FILE: US President Donald Trump holds up his fist as he leaves the stage at the end of a rally to support Republican Senate candidates at Valdosta Regional Airport in Valdosta, Georgia on December 5, 2020.
If the ubiquity of Shen Yun advertising has dulled somewhat during the global pandemic, perhaps you’ve noticed something else taking its place.
You might have endlessly seen their ads on YouTube. Or maybe you even saw President Donald Trump himself promoting it. Although not yet as ever-present as a Shen Yun billboard, the Epoch Times is steadily expanding its footprint — along the way becoming one of Trump’s preferred "news" outlets.
The website looks like your standard news source, but a note at the top of the screen is your first indicator this is not a CNN wannabe.
"At a time when legacy media outlets are IGNORING credible allegations of ELECTION FRAUD across America, we are giving you, your family and your friends, unlimited access to almost all of our reporting for free so that you can be truly informed, until a president is legally elected," it reads, before a solicitation to enter your email address to “continue reading.”
The Epoch Times is now one of the most prolific peddlers of pro-Trump propaganda on the internet, but it began life as the media arm linked to Falun Gong, the same Chinese spiritual movement that puts on Shen Yun dance performances.
Here’s the short version of Falun Gong: The religious movement was founded in the early 1990s by Li Hongzhi. It blends meditation, physical exercise and Buddhist traditions to promise adherents spiritual enlightenment. It also has some supernatural elements, as Li has claimed he can levitate and sometimes speaks of extraterrestrials as a corrupting influence on humanity. The practice also decries homosexuality and feminism.
In 2000, the Epoch Times was founded in America. But something changed in 2016. After the election of Trump, the publication evidently saw an ally in its fight against the Chinese government and communism at large.
Today, the website is full of stories questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 election (neither reporters nor Trump’s legal team have unearthed credible evidence of widespread voter fraud). They also peddle a number of conspiracy theories. In 2018, they published a "comprehensive overview" of Spygate, a debunked conspiracy theory that claims a spy from the Obama administration tried to thwart Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Spygate is popular among QAnon believers.
Most Epoch Times stories refer to COVID-19 as “the CCP virus,” a reference to the Chinese Communist Party, and several have pushed the unsubstantiated claim the virus may have been manufactured in a Wuhan lab. The paper’s editorial board even ran a piece claiming that denouncing communism cures COVID-19.
“Staying away from the CCP and condemning the CCP can help any individual, organization, or country alleviate or even avoid attacks of the CCP virus,” it reads. “They may then embrace a wonderful future.”
Although Falun Gong has repeatedly denied links to the Epoch Times, Li has referred to them as “our media.” The publication, not surprisingly, also frequently runs stories promoting Shen Yun performances.
Like Shen Yun, the Epoch Times relies on advertising blitzes to increase its reach. An October 2020 investigation by the New York Times’ Kevin Roose found dozens of Facebook pages linked to the Epoch Times, each filled with “feel-good videos and viral clickbait.” Roose reported the outlet spent $1.5 million over seven months to increase its reach on Facebook with ads. Once brought into the funnel with clickbait content, the Epoch Times would hit readers with offers to subscribe.
In August 2019, however, Facebook banned the Epoch Times from advertising on the platform for violating its transparency rules. The Times then shifted its budget to YouTube. NBC News reported at the height of its online spending, content from the Epoch Times and its video counterpart New Tang Dynasty (NTD) combined for 3 billion views on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in a single month. That was more reach than any other mainstream news publisher.
As its pro-Trump content proliferated, so did its access to Trump’s world. According to the Washington Post, Epoch Times reporters have received special access from the Trump administration. Its sit-down interview series "American Thought Leaders" is a who's who of Team Trump. They've interviewed Gen. Michael Flynn, Newt Gingrich, Sidney Powell, Alan Dershowitz and Rep. Devin Nunes — just in the last two months. And, in a big win for the Falun Gong, the group was actually mentioned by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in November.
"The Chinese Communist Party's war on faith targets Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Falun Gong devotees alike. The Party spares no one," he said in a statement.
With Trump on the way out of the White House, though, the publication will lose its most influential backer. It remains to be seen if the Biden presidency will result in a drop in traffic, but based on a few reports, they do seem to have steady, non-advertising income streams. The New York Times reported former employees say their funding came from a mix of subscriptions, ad revenue and donations from big Falun Gong backers.
In addition, they've received an influx of cash from at least one major hedge fund: The Daily Beast reports Trump mega-donor Robert Mercer's secretive hedge fund gave the Epoch Times $900,000.