The paper, started by practitioners of Falun Gong, has turned to the video platform for an advertising blitz.
A YouTube ad for The Epoch Times, a pro-Trump news outlet, stars an employee, Roman Balmakov.
SAN FRANCISCO — Late last summer, YouTube users began noticing a surge of ads for an obscure news outlet called The Epoch Times. One ad touted an exposé of “Spygate,” a baseless conspiracy theory alleging that President Barack Obama and his allies placed a spy inside President Trump’s 2016 campaign. Another praised Mr. Trump’s interest in buying Greenland as a shrewd strategic move. A third claimed that the opioid epidemic in the United States was the result of a chemical warfare plot by the CCP.
“Anyone else getting a lot of Epoch Times ads?” a user on a YouTube-themed Reddit forum wrote.
“Every other ad on YouTube is a commercial for The Epoch Times pushing Trump,” wrote a Twitter user.
The ads, which sometimes ran for several minutes apiece, were a potpourri of right-wing polemics wrapped in “subscribe now” appeals. They seemed to be everywhere, running alongside videos of pranks, sports highlights and gaming streams.
The Epoch Times is one of the most mysterious fixtures of the pro-Trump media universe. It was started 20 years ago as a print newspaper by practitioners of Falun Gong. In recent years, the paper has made inroads into top Republican circles. Representative Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, called it “our favorite paper.”
The outlet’s profile was initially raised by a spending spree on Facebook — where it paid more than $1 million to promote its content. But in August, Facebook caught The Epoch Times trying to evade its advertising transparency rules and barred it from taking out more ads.
Rather than retreating, the publication simply shifted to a different platform — YouTube — and continued its advertising blitz there.
The shifting tactics of partisan publishers pose a challenge to tech platforms in the lead-up to the 2020 election. Despite their efforts to limit the spread of misinformation, the platforms remain a powerful megaphone for publishers like The Epoch Times, which has used conspiracy theories and dubious growth tactics to expand its audience.
In all, the outlet has spent more than $1 million on YouTube ads, according to a person familiar with its spending, who discussed private information on the condition of anonymity.
In addition, data from Pathmatics, a social media analytics firm, suggests that The Epoch Times’s YouTube spending increased sharply in the months after Facebook banned its ads, and that its ads are reaching more people than many mainstream news organizations are. Gabe Gottlieb, the chief executive of Pathmatics, estimated that the outlet’s YouTube spending was “higher than household names like The New York Times, CNN, Fox News and The Wall Street Journal.”
Little is known about The Epoch Times’s finances and organizational structure. The nonprofit Epoch Times Association, which operates it, reported $8.1 million in revenue and $7.2 million in expenses on its 2017 public tax filings. An investigation by NBC News last summer found ties between the outlet and other Falun Gong-affiliated organizations, such as the Shen Yun dance performance series and the video broadcaster NTD, and said the organizations “appear to share missions, money and executives.”
Three former Epoch Times employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from the organization, said the outlet had long been financed by subscriptions, advertising and private donations. They described its staff as primarily Falun Gong practitioners, many of whom had little previous experience in journalism. Editorial employees, they said, were encouraged to attend weekly “Fa study” sessions outside work hours, during which they would gather to study the teachings of Falun Gong’s leader, Li Hongzhi.
An episode of “Declassified,” an Epoch Times series on YouTube featuring Gina Shakespeare.
The Epoch Times has long denied having direct ties to Falun Gong. Mr. Gregory said that the organization was primarily funded through subscriptions and ads, and that “donations are a small part of our income.”
The outlet’s heavy spending online, coupled with its unconventional background and its charged partisan content, has raised eyebrows among social media watchdogs.
“It’s quite strange,” said Nick Monaco, a disinformation researcher at the Institute for the Future, a tech research group in Palo Alto, Calif. “You don’t expect a media outlet to do this big of a push around an election.”
Companies like Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, have hardened their defenses to prevent another Russian-style influence campaign. But they have been more lenient with publishers based in the United States, out of concern that they will appear to be taking sides and stepping on the First Amendment.
That reluctance has set off worries about a rise in so-called domestic disinformation, and left a loophole for American organizations to push partisan messages with relative impunity. The New York Times reported last month that Russian trolls were already trying to exploit this loophole by buying Facebook pages from Americans in an attempt to influence the 2020 election.
Facebook cut off the outlet’s ability to buy ads after finding that it obscured the source of its spending. The social network also took action against The BL, a network of Facebook pages that was promoted through fake accounts, many of which had profile pictures generated with artificial intelligence. Facebook said it had found connections between The BL and Epoch Media Group.
Mr. Gregory denied that The Epoch Times was linked to The BL. He said it had been started by the former head of The Epoch Times’s Vietnamese affiliate, with whom his paper had since cut ties.
The Epoch Times can no longer advertise on Facebook, but it can still post there. On Monday, it published a story containing unproven suggestions of voter fraud ahead of the Iowa caucuses. The story was later debunked by fact checkers, but it received tens of thousands of likes, shares and comments.
Kevin Roose is a columnist for Business Day and a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine. His column, “The Shift,” examines the intersection of technology, business, and culture.