Home Top Stories How the conspiracy-fueled Epoch Times went mainstream and made millions

How the conspiracy-fueled Epoch Times went mainstream and made millions

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How the conspiracy-fueled Epoch Times went mainstream and made millions

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In the runup to the 2020 election, a small news organization saw an opportunity. 

The Epoch Times directed millions of dollars in advertising toward supporting President Donald Trump’s campaign and published dozens of articles parroting his lies about the election — resulting in huge growth to its audience and its coffers. 

The strategy garnered criticism from fact-checking groups and got it banned from advertising on Facebook, but it ultimately paid off — putting the once-fringe newspaper on a path that perhaps only its leader, who claims to have supernatural powers, could have foreseen. 

Today, The Epoch Times is one of the country’s most successful and influential conservative news organizations. It’s powered by Falun Gong, a religious group persecuted in China, which launched The Epoch Times as a free propaganda newsletter more than two decades ago to oppose the Chinese Communist Party. 

Funded through aggressive online and real-world marketing campaigns and big-money conservative donors, The Epoch Times now boasts to be the country’s fourth-largest newspaper by subscriber count. (Unlike most major newspapers, The Epoch Times isn’t audited by the two major independent collectors of circulation data.) The nonprofit has amassed a fortune, growing its revenue by a staggering 685% in two years, to $122 million in 2021, according to the group’s most recent tax records.

Its editorial vision — fueled by a right-wing slant and conspiracy theories —  is on display in recent reports on how “Jan. 6 Capitol Hill Security Footage Challenges Key Narratives” and “Meteorologists, Scientists Explain Why There Is ‘No Climate Emergency.’” Its video series include a documentary-style film alleging widespread vaccine injury and death and an exposé of an alleged world government agenda to harm farmers, cull the population and force survivors to eat bugs. 

What The Epoch Times lacks in standards, it makes up for in style and form, mirroring the aesthetics of journalism — a feature that’s attracted subscribers and big-name supporters. 

Anti-vaccine activist and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. calls The Epoch Times a daily read, among his most trusted news sources. “They have a real bias against China, but on other reporting, they’re very courageous and it’s real journalism,” Kennedy said in an interview with NBC News this summer. 

In July, Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., recited the history of The Epoch Times into the congressional record. “This is all about one word: freedom,” Norman said.

The Epoch Times has yet to throw its weight behind a candidate for 2024, but heading into the election cycle, it is moving into new and bigger office spaces and production studios in California, hiring mainstream news veterans who are not affiliated with Falun Gong, and revving up an ad-buying blitz. 

“They achieved the goal,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based Republican strategist hired by The Epoch Times in 2018 to open doors to conservative politicians and players. Steinhauser said that a series of interviews and introductions with politicians and media figures at that year’s Conservative Political Action Conference offered access to a wider conservative audience. The Epoch Times was a “supporting sponsor” for this year’s conference. 

“They take advantage of every opportunity,” Steinhauser, who is not currently working for The Epoch Times, continued. “They studied digital marketing. They learned how to work the system. And they did it. They’re smarter than people give them credit for, and they’ve got the money to back it up.”

As a nonprofit, The Epoch Times is exempt from most federal taxes. Its mission, according to tax filings, is independent journalism, “outside of political interests and the pursuit of profit, for the public benefit and to be truly responsible to society.”

Neither the chairman nor the editor-in-chief of The Epoch Times returned multiple requests for comment. Representatives for The Epoch Times have previously defended it against critical reporting, labeling reports of the paper’s conservative mission, and its penchant for misinformation, “smears.” 

Epoch Times representatives also deny an affiliation with Falun Gong, despite the two groups’ clear financial and organizational ties: The Epoch Times board members and most staff are Falun Gong practitioners. The nonprofits behind The Epoch Times and Friends of Falun Gong, the movement’s advocacy organization, share executives and provide grants and services to each other, according to tax filings. And the newspaper, along with a digital production company and the heavily advertised dance troupe Shen Yun, make up a nonprofit network that the leader of the religious movement calls “our media.” 

Li Hongzhi poses during an interview
Li Hongzhi during an interview in New York in 1999.Henny Ray Abrams / AFP via Getty Images

In 2009, Li Hongzhi came to speak to his followers, volunteers who worked at The Epoch Times’ offices in Manhattan. Li’s instructions for the group were simple. They needed to reach people outside of the Falun Gong religious community. And they needed to make money. A lot of it. 

“Ensure that the paper gains a foothold in ordinary society and turns profitable,” Li said. 

Falun Gong — or Falun Dafa, as some followers call it — is a kind of personal development movement started by Li in China in 1992. It combines tenets of Buddhism and Taoism, and followers practice with meditation and flowing breath and movement exercises, and by studying Li’s teachings. 

To his followers, Li is a God-like figure who can levitate, walk through walls and see into the future. His ultra-conservative and controversial teachings include a rejection of modern science, art and medicine, and a denunciation of homosexuality, feminism and general worldliness. 

In 1999, after thousands of Li’s followers silently protested its repression in Beijing, China banned it altogether. Labeling it a cult, the Chinese government confiscated Falun Gong books, blocked websites, closed teaching centers and arrested practitioners. Human rights groups reported a brutal crackdown: Some adherents were sent to labor camps; others were tortured and killed.

IMage:  Falun Gong followers meditate outside the Capitol in Washington in 1999.
Falun Gong followers meditate outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington in 1999.Joyce Naltchayan / AFP via Getty Images file

International human rights organizations condemned China’s attempted eradication. In the U.S., where Li and some of his practitioners had fled, a new collection of followers organized a campaign to raise awareness and sympathy with parades, demonstrations and pamphlets that touted the benefits of Falun Gong and the brutality of the Chinese Communist Party. 

The Epoch Times was born out of that leafleting campaign. Started in Georgia in 2000 by John Tang, a Falun Gong practitioner who remains its CEO, in essence it was a Chinese-language public relations newsletter. The group’s long-term goals were ambitious: to expose the Chinese Communist Party and to save the world in a supernatural war against communism. 

Through the early aughts, The Epoch Times grew from an online effort to a weekly physical newspaper, with a home base in New York and a TV production company, New Tang Dynasty Television. It raised money from followers and was staffed by unpaid volunteers. It ran aggregated articles on international issues from Voice of America next to Thanksgiving Day explainers, dispatches from Falun Gong parades, and exposés on atrocities alleged to have been committed by the Chinese Communist Party. 

By 2019, it had gone mostly digital and was spending millions of dollars on creating a network of Facebook pages and groups and running aggressive pro-Trump ad campaigns. The move toward explicit support of Republicans, despite Li’s teachings to stay away from U.S. politics, was foreshadowed by Li’s comments at a Falun Gong conference a year before. 

Li said that Falun Gong’s media ought to put a “constructive” spin on the news, to advance the group’s aims. It wasn’t wrong, he said, to favorably cover a politician who shared Falun Gong’s conservative values and whose goals aligned with their own. 

“If someone comes along now who can help to halt the downward spiral that the world is in, then he is truly someone extraordinary!” Li said. “He would in effect be helping us! Wouldn’t he be helping us to save people?”

The Epoch Times also employed a tactic more often associated with fake news content farms and scammers than news organizations, creating a network of inspiring and cute-content pages and fake accounts to inflate The Epoch Times’ reach. 

In 2019, following reporting by NBC News, Facebook found that The Epoch Times had “leveraged foreign actors posing as Americans to push political content” and banned it from future advertising, citing a violation of policies, including trying to circumvent review systems.

Undeterred, The Epoch Times pivoted to video, specifically YouTube, spending millions on internet-infamous ads featuring Roman Balmakov, a former Epoch Times delivery person who now hosts the online show Facts Matter. In the ads, Balmakov rails against the mainstream media, communism and the persecution of Trump. 

The Epoch Times also revisited a tried-and-true strategy that the original anti-communism newspaper had been built on — free physical copies. Instead of boxes on street corners, this time The Epoch Times printed and distributed unsolicited special editions of the paper from California to the Carolinas to the U.K. In Philadelphia alone in 2020, the company mailed 280,000 free copies of its newspaper, “to increase subscription,” according to tax documents

The aggressive online and real-life marketing campaigns paid off. The group reported $76 million in subscription revenue in 2021, compared to nearly $7 million in 2019. A former employee of a regional Epoch Times operation who asked not to be identified because he feared retribution said that in order to send the papers to the most likely customers, they bought lists of addresses from data brokers, specifically for conservatives aged 60 and over. And many of the new subscribers are seniors, according to an employee’s account shared at a Falun Gong conference. 

But hundreds of online complaints suggest that not all of the new customers are satisfied.  

“I’ve had the terrible misfortune of being subscribed to the Epoch Times without my consent,” one reads. Another says: “I want to stop receiving Epoch Times emails. That is all I want.” 

Image: The Epoch Times newspaper
The Epoch Times print newspaper in Augusta, Ga., in 2020.Elijah Nouvelage / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

As The Epoch Times’ marketing strategy shifted, so did the content — and by 2020, it became a megaphone for the U.S.’s most extreme right-wing stories.

There was plenty to write about: An election marred by disinformation, the bubbling culture wars and, most helpful for a media company missioned with ending the Chinese Communist Party, a pandemic originating from China provided endless opportunities for takes that aligned with hawkish conservatives and conspiracy theorists. 

The Epoch Times was early to lay blame on China for Covid — labeling it the “CCP Virus” in its coverage. (The origin of the outbreak is unknown; the best evidence still points to natural transmission from an animal market.) China’s documented handling of the virus, including withholding information from researchers, a crackdown on whistleblowers and an authoritarian public health response, added credibility to The Epoch Times’ unproven claims. 

“The dynamic for The Epoch Times changed in 2020, partly because of their criticism of China around Covid,” said A.J. Bauer, an assistant journalism professor at the University of Alabama who studies conservative media. “An entire new kind of ecosystem of Covid deniers and skeptics overlapped with right-wing media and were citing and drawing heavily upon The Epoch Times.”

The Epoch Times’ subscription page began hosting glowing testimonials from Steve Bannon, Glenn Beck and the far-right Arizona congressman Paul Gosar. The organization became a reliable source for misinformation around Covid, its treatments and the vaccines. 

The Epoch Times was also an early and aggressive promoter of election misinformation, according to the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of researchers that documented misinformation and the 2020 vote. The group cited the news organization as a “repeat spreader” of false and misleading voter fraud stories as well as a major promoter of debunked conspiracy theories around Dominion voting machines and the “Stop the Steal” movement, aimed at overturning the election results. Months after the election, The Epoch Times refused to acknowledge the results.  

With the new bedfellows came a new revenue stream. Though Falun Gong practitioners had been a reliable source of small donations in previous years, in 2020 the group started to receive gifts and grants from big money conservative donors. 

While The Epoch Times is not required to list its donors, it reported $8.4 million in revenue from contributions and grants in 2020 and 2021. Tax documents from that period filed by scores of donors, accessed through ProPublica’s nonprofit explorer, show some of those funds came from conservative donors and foundations. 

In 2021, The Epoch Times received $55,750 from the National Christian Charitable Foundation, which connects anonymous donors with Christian causes, and $31,000 from Donors Trust, a fund for conservative and libertarian donors. Smaller donations came from individuals — real estate agents, investors and surgeons among them — and small family foundations, most of which support right-wing causes, including evangelical Christian groups, anti-vaccine groups and far-right media organizations. 

Most of the donors contacted by NBC News did not respond to interview requests; two declined. 

The Epoch Times is pouring its revenue back into its own organization and others connected to the Falun Gong religious movement. 

In the first half of this year, The Epoch Times spent 65% more on ads than in the first six months of 2022, with about half of its budget going to the X platform, formerly Twitter, according to the market intelligence firm Sensor Tower. Other recent ad buys were made on the right-wing sites Drudge Report, Breitbart and Rumble.

The Epoch Times paid a company called Data Managing Corporation $2.7 million for advertising services in 2021, according to tax documents. The company’s listed address is a single-family home in New Jersey owned by a reporter for The Epoch Times, who did not return requests for comment. 

In addition to running its business, The Epoch Times provided about $30 million in grants to its own affiliates and connected organizations in 2021, including $10.4 million to the dance troupe Shen Yun, and $8.3 million to New Tang Dynasty, which produces videos. 

The three groups, united under the Falun Gong religious movement, made up a nearly quarter-billion dollar industry in 2021, according to tax documents. Li holds that the Falun Gong messages, shared in articles, videos and dance performances, will result in the salvation of humankind as the end of the world nears.



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