How The Epoch Times Created a Giant Influence Machine

How The Epoch Times Created a Giant Influence Machine

For years, The Epoch Times was a small, low-budget newspaper with an anti-China slant that was handed out free on New York road corners. However in 2016 and 2017, the paper made two changes that reworked it into one of many country’s strongest digital publishers.

The changes also paved the way in which for the publication, which is affiliated with the secretive and comparatively obscure Chinese religious motion Falun Gong, to turn out to be a number one purveyor of right-wing misinformation.

First, it embraced President Trump, treating him as an ally in Falun Gong’s scorched-earth struggle towards China’s ruling Communist Celebration, which banned the group 20 years in the past and has persecuted its members ever since. Its comparatively staid coverage of U.S. politics turned extra partisan, with extra articles explicitly supporting Mr. Trump and criticizing his opponents.

Across the similar time, The Epoch Times wager Giant on one other highly effective American establishment: Facebook. The publication and its associates employed a novel technique that concerned creating dozens of Facebook pages, filling them with feel-good movies and viral clickbait, and utilizing them to promote subscriptions and drive traffic again to its partisan information coverage.

In an April 2017 electronic mail to the employees obtained by The New York Times, the paper’s leadership envisioned that the Facebook technique might assist turn The Epoch Times into “the world’s Giantst and most authoritative media.” It might also introduce millions of individuals to the teachings of Falun Gong, fulfilling the group’s mission of “saving sentient beings.”

As we speak, The Epoch Times and its associates are a drive in right-wing media, with tens of millions of social media followers unfold throughout dozens of pages and an internet viewers that rivals these of The Day by day Caller and Breitbart Information, and with an identical willingness to feed the net fever swamps of the far right.

It also has rising Influence in Mr. Trump’s interior circle. The president and his family have shared articles from the paper on social media, and Trump administration officers have sat for interviews with its reporters. In August, a reporter from The Epoch Times requested a query at a White Home press briefing.

It’s a exceptional success story for Falun Gong, which has lengthy struggled to determine its bona fides towards Beijing’s efforts to demonize it as an “evil cult,” partly as a result of its strident accounts of persecution in China can generally be troublesome to substantiate or veer into exaggeration. In 2006, an Epoch Times reporter disrupted a White Home go to by the Chinese president by shouting, “Evil individuals will die early.”

Stephen Okay. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist and a former chairman of Breitbart, stated in an interview in July that The Epoch Times’s quick progress had impressed him.

“They’ll be the highest conservative information web site in two years,” stated Mr. Bannon, who was arrested on fraud fees in August. “They punch method above their weight, they’ve the readers, and so they’re going to be a drive to be reckoned with.”

However the group and its associates have grown, partially, by counting on sketchy social media techniques, pushing harmful conspiracy theories and downplaying their connection to Falun Gong, an investigation by The Times has discovered. The investigation included interviews with greater than a dozen former Epoch Times staff, in addition to inner paperwork and tax filings. Many of those individuals spoke on the condition of anonymity as a result of they feared retaliation, or still had family in Falun Gong.

Embracing Mr. Trump and Facebook has made The Epoch Times a partisan powerhouse. But it surely has also created a global-scale misinformation machine that has repeatedly pushed fringe narratives into the mainstream.

The publication has been one of the distinguished promoters of “Spygate,” a baseless conspiracy idea involving claims that Obama administration officers illegally spied on Mr. Trump’s 2016 marketing campaign. Publications and exhibits linked to The Epoch Times have promoted the QAnon conspiracy idea and unfold distorted claims about voter fraud and the Black Lives Matter motion. Extra just lately, they’ve promoted the unfounded idea that the coronavirus — which the publication calls the “CCP Virus,” in an try and hyperlink it to the Chinese Communist Celebration — was created as a bioweapon in a Chinese navy lab.

The Epoch Times says it’s independent and nonpartisan, and it rejects the suggestion that it’s formally affiliated with Falun Gong.

Like Falun Gong itself, the newspaper — which publishes in dozens of countrys — is decentralized and operates as a cluster of regional chapters, every organized as a separate nonprofit. It’s also terribly secretive. Editors at The Epoch Times turned down a number of requests for interviews, and a reporter’s unannounced go to to the outlet’s Manhattan headquarters this year was met with a menace from a lawyer.

Representatives for Li Hongzhi, the chief of Falun Gong, didn’t reply to requests for comment. Neither did different residents of Dragon Springs, the compound in upstate New York that serves as Falun Gong’s religious headquarters.

Many staff and Falun Gong practitioners contacted by The Times stated they have been instructed to not expose particulars of the outlet’s interior workings. They stated they’d been advised that talking negatively about The Epoch Times can be tantamount to disobeying Mr. Li, who is understood by his disciples as “Master.”

The Epoch Times offered solely partial solutions to an extended checklist of questions despatched to its media workplace, and declined to reply questions on its funds and editorial technique. In an electronic mail, which was not signed, the outlet accused The Times of “defaming and diminishing a competitor” and displaying “a delicate type of non secular intimidation if not bigotry” by linking the publication to Falun Gong.

“The Epoch Times is not going to be intimidated and won’t be silenced,” the outlet added, “and based mostly on the variety of falsehoods and inaccuracies included within the New York Times questions we’ll think about all authorized choices in response.”

Clarifying the Truth

Falun Gong, which Mr. Li launched in China in 1992, revolves round a sequence of 5 meditation workout routines and a course of of Moral self-improvement that’s meant to result in religious enlightenment. As we speak, the group is understood for the demonstrations it holds world wide to “make clear the Truth” in regards to the Chinese Communist Celebration, which it accuses of torturing Falun Gong practitioners and harvesting the organs of these executed. (Tens of hundreds throughout China have been despatched to labor camps within the early years of the crackdown, and the group’s presence there may be now a lot diminished.)

Extra just lately, Falun Gong has come below scrutiny for what some former practitioners have characterised as an excessive perception system that forbids interracial marriage, condemns homosexuality and discourages the usage of trendy medication, all allegations the group denies.

When The Epoch Times acquired its begin in 2000, the aim was to counter Chinese propaganda and canopy Falun Gong’s persecution by the Chinese authorities. It started as a Chinese-language newspaper run out of the Georgia basement of John Tang, a graduate scholar and Falun Gong practitioner.

By 2004, The Epoch Times had expanded into English. One of many paper’s early hires was Genevieve Belmaker, then a 27-year-old Falun Gong practitioner with little journalism expertise. Ms. Belmaker, now 43, described the early Epoch Times as a cross between a scrappy media start-up and a zealous church bulletin, with a employees composed Giantly of unpaid volunteers drawn from the native Falun Gong chapters.

“The mission-driven a part of it was, let’s have a media outlet that not solely tells the Truth about Falun Gong however about the whole lot,” Ms. Belmaker stated.

Mr. Li, Falun Gong’s founder, also noticed it that method. In speeches, he referred to The Epoch Times and different Falun Gong-linked shops — together with the New Tang Dynasty TV station, or NTD — as “our media,” and stated they may assist publicize Falun Gong’s story and values world wide.

Two former staff recalled that the paper’s top editors had traveled to Dragon Springs to satisfy with Mr. Li. One worker who attended a gathering stated Mr. Li had weighed in on editorial and strategic choices, performing as a sort of shadow writer. The Epoch Times denied these accounts, saying in an announcement, “There was no such assembly.”

The road between The Epoch Times and Falun Gong is blurry at occasions. Two former Epoch Times reporters stated they’d been requested to write down flattering profiles of intercountryal performers being recruited into Shen Yun, the closely marketed dance efficiency sequence that Falun Gong backs, as a result of it could strengthen these performers’ visa functions. One other former Epoch Times reporter recalled being assigned to write down vital articles about politicians together with John Liu, a Taiwanese-American former New York Metropolis councilman whom the group seen as mushy on China and hostile to Falun Gong.

These articles helped Falun Gong advance its targets, however they lured few subscribers.

Matthew Okay. Tullar, a former gross sales director for The Epoch Times’s Orange County version in New York, wrote on his LinkedIn web page that his staff initially “printed 800 papers every week, had no subscribers, and utilized a ‘throw it of their driveway totally free’ advertising technique.” Mr. Tullar didn’t reply to requests for comment.

Ms. Belmaker, who left the paper in 2017, described it as a bare-bones operation that was all the time trying to find new moneymaking ventures.

“It was very short-term considering,” she stated. “We weren’t trying greater than three weeks down the street.”

A Trump Pivot

By 2014, The Epoch Times was edging nearer to Mr. Li’s imaginative and prescient of a good information outlet. Subscriptions have been rising, the paper’s reporting was successful journalism awards, and its funds have been stabilizing.

“There was all this optimism that things have been going to degree up,” Ms. Belmaker stated.

However at a employees assembly in 2015, leadership introduced that the publication was in hassle once more, Ms. Belmaker recalled. Facebook had modified its algorithm for figuring out which articles appeared in customers’ newsfeeds, and The Epoch Times’s traffic and advert income have been struggling.

In response, the publication assigned reporters to churn out as many as 5 posts a day in a seek for viral hits, usually lowbrow fare with titles like “Grizzly Bear Does Stomach Flop Right into a Swimming Pool.”

“It was a contest for traffic,” Ms. Belmaker stated.

Because the 2016 election neared, reporters observed that the paper’s political coverage took on a extra partisan tone.

Steve Klett, who lined the 2016 marketing campaign for the paper, stated his editors had inspired favorable coverage about Mr. Trump after he gained the Republican nomicountry.

“They appeared to have this virtually messianic method of viewing Trump because the anti-Communist chief who would carry in regards to the finish of the Chinese Communist Celebration,” Mr. Klett stated.

After Mr. Trump’s victory, The Epoch Times employed Brendan Steinhauser, a well-connected Tea Celebration strategist, to assist make inroads with conservatives. Mr. Steinhauser stated the group’s aim, past elevating its profile in Washington, had been to make Falun Gong’s persecution a Trump administration precedence.

“They wished extra individuals in Washington to pay attention to how the Chinese Communist Celebration operates, and what it has carried out to religious and ethnic minorities,” Mr. Steinhauser stated.

All In on Facebook

Behind the scenes, The Epoch Times was also creating a secret weapon: a Facebook progress technique that may in the end assist take its message to millions.

In response to emails reviewed by The Times, the Facebook plan was developed by Trung Vu, the previous head of The Epoch Times’s Vietnamese version, often known as Dai Ky Nguyen, or DKN.

In Vietnam, Mr. Trung’s technique concerned filling a Network of Facebook pages with viral movies and pro-Trump propaganda, a few of it lifted phrase for phrase from different websites, and utilizing automated software program, or bots, to generate faux likes and shares, a former DKN worker stated. Workers used faux accounts to run the pages, a apply that violated Facebook’s guidelines however that Mr. Trung stated was obligatory to guard staff from Chinese surveillance, the previous worker stated.

Mr. Trung didn’t reply to requests for comment.

In response to the 2017 electronic mail despatched to Epoch Times staff in America, the Vietnamese experiment was a “exceptional success” that made DKN one of many Giantst publishers in Vietnam.

The outlet, the e-mail claimed, was “having a profound impression on saving sentient beings in that country.”

The Vietnamese staff was requested to assist Epoch Media Group — the umbrella group for Falun Gong’s Giantst U.S. media rightties — arrange its personal Facebook empire, based on that electronic mail. That year, dozens of recent Facebook pages appeared, all linked to The Epoch Times and its associates. Some have been explicitly partisan, others positioned themselves as sources of actual and independent information, and some, like a humor web page referred to as “Funniest family Moments,” have been disconnected from information fully.

Maybe probably the most audacious experiment was a brand new right-wing politics web site referred to as America Day by day.

As we speak, the location, which has greater than one million Facebook followers, peddles far-right misinformation. It has posted anti-vaccine screeds, an article falsely claiming that Invoice Gates and different elites are “directing” the Covid-19 pandemic and allegations a few “Jewish mob” that controls the world.

Emails obtained by The Times present that John Nania, a longtime Epoch Times editor, was concerned in beginning America Day by day, together with executives from Sound of Hope, a Falun Gong-affiliated radio Network. Records on Facebook present that the web page is operated by the Sound of Hope Network, and a pinned put up on its Facebook web page accommodates a promotional video for Falun Gong.

In an announcement, The Epoch Times stated it had “no enterprise relationship” with America Day by day.

Lots of the Facebook pages operated by The Epoch Times and its associates adopted an identical trajectory. They started by posting viral movies and uplifting information articles aggregated from different websites. They grew rapidly, generally including lots of of hundreds of followers per week. Then, they have been used to steer individuals to purchase Epoch Times subscriptions and promote extra partisan content material.

A number of of the pages gained vital followings “seemingly in a single day,” stated Renee DiResta, a disinformation researcher with the Stanford Web Observatory. Many posts have been shared hundreds of occasions however acquired virtually no feedback — a ratio, Ms. DiResta stated, that’s typical of pages which have been boosted by “click on farms,” companies that generate faux traffic by paying individuals to click on on sure hyperlinks time and again.

The Epoch Times denies utilizing click on farms or different illicit techniques to broaden its pages. “The Epoch Times’s social media methods have been totally different from DKN, and used Facebook’s personal promotional instruments to realize an elevated natural following,” the outlet stated, including that The Epoch Times minimize ties with Mr. Trung in 2018.

However final year, The Epoch Times was barred from promoting on Facebook — the place it had spent greater than $1.5 million over seven months — after the social Network introduced that the outlet’s pages had evaded its transparency necessities by disguising its advert purchases.

This year, Facebook took down greater than 500 pages and accounts linked to Truth Media, a Network of anti-China pages that had been utilizing faux accounts to amplify their messages. The Epoch Times denied any involvement, however Facebook’s investigators stated Truth Media “confirmed some hyperlinks to on-platform exercise by Epoch Media Group and NTD.”

“We’ve taken enforcement actions towards Epoch Media and associated teams a number of occasions,” stated a Facebook spokeswoman, who added that the social Network would punish the outlet if it violated extra guidelines sooner or later.

Since being barred from promoting on Facebook, The Epoch Times has moved a lot of its operation to YouTube, the place it has spent greater than $1.eight million on adverts since Could 2018, based on Google’s public Recordsbase of political promoting.

The place the paper’s cash comes from is one thing of a thriller. Former staff stated they’d been advised that The Epoch Times was financed by a mixture of subscriptions, adverts and docountrys from rich Falun Gong practitioners. In 2018, the latest year for which the group’s tax returns are publicly obtainable, The Epoch Times Affiliation acquired a number of sizable docountrys, however none Giant enough to pay for a multimillion-dollar advert blitz.

Mr. Bannon is amongst those that have observed The Epoch Times’s deep pockets. Final year, he produced a documentary about China with NTD. When he talked with the outlet about different initiatives, he stated, cash by no means appeared to be a difficulty.

“I’d give them a quantity,” Mr. Bannon stated. “And so they’d come again and say, ‘We’re good for that quantity.’”

‘The Moral Objective Is Gone’

The Epoch Times’s pro-Trump turn has upset some former staff, like Ms. Belmaker.

Ms. Belmaker, now a contract author and editor, still believes in lots of Falun Gong’s teachings, she stated. However she has grown disenchanted with The Epoch Times, which she sees as operating opposite to Falun Gong’s core ideas of fact, compassion and tolerance.

“The Moral Objective is gone,” she stated. “They’re on the imright side of historical past, and I don’t assume they care.”

Just lately, The Epoch Times has shifted its focus to the coronavirus. It pounced on China’s missteps within the early days of the pandemic, and its reporters wrote about misreported virus statistics and Chinese Influence within the World Well being Group.

A few of these articles have been true. However others pushed exaggerated or false claims, just like the unproven idea that the virus was engineered in a lab as a part of a Chinese organic warfare technique.

A few of the claims have been repeated in a documentary that each NTD and The Epoch Times posted on YouTube, the place it has been seen greater than 5 million occasions. The documentary options the discredited virologist Judy Mikovits, who also starred within the viral “Plandemic” video, which Facebook, YouTube and different social platforms pulled this year for spreading false claims.

The Epoch Times stated, “In our documentary we provided a spread of proof and viewpoints with out drawing any conclusions.”

Ms. Belmaker, who still retains a photograph of Master Li on a shelf in her home, stated she recoiled at any time when an advert for The Epoch Times popped up on YouTube selling some new partisan speaking level.

One current video, “Digging Beneath Narratives,” is a two-minute infomercial about China’s mishandling of the coronavirus. The advert’s host says The Epoch Times has an “underground Network of sources” in China offering details about the federal government’s response to the virus.

It’s a believable declare, however the video’s host makes no point out of The Epoch Times’s ties to Falun Gong, or its two-decade-long marketing campaign towards Chinese communism, saying solely that the paper is “supplying you with an correct image of what’s taking place on this world.”