The Epoch Times' disinformation lands unbidden in voters' mailboxes

Voters have been receiving unsolicited copies in the mail of The Epoch Times, a publication that traffics in conspiracy theories and other forms of disinformation. (Photo by Sue Sturgis.)

Voters in communities across the South have recently found in their mailboxes unsolicited print copies of The Epoch Times, a controversial pro-Trump, anti-Chinese government news outlet that traffics in conspiracy theories and other forms of disinformation.

This reporter received one at her home in Raleigh, North Carolina. Facing South has also been in contact with two people in small Western North Carolina towns who received them, as well as residents of Atlanta and Fairfax County, Virginia. All of the recipients are either registered Democrats or unaffiliated. An inquiry made to The Epoch Times for more details about the mailings and their targets went unanswered.

The U.S. edition this reporter received, dated Sept. 7-13, has in its 24 pages stories claiming inaccurately that climate change is "based on false narratives," that vaccines lead to more severe COVID-19 infections, that Arizona counted thousands of invalid ballots in the 2020 presidential election, and that the Inflation Reduction Act recently passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden will triple the number of IRS audits targeting low-income Americans — a claim that's been debunked by professional fact checkers. It also offers an opinion piece by serial conspiracy theorist Dinesh D'Souza promoting his own repeatedly debunked "2000 Mules" documentary alleging that unnamed nonprofits paid Democratic Party associates to illegally collect and deposit ballots into drop boxes in swing states during the 2020 election.

"We mailed you this copy to break through suppression by Big Tech," says the promotional banner at the top of the paper.

In 2019, Facebook banned The Epoch Times from advertising after the outlet broke the platform's political transparency rules by publishing pro-Trump subscription ads through so-called "sock puppet" pages used to hide who controls them. A 2019 NBC News investigation found the outlet spent more than $1.5 million on some 11,000 pro-Trump Facebook ads over six months — more than any organization besides the Trump campaign. That same year, the fact-checking website reported close ties between The The Epoch Times and a network of Facebook pages and groups that shared pro-Trump views and conspiracy theories including QAnon, a far-right cult-like movement that promotes Trump as a political savior come to rescue the U.S. from a cabal of cannibalistic child sex traffickers.

In addition, The Epoch Times and its New Tang Dynasty Television affiliate used a network of associated YouTube channels to promote "Stop the Steal" events and election misinformation prior to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and they have since downplayed the riots, as Media Matters reported. The Epoch Times remains a presence on those social media platforms today, but it has shifted most of its advertising spending to YouTube, according to a Media Matters analysis reported by The Guardian.

The Epoch Times was founded in 2000 by John Tang, then a graduate student in theoretical physics at Georgia Tech, and other Chinese Americans affiliated with Falun Gong, a new religious movement that Li Hongzhi founded in China in the early 1990s. Combining elements of Buddhism and Taoism, Falun Gong mixes meditation and exercise with a moral philosophy that emphasizes cultivating "virtue." It has a socially conservative bent: Li has spoken against modern medical treatments, race mixing, and homosexuality.

China's leaders initially tolerated the movement. But after it gained tens of millions of followers, the government classified it as an "illegal organization" and sent followers to prison.

A grisly end

The Epoch Times was founded in direct response to the Chinese government's actions against Falun Gong. The publication is now organized into several regional tax-free nonprofits that fall under the umbrella of Epoch Media Group, which is headquartered in New York City. Here's how The Epoch Times itself describes its beginnings:

With the growing awareness that no one was telling the true stories about what was happening in China, John Tang and other Chinese-Americans founded Epoch Times in 2000. The story of Epoch Times is the story of those who wanted to meld their concern for their homeland with the freedoms afforded by America, such as freedom of the press and freedom of belief.

The first edition was in Chinese, with English language editions hitting the streets starting in 2004. As the current president of Epoch Times, John Tang now works to have editions published in 21 languages and in 35 countries. Wherever they are, Epoch Times editions tell the stories about China that other media cannot, or will not.

An early employee of The Epoch Times told The New York Times for its 2021 investigation that the publication initially resembled "a cross between a scrappy media start-up and a zealous church bulletin, with a staff composed mostly of unpaid volunteers drawn from the local Falun Gong chapters." But as the London-based independent media platform openDemocracy has observed, The Epoch Times rose to prominence across the West through its enthusiastic backing of Trump and embrace of conspiracy theories, and now serves as a key source of vaccine and other disinformation.

Where The Epoch Times gets its money is not entirely clear. It sells low-cost subscriptions; the offers in its mailed sample newspaper ranged from $1 for two months of digital-only to a year of a weekly print plus digital for $139. It also takes contributions, though as a nonprofit it's not required to disclose donors and does not do so. In its 2019 report on The Epoch Times, the investigative news outlet Popular Information concluded that none of the publication's activities represented a clear violation of campaign finance law, which offer a broad exemption for media. Nor do its activities represent a clear violation of laws governing nonprofits, according to North Carolina campaign finance law expert Bob Hall.

"If it's really a 501(c)(3), then there are IRS rules that bar the organization from expressly telling people to support or oppose election of candidate," Hall told Facing South. What crosses the line into illegality is using specific words like "vote for" or "he's the one," Hall explained. "Just describing and condemning positions, or saying So-and-So is horrible, cheats on wife, beats dog, etc., is issue advocacy and not express advocacy, so is permissible for a nonprofit."

But why would a news outlet whose motto is "Truth and Tradition" support Trump, whose many lies have been extensively documented? Former Epoch Times reporter Steve Klett, who wrote about the 2016 presidential campaign for the outlet, told The New York Times that the publication's leaders "seemed to have this almost messianic way of viewing Trump as the anti-Communist leader who would bring about the end of the Chinese Communist Party." And this is how Ben Hurley, a former Falun Gong follower who helped launched The Epoch Times' Australian edition, described the connection between the religion and the publication:

Falun Gong practitioners have launched a range of media companies as part of what they see as their spiritual mission, including New Tang Dynasty Television, Sound of Hope Radio, and the Vision China Times. Their purpose is purely evangelical, although perhaps not in the way evangelical Christians might understand. Converting people to Falun Gong is not a priority right now — that will happen in the future, according to Master Li's teachings — after an apocalyptic "weeding out" takes place where anyone who holds bad thoughts towards Falun Gong, or good thoughts towards the Chinese Communist Party, will come to a grisly end.