The media giant you’ve never heard of, and why you should pay attention
The Epoch Times is published in 21 languages, in 33 countries and has a huge following among anti-vaxxers and the far Right. And that’s just for starters
In January, a German engineer called Steffen Löhnitz held an outdoor press conference in Vienna attended by the Austrian and German ‘alternative’ media. Despite the cold, he was eager to share his claim that Austria had deliberately inflated the number of COVID-19 infections to justify a new lockdown, comparing the government to a “criminal organisation”.
Löhnitz’s comments soon went viral online – as might have been expected, given that both Austria and Germany have large COVID-sceptic movements. What’s more surprising, however, is that one of the media organisations playing a key role in amplifying these claims is headquartered in New York and connected to a dissident Chinese religious group.
The German-language edition of The Epoch Times – an international media company founded in the US more than two decades ago by practitioners of Falun Gong – claimed that Löhnitz had been digging up “correct numbers” of coronavirus infections. It reported his claims of “massive fraud” against the populations of Austria and Germany as fact. The story was shared thousands of times on Facebook, as well as by leading figures from the German anti-lockdown movement called Querdenken, through their public channels on the messaging platform and social network Telegram.
This wasn’t the first time. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Epoch Times articles disseminating false or misleading information about COVID-19, or the supposed dangers of vaccines, have circulated widely on social media in Germany. “The Epoch Times has played a noticeable role in transmitting and amplifying many anti-vaccine narratives,” Raquel Miguel, a researcher for the monitoring organisation EU DisinfoLab, told openDemocracy.
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But why would a publication founded by followers of a religious movement who fled China after a government crackdown have such an interest in encouraging COVID scepticism? The answer lies in a peculiar mix of circumstances that stand out even within the bizarre world of online disinformation.
The Epoch Times is not backed by a government wishing to cause trouble for its rivals, unlike some more notorious operations. For many years an obscure critic of China’s Communist Party, the publication rose to prominence in the West through its full-throated backing of Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential election, then began to spread conspiracy theories prevalent on the American Right. But, at times, it has also appeared to be driven as much by the desire for clicks and influence as to put forward a particular view of the world.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, The Epoch Times has had a growing – and less discussed – impact in Europe. Now publishing in 33 countries and 21 languages, it has become a key media source for COVID-sceptic and anti-vaccine movements in France, Italy and Spain. The organisation has recently advertised for reporters in the UK.
Germany, however, is the most striking example in Europe. Widely shared articles from the German edition of The Epoch Times echo the ‘Great Reset’ conspiracy theory (which says that the pandemic is a planned project of a shadowy global elite) and cast doubt on the safety or effectiveness of COVID tests and vaccines.
Key figures in Querdenken interviewed by openDemocracy regard it as a trusted source. According to political data scientist Josef Holnburger from the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy (CeMAS), its German edition has been the most shared outlet among Germany’s sprawling COVID-sceptic movement through much of the pandemic.
Not everything published by The Epoch Times qualifies as disinformation – a lot of its content consists of straightforward reports, often sourced from news agencies. But according to NewsGuard, a journalism and technology tool that rates the credibility of news websites and tracks misinformation, it fails to gather and present information responsibly, rarely corrects or clarifies errors, and remains opaque as to its ownership and funding.
Until now, bodies that monitor disinformation have seen state-backed outlets as the greatest threat. But representatives of several organisations told openDemocracy that The Epoch Times is now reaching a comparable scale of operations. “Russia is not the only bad actor,” said Angelo Carusone, head of the US non-profit Media Matters. “If this was a Russia thing, you’d have every person in the world working on it.” Given the comparable reach and impact The Epoch Times now boasts across the globe, shouldn’t we be paying it more attention?
Links with Falun Gong
The Epoch Times was set up in 2000 as a Chinese-language newspaper by John Tang, a Falun Gong practitioner based in the US, to oppose the Chinese government’s repression of the religious movement. Falun Gong itself was founded in northern China a few years earlier by Li Hongzhi, who promoted it as a self-cultivation practice: a mix of gentle physical exercises, mental disciplines, and moral tenets similar to those found in Buddhism and Daoism.
Falun Gong’s worldview leaned conservative from the start, with Li promoting a return to traditional morals, warning against runaway scientific and technological progress, suggesting that paradises are racially segregated, and calling homosexuality a “filthy, deviant state of mind”, views denied by the official Falun Gong website. Li’s writings also display an interest in the paranormal, hinting that the pyramids might have been built by Atlanteans, or that there are humanoid populations living on the oceans’ floors.
At first, the Falun Gong movement avoided taking political positions in public, but this changed in 1999 when the Chinese government started to suppress it, labelling it an “evil cult”. After Falun Gong practitioners held a series of demonstrations to complain about negative media coverage and police repression, China’s then-leader Jiang Zemin described the rise of the movement as the most serious political development since Tiananmen Square.
The authorities declared Falun Gong organisations illegal and made mass arrests of followers. There are no reliable figures for the number of arrests, but Benjamin Penny, an Australian academic who specialises in the study of modern East Asian religions, estimates it to be in the thousands in his trusted book ‘The Religion of Falun Gong’.
With many of its practitioners living abroad, the movement became heavily critical of the Chinese government. Although The Epoch Times denies any direct link to Falun Gong, in 2004 it published the group's ‘Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party’, which describes the Chinese ruling party (CCP) as a “force against nature and humanity, causing limitless agony and tragedy”, as well as describing its "persecution" of Falun Gong.
Today, Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) is present in 95 countries and its adherents can be found on the streets of London, Berlin, Madrid and Rome handing out leaflets about the CCP’s alleged crimes.
Falun Gong’s followers are often earnest and well-intentioned people who find meaning in the movement’s spiritual practice, which they say espouses compassion and honesty. Many have nothing to do with The Epoch Times. But two former staffers told openDemocracy that its writers are typically Falun Gong practitioners. They also claimed that editorial direction comes from Li, who has referred to The Epoch Times and sister outlets such as New Tang Dynasty (NTD) Television as “our media”.
Multilingual expansion, plus radio and TV
In September 2003, The Epoch Times launched an English-language news website, with a New York print edition a year later. Editions in Spanish, Russian, German, French, Romanian, Swedish, Czech and Slovakian soon followed. In the early 2000s, several other media outlets linked to Falun Gong launched, including Vision Times, the Sound of Hope radio network and NTD TV. Sources of funding for these various outlets are unclear. According to The New York Times, former Epoch Times employees believed that the outlet was “financed by a combination of subscriptions, ads and donations from wealthy Falun Gong practitioners”.
The Epoch Times’s support for Trump is usually explained by the fact that he was perceived as being anti-China. NBC found that The Epoch Times spent $1.5m on 11,000 pro-Trump ads over six months in 2019, second only to the Trump campaign itself. But its shift towards the far Right actually began in Europe, during the refugee crisis of 2015 – and appears to be as much a product of the dynamics of online media as the result of a deliberate editorial decision.
As the refugee crisis came to dominate headlines, the German edition of The Epoch Times began to see a steep rise in traffic, driven by its coverage of the anti-migrant group Pegida and interviews with politicians from the emerging far Right party Alternative for Germany (AfD). In January 2016, its German website received four million views, up from 1.7 million in January of the previous year, according to the news outlet Meedia.
In 2017, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), an anti-extremism think tank, found that the German edition “disseminates anti-democratic false news and conspiracy theories, incites hatred against migrants and indirectly advertises for the AfD”. Much of The Epoch Times’s coverage of the AfD, Pegida and the refugee crisis now appears to have been erased from its archives.
Journalist Stefanie Albrecht spent a week undercover at the Berlin office of The Epoch Times office in 2017, for the German TV channel RTL. On her first day, Albrecht entered a slightly shabby building and climbed a dark staircase. The office was tiny but squeezed in enough desks for half a dozen employees. Posters of Shen Yun, a world-touring dance troupe linked to Falun Gong, adorned the walls.
Albrecht told openDemocracy that all the writers and editors she worked with were Falun Gong practitioners. “At some point, a bell would ring, reminding them it was time to meditate,” she said. “They would sit in front of their computers for up to ten minutes, meditating. Then they would go back to work.”
From the start, Albrecht heard her new colleagues air conspiracy theories including ‘Pizzagate’ about child sex trafficking in the US, the anti-immigration ‘Great Replacement’ theory, and one about weather-changing machines. None of her colleagues had any journalistic training – one was a physicist, another a fashion blogger – and they wrote articles exclusively from the office.
I have no idea where the article comes from […] We sometimes just fish for articles from the internet
One colleague said they had little time for original research and would sometimes only repackage content from other ‘alternative’ websites, without checking. “They often took stories from Right-wing bloggers,” Albrecht said. One day, when she asked if anyone had checked an article written by a guest contributor about an alleged rise in crimes committed by refugees, a staff member told her: “I have no idea where the article comes from […] We sometimes just fish for articles from the internet.”
The German edition’s editor-in-chief told Albrecht that the publication had ties to conservatives and wanted a return to “old-fashioned” ways of life. But Albrecht suspected there was also a more practical motive – to publish content that would attract “the most clicks”. Which, at the time, meant riding the anti-migrant populist wave tearing its way through German politics.
Carusone, the head of Media Matters, agreed with this analysis. They go “for the strongest infrastructure or possibility of getting as much audience and influence and reach [as they can],” he said, adding that this complexity makes The Epoch Times “radically different and hard to understand”. That’s because they’re not using the same metric of success as other outlets, who might be motivated by money or a specific political agenda. Instead, Carusone said, the goal of The Epoch Times is “to convert people into their retargeting universe” – attracting their attention with content about the far-Right, for example, before driving them towards criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.
Today, Albrecht can see that the same hunt for readers and influence is driving the content in a different direction. “Now they can get them with COVID-19, and by questioning vaccinations,” she said.
COVID scepticism, anti-vax messaging
While the pandemic has been seized on by many disinformation outlets, it suits The Epoch Times in more ways than one. The fact that COVID-19 emerged in China, whose government has been accused of obstructing international efforts to determine the origins of the virus, may have provided an incentive. Observers familiar with The Epoch Times also note that the outlet, in line with the teachings of Falun Gong, has long been sceptical of modern science and medicine.
“Falun Gong has a history of rejecting modern medicine, which obviously intersects neatly with the beliefs of many anti-vax communities,” Elise Thomas, a researcher from ISD, told openDemocracy. A belief that following Li’s teaching can prevent ailments is widespread among Falun Gong followers. “They've been anti-medicine for a long time,” said Ben Hurley, an ex-staffer from Epoch Times Australia and former Falun Gong practitioner. “Ex-believers know many people that have died from treatable conditions,” he said. “It's their belief that they don't need medicine, because they're superhuman beings.”
Propaganda has flown in many directions during the pandemic. Pro-China sources have attempted to deflect criticism for the spread of COVID-19, for instance, by promoting sources that blame the US. But The Epoch Times has gone beyond merely pointing out the Chinese government’s faults – for instance, by promoting the “lab-leak theory” (the theory that COVID escaped from a Chinese research laboratory) without any supporting evidence; or by calling it “the CCP virus”, a phrase that echoes Trump’s description of “the China virus”.
In Europe, The Epoch Times actively courted the attention of COVID sceptics
In Europe, The Epoch Times actively courted the attention of COVID sceptics. The German edition outplayed many domestic ‘alternative’ media outlets on COVID-related issues by providing daily coverage and live-streaming protests against government restrictions. While the bulk of its articles soberly recited stats and studies, The Epoch Times also repeatedly published content that questioned the severity of COVID and the safety of vaccinations.
One article widely shared on Telegram asked “How bad is the corona-pandemic really?” and claimed that the virus had not caused excess mortality. Another pointed to allegedly “life-threatening” side-effects of COVID-19 vaccines, and claimed in its headline that severe COVID infection was more likely after vaccination. The pandemic also coincided with a huge spike in YouTube videos from The Epoch Times being shared on German Telegram.
Towards the end of 2020, a blizzard of pro-Trump content from The Epoch Times in Germany helped to cultivate an obsession with the outgoing US president among domestic COVID sceptics, according to experts such as Holnburger from CeMAS. OpenDemocracy’s own research – on Telegram and in interviews with COVID sceptics – found that Epoch Times content was ubiquitous among those organising and attending the huge rallies against COVID restrictions in Germany, including members of local QAnon groups. Conspiracy theories about Trump’s election loss have continued to circulate among Germany’s COVID sceptics, and The Epoch Times seems to have played an important role in making this happen.
Similar patterns can be seen elsewhere in Europe – as observed over a ten-week period last year by openDemocracy and the Barcelona-based analytics firm Social Elephants. The Epoch Times French edition’s Facebook page, which has nearly 1.5 million followers, attracted more than 800,000 views in that period. It frequently covered figures from the country’s movement against COVID restrictions, including Alexandre Juving-Brunet, who has declared an outsider run for the presidency on a platform of “truth, freedom and sovereignty”.
The Epoch Times Italia’s Facebook page, which has a smaller base of 350,000 followers, often shares articles from its main website about anti-vaccine pass protest groups, including a recent one referring to the “segregation” of unvaccinated people.
The Spanish-language editions boast more than seven million followers on Facebook and more than 25 million subscribers on YouTube, although their target audience is predominantly in the Americas. But the channels also publish content amplifying claims made by the Spanish far-Right party Vox, which has opposed health restrictions. Rafael Palacios, a prominent Spanish conspiracy theorist, frequently shares Epoch Times content on his Telegram channel.
Unpaid volunteers and interns
Despite the efforts of journalists and researchers, much of The Epoch Times’s internal operations remain a black box. OpenDemocracy contacted dozens of current and former staffers in Europe, but few responded. “There's a very strong us and them mentality,” said Hurley, the former Australian staffer. “Falun Gong people believe that they're higher spiritual beings, and that ‘ordinary’ people are ignorant and literally sort of dirty, deluded – don't know what they want.”
From the outside, at least, the structure of The Epoch Times appears similar to that of a conventional media organisation. Most of its international editions republish selected articles – often about Trump or China – from the US edition. A former staff member at the New York headquarters (who agreed to speak to openDemocracy on condition of anonymity) said that delegations from the international editions would visit New York for meetings. Hurley felt that editorial direction flowed from the US, where what he described as Falun Gong’s “royalty” resides.
However, in 2017, the publisher of The Epoch Times’s English-language editions told the website ChinaFile that there were “no editorial calls, no common editorial planning, no sharing of editorial resources”.
According to Hurley and another former staffer, as well as The Atlantic and The New York Times, many writers are unpaid volunteers. “It's a sort of a spiritual mission for the cause,” Hurley said. Carusone, from Media Matters, described this as an example of a “distributed” structure, typical of a campaigning organisation.
Until recently, the Italian edition relied on students from Rome’s SSML Gregorio VII university. They were given unpaid internships lasting several months, which largely involved translating articles from the US edition. Two former interns contacted by openDemocracy said they were unaware of the organisation’s identity and motives.
Ilaria Di Cola, who interned there in 2016, said that she hadn’t heard of the outlet before she joined. She translated articles on subjects ranging from current affairs in China to prehistory and the composition of the cosmos. Nearly all communications were via email; Di Cola was never invited to an office and never met her supervisors, who kept their webcams off during their one and only video call with her.
Victor Westerkamp, an opera singer and conductor based in the Netherlands, is listed across multiple editions of The Epoch Times as a freelance reporter. When contacted by openDemocracy, Westerkamp said that he now writes for Vision Times, another Falun Gong-linked publication.
“What we have in common with The Epoch Times is that we all participate in the spiritual practice of Falun Gong […] and that's where we get our determination from and, hopefully, our inner wisdom,” he wrote in an email.
Westerkamp had a unique view on why The Epoch Times’s growth in Europe had gone largely unnoticed: “As you may know, all companies worldwide are owned by BlackRock and Vanguard – but not us,” Westerkamp said, referring to the two largest investment firms in the world. “We are independent. So that's why our influence is being ignored by mainstream media.”
He continued: “Actually, there's a battle going on between the light (represented by the truth) and the darkness (represented by the lie)” – a belief that is widely shared among Falun Gong practitioners. “The way I see it, they [mainstream media outlets] work for the devil; we work for God.”
The Epoch Times did not respond to requests for comment.
Update, 11 March 2022: This article was amended to reflect uncertainty over the authorship of ‘Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party’, and to acknowledge Falun Gong's denial of homophobia
This article was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.
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