it the Kremlin, is seeking to exploit existing divisions and social tensions within Western nations, in particular the US and UK. It has not been effective, but it would be naïve and over-confident to assume that all of Russia’s covert influence efforts have been or will continue to be equally feeble.

Strikingly, it also shows that – at least so far, in this specific campaign – RT believes that it is possible and expedient to do so primarily by using real, highly polarized Western media content. The topics they are targeting are often not directly linked to Western policy on the war in Ukraine or sanctions against Russia. Instead, they are targeting cultural fractures over immigration, race relations, LGBTQ+ rights, cost of living and action on climate change. These are similar themes and issues which the Internet Research Agency’s 2016 election interference efforts targeted.

In the US, RT’s efforts also have a clear partisan push: supporting Donald Trump in his bid first for the Republican nomination and then for the White House.

Resistor Newswire is clearly a campaign tailored to target audiences on the political right. However, it seems possible and perhaps even likely that similar Russian operations may be targeting audiences on the left-wing of the political spectrum. That was the case in the 2016 interference campaign, and other operations targeting audiences on the political left have been uncovered in the years since. Where the goal is purely to create division, partisanship and democratic dysfunction, it would make sense to target both sides.

RT’s covert efforts reflect a belief that the West’s ‘culture war’ clashes are a geostrategic opportunity for Russia. Particularly in the case of democratic societies, intractable and bitter partisan divides can, over time, undermine the abilities of governments to function at all. Anything the Kremlin can do to encourage or hasten that state of political and social gridlock in the West is, presumably, a win in their eyes.

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