You would never guess the Epoch Times’s origins by glancing at its homepage. A near-endless scroll of reporting on stimulus negotiations, absentee voting, and law enforcement sits front and center. On the left, a lengthy column of opinion contributors, their profile photos next to their most recent articles. On September 18th, all but one were white; most were men. At the top, “The Epoch Times” reads in a sort of watered-down New York Times typeface—recognizably American, but not a plagiarism of the meat-and-potatoes legacy media aesthetic. Finally, a colorful graphic in the corner beckons readers toward the Epoch Times’s special coverage of the looming election. “We report. You decide,” the caption reads, an obvious recycling of Fox News’s famous slogan.
Recently, it’s also been a newspaper on the rise. Self-labeled as the “fastest growing independent news media [sic] in America,” the Epoch Times is now distributed for free at countless American supermarkets, and litters sidewalks and park benches in the New York City metropolitan area, where it both houses its corporate offices and goes to press. In April, videos from The Epoch Times and its video subsidiary reached a total of 3 billion views on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, dwarfing many other traditional news publishers. Recently, data from Facebook’s advertising archive uncovered that the company has spent more than $1.5 million on 11,000 digital advertisements in the last six months. The ads all support the reelection of President Trump, and are worth more money than any group, aside from the Trump campaign, has spent in his name.
The Epoch Times was founded almost exactly 20 years ago by Chinese American immigrant John Tang and several of his compatriots, whose binding motivation was membership in the recently-founded Falun Gong religious movement. Falun Gong had come about in northeastern China as a benign spiritual system of belief, emphasizing meditation and various breathing techniques, but did not grow to political relevance until 1999. As Falun Gong’s numbers swelled to 70 million, the Chinese government began to see it as a potential threat to its authority. A wave of anti-Falun Gong propaganda swept the news, and access to online material mentioning the movement was blocked. Thousands of the movement’s leaders were labeled “heretics” and abducted, and the 2008 US Congressional-Executive Commission on China estimated that half of the Chinese labor camp population, or up to 200,000 prisoners, were Falun Gong practitioners.
John Tang was among those who left China, and resettled elsewhere, more set than ever on espousing Falun Gong beliefs—and now, on fighting the vice grip of the Chinese Communist Party as well. Tang founded the Epoch Times which, in its early years, was a mouthpiece for precisely this disdain, and modeled itself as a Chinese-American version of Radio Free Europe or Voice of America, two politically-oriented sources that primarily sought to reach and persuade an expatriated population. Articles focused almost exclusively on Chinese affairs, and skirted American politics. With these methods, however, The Epoch Times had to settle for low exposure in its early years. Falun Gong’s international outreach then focused on cultural efforts, like the Shen Yun traveling dance troupe.
A meeting at the Epoch Times’s New York City offices in 2009, led by Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi, has been credited with changing the paper’s trajectory. Li is reputed to have instructed the newspaper to consider itself an independent institution, one which would have to generate its own advertising and subscriber revenue and learn to play to readers’ tastes as a result. In its pre-2009 form, Li found the Epoch Times to be failing Falun Gong’s ultimate goal: victory over Chinese communism. The Epoch Times would soon shift its strategy, emulating the digital-first tactics of other startup media outlets and attempting to funnel readers from more standard Americentric content to China-oriented pieces surrounding it.
The Epoch Times met an unexpected ally in President Trump in 2018, around the beginning of the American trade dispute with China. The Obama administration, through its last days, had been guarded on intellectual property and labor rights issues vis a vis China, but had consistently sought to bring China further into the international community. The Trump administration brought a different approach, raising tariffs on steel and aluminum and labeling imports from China as national security threats. Anti-Chinese sentiment was cropping up on the American right, with a prominent figurehead in the President. The Epoch Times sensed an opening.
The Epoch Times since has been defined by its markedly pro-Trump coverage. Articles have ranged from rather pedestrian conservative talking points to echoes of Trump’s absentee-balloting skepticism, and to full-on fake news coverage of origins of COVID-19. Epoch Times reporters have been granted interviews with figures as prominent as Lara Trump and Senator Ted Cruz. A New York Times article from February 2020 discussed the Epoch Times ad blitz on YouTube, where 30-second commercials push conspiracy theories about “Spygate,” wherein Obama staffers allegedly infiltrated the 2016 Trump campaign, with a goal of sabotaging it. The Associated Press, and several other centrist fact-checking institutions, found this to be false.
In August 2020, Facebook announced that it would ban hundreds of accounts, pages, and organizations linked back to the Epoch Media Group for creating “sock puppet networks” to “inauthentically amplify” their content. Facebook had already banned the Epoch Media Group from purchasing advertising in August 2019 (but not their subsidiary, the Epoch Times itself), citing misleading content. It is important to note that Facebook has been extremely restrained in its policing of misleading political content in advertising, and their crackdown on the Epoch Media Group signals a departure from the norm.
Now, coverage of the Epoch Times seems to be increasing in frequency and intensity. Local newspapers and blogs ask why entire neighborhoods see free copies of the print newspaper stuffed into their mailboxes. YouTube ad spending continues, particularly in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin, where rural agricultural interests often coincide with opposition to free trade with China. There is not yet any clear limit to the Epoch Times’s growing relevance.
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