By Peter Chow
“Tired of Biased News? Get Truthful, Factual News That Other Media Outlets Don’t Report. No Spin. No Agenda. Just Honest Journalism Like It Used To Be. Independent. Non-partisan.”
This was the come-on to subscribe to The Epoch Times.
Saultites received free sample issues of The Epoch Times in the mail this week.
The Epoch Times is one of the biggest advocates of Donald Trump and promoters of conspiracy theories.
The small New York-based news outlet has spent more on pro-Trump advertisements on Facebook and YouTube in 2020 than any organization outside of the Trump campaign itself.
Those video ads — in which unidentified spokespeople praise Trump, peddle conspiracy theories about the “Deep State,” and criticize “fake news” media — strike a familiar tone in the online far-right news ecosystem. The Epoch Times looks like many of the right-wing outlets that have gained followings in recent years.
But it isn’t.
Behind the scenes, the media outlet’s ownership and operation is tied to Falun Gong, a Chinese cult-like spiritual community with the stated goal of taking down the Chinese communist party government (CCP).
Falun Gong followers believe the world is headed towards a judgment day, where those labeled “communists” will be sent to a kind of hell, and those sympathetic to the spiritual community will be spared. Trump is viewed as a key pivotal ally in the anti-communist fight.
Before 2016, The Epoch Times generally stayed out of U.S. politics, unless they dovetailed with Chinese interests. The publication’s recent strategy, embracing social media and far-right U.S. politics, Trump in particular, has doubled The Epoch Times’ revenue, and pushed it to greater prominence in the far-right media world.
Started two decades ago as a free newspaper and website with a mission to “provide information to Chinese communities to help immigrants assimilate into American society,” and promote Falun Gong, The Epoch Times now wields one of the biggest social media followings of any news outlet.
Videos from the Epoch Media Group accounted for 3 billion views on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, ranking 11th among all video creators across platforms and outranking every other traditional news publisher.
At the same time, its network of news sites and YouTube channels has made it a powerful conduit for the internet’s fringe conspiracy theories, including anti-vaccination and Covid misinformation and QAnon.
The Epoch Times was founded in 2000 by Li Hongzhi, the founder and leader of Falun Gong, to expose the evil of the Chinese communist government and “save all sentient beings” in a forthcoming divine battle against communism.
Falun Gong, started by Li in 1992, is a spiritual practice that involves meditation, gentle slow-movement exercises and regulated breathing and emphasizes morality and the cultivation of virtue. The practice draws aspects of Buddhism, and also incorporate elements drawn from Taoist traditions. Through moral rectitude and the practice of meditation, practitioners of Falun Gong aspire to ultimately achieve spiritual enlightenment.
The practice draws on East Asian mysticism and traditional Chinese medicine, criticizes the purported limits of modern science, especially evolution, views traditional Chinese medicine as an entirely different, yet equally valid system and espouses Li’s controversial teachings.
Li’s success had a large part to do with people seeking effective alternative medicine treatments at a time when China’s health care system was struggling desperately to meet demand. Many followers claimed to have been healed of diseases that modern Western medicine could not treat.
Li Hongzhi simplified meditation and practices that traditionally have many steps and are very confusing. Basically it’s like fast food spirituality, a quickie.
Li’s teachings quickly built a tremendous following in China, 70 million — and ran into tension with China’s leaders, who viewed his popularity as a threat to the communist government’s hold on power.
In 1999, over 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners gathered in Beijing to request legal recognition and freedom from state interference. This demonstration is widely seen as catalyzing the persecution that followed.
It invited scrutiny of the spiritual leader’s more unconventional ideas, among them, what he called the wickedness of homosexuality, feminism and popular music, while holding that he is a god-like figure who can levitate and walk through walls.
Li has also taught that sickness is a symptom of evil that can only be truly cured with meditation and devotion, and that aliens from undiscovered dimensions have invaded the minds and bodies of humans, bringing corruption and inventions such as computers and airplanes. The Chinese government used these teachings to label Falun Gong a cult.
Authorities in China banned Falun Gong, closing teaching centers and arresting Falun Gong organizers and practitioners. Hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners died in custody as a result of abuse.
The persecution elevated Li’s status and brought tremendous media attention.
In the early years The Epoch Times was “a giant PR campaign” to evangelize about Falun Gong’s belief in an upcoming apocalypse in which those who think badly of the practice, or well of the Chinese Communist Party, will be destroyed.
The Epoch Times saw communism everywhere: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, movie star Jackie Chan and former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan were all considered to have sold themselves out to the CCP.
This kind of coverage foreshadowed the news organization’s embrace of conspiracy theories like QAnon, that a cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against U.S. president Donald Trump, who is fighting the cabal.
Their content was critical of communist China, consumed about the threat of Islamic terrorism, focused on illegal immigration and at all times rooted in “traditional” values, they said. This meant no content about drugs, gay rights or popular music.
Despite its conservative agenda, Epoch Times took pains until recently to avoid wading into partisan U.S. politics.
That all changed in June 2015 after Donald Trump descended on a golden escalator to announce his presidential candidacy, proclaiming that he would “beat China all the time.”
In Trump, Falun Gong saw more than just an ally — it saw a saviour. The group’s leaders “believed that Trump was sent by heaven to destroy the CCP, the Chinese communist party.”
Saultites who read the sample edition of The Epoch Times may not be completely convinced about its viewpoints, but may have been left with questions about what their media and their government are telling them.
It is Gaslighting, a technique of disinformation to sway people to question as much as possible authoritative sources.
Ultimately, you’re no longer going to trust your usual news site or your government even for information. You’re left thinking, ‘I can’t trust anybody.'”
The Epoch Times appealed to Saultites to subscribe with the message, “Where can you get real news that doesn’t push any hidden agendas?”