It was a normal thing to do, open the mail box and retrieve whatever the postal carrier had deposited. Only, on this day, the box was stuffed like a fortune cookie with a bulky newspaper. It was as polished a publication as you might expect from the LA Times or Union Tribune, complete with full color photo on its lead story.
But the masthead was that of The Epoch Times, a publication funded through a network of shadow money and adherents to a Chinese based religious group called Falun Gong.
The publication is but a small piece of a larger media operation that encompasses social media, YouTube and a TV network, New Tang Dynasty (NTD).
But in recent years, the movement has taken more radical turns, subscribing to outlandish conspiracy theories and aligning itself with far right movements in European countries, and now the US. It has also taken stridently anti-gay and anti-feminist positions. With the candidacy of Donald Trump in 2016, Falun Gong leaders saw a potentially powerful ally.
As the LA Times reported:
A closer examination of the publication that arrived in a local San Diego mail box, show it is a collection of right wing conspiracy theories often floated by QAnon, that are continually being batted down on social media platforms.
But in this case, there are no fact checkers to thwart it. The recipient fortunately recognized it for the propaganda it is, but many of the less aware will not. A quick check with neighbors showed all the houses on her street received the same paper.
It is illegal for foreign entities or money to be used to influence American elections. But Falun Gong maintains headquarters in New York, and as such, is not distinguished as a foreign entity. It also is largely lacking in transparency regarding its finances.
Clearly it has access to large sums of capital judging by the production values and reach of its products. It is entirely possible (even likely) that a substantial portion of the funds underpinning the network and publications come from outside the US, and are simply laundered through the New York headquarters (no proof of such exists at present).
Then there is the religious context. In normal times, the actions of a religious group in partisan politics would be subjected to at least a cursory level of scrutiny. But in the age of Trump, no holds seem to be Barred (pun intended).
The aim of The Epoch Times is clearly to provide a veneer of credibility to what would otherwise be incredible musings of Trump and his campaign. But it goes far beyond that:
If those efforts have been coordinated, that is clearly a violation of the law. The recent arrest of long time Trump adviser Steve Bannon on the private yacht of Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese billionaire, seems to lend credence to that possibility. Wengui has expressed nearly identical goals with Falun Gong, even though the two have presented a publicly testy relationship at times. It would be speculation to say the two have united their efforts, but in Chinese business, deception and misdirection are an accepted and even expected art. As in martial arts, one always must watch the hips as the hands attempt to mislead.
The arrival of the Epoch Times in San Diego mailboxes presents a dilemma not just to local political groups who must now work to overcome this misinformation effort. But it will likely play out in other battle ground states, and potentially to disastrous effect. The sooner the public can be made aware of the aims and nature of The Epoch Times, the more limited its impact will be.