Trump, QAnon and an impending judgment day: Behind the Facebook-fueled rise of The Epoch Times
- The Epoch Times has spent more than $1.5 million on pro-Trump Facebook ads in the last six months, more than than any organization outside of the Trump campaign itself.
- The publication’s recent ad strategy, coupled with a broader campaign to embrace social media and conservative U.S. politics — Trump in particular — has doubled The Epoch Times’ revenue and pushed it to greater prominence in the broader conservative media world.
- The Epoch Times has increasingly become a favorite of the Trump family and a key component of the president’s re-election campaign.
By the numbers, there is no bigger advocate of President Donald Trump on Facebook than The Epoch Times.
The small New York-based nonprofit news outlet has spent more than $1.5 million on about 11,000 pro-Trump advertisements in the last six months, according to data from Facebook’s advertising archive — more than any organization outside of the Trump campaign itself, and more than most Democratic presidential candidates have spent on their own campaigns.
Those video ads — in which unidentified spokespeople thumb through a newspaper to praise Trump, peddle conspiracy theories about the “Deep State,” and criticize “fake news” media — strike a familiar tone in the online conservative news ecosystem. The Epoch Times looks like many of the conservative outlets that have gained followings in recent years.
But it isn’t.
Behind the scenes, the media outlet’s ownership and operation is closely tied to Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual community with the stated goal of taking down China’s government.
It’s that motivation that helped drive the organization toward Trump, according to interviews with former Epoch Times staffers, a move that has been both lucrative and beneficial for its message.
Former practitioners of Falun Gong told NBC News that believers think the world is headed toward a judgment day, where those labeled “communists” will be sent to a kind of hell, and those sympathetic to the spiritual community will be spared. Trump is viewed as a key ally in the anti-communist fight, former Epoch Times employees said.
In part because of that unusual background, The Epoch Times has had trouble finding a foothold in the broader conservative movement .
“It seems like an interloper — not well integrated socially within the movement network, and not terribly well-circulating among right-wingers,” said A.J. Bauer, a visiting professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, who is part of an ongoing study in which he and his colleagues interview conservative journalists.
“Even when discussing more fringe-y sites, conservative journalists tend to reference Gateway Pundit or Infowars,” Bauer said. “The Epoch Times doesn’t tend to come up.”
That seems to be changing.
Before 2016, The Epoch Times generally stayed out of U.S. politics, unless they dovetailed with Chinese interests. The publication’s recent ad strategy, coupled with a broader campaign to embrace social media and conservative U.S. politics — Trump in particular — has doubled The Epoch Times’ revenue, according to the organization’s tax filings, and pushed it to greater prominence in the broader conservative media world.
Started almost two decades ago as a free newspaper and website with a stated mission to “provide information to Chinese communities to help immigrants assimilate into American society,” The Epoch Times now wields one of the biggest social media followings of any news outlet.
The Epoch Times, digital production company NTD and the heavily advertised dance troupe Shen Yun make up the nonprofit network that Li calls “our media.” Financial documents paint a complicated picture of more than a dozen technically separate organizations that appear to share missions, money and executives. Though the source of their revenue is unclear, the most recent financial records from each organization paint a picture of an overall business thriving in the Trump era.
The Epoch Times brought in $8.1 million in revenue in 2017 — double what it had the previous year — and reported spending $7.2 million on “printing newspaper and creating web and media programs.” Most of its revenue comes from advertising and “web and media income,” according to the group’s annual tax filings, while individual donations and subscriptions to the paper make up less than 10 percent of its revenue.
New Tang Dynasty’s 2017 revenue, according to IRS records , was $18 million, a 150 percent increase over the year before. It spent $16.2 million.
That exponential growth came around the same time The Epoch Times expanded its online presence and increased its ad spending, honing its message on two basic themes: enthusiastic support for Trump’s agenda, and the exposure of what the publication claims is a labyrinthian, global conspiracy led by Clinton and former President Barack Obama to tear down Trump. One such conspiracy theory, loosely called “Spygate,” has become a common talking point for Fox News host Sean Hannity and conservative news websites like Breitbart.
The paper’s “Spygate Special Coverage” section, which frequently sits atop its website, theorizes about a grand, yearslong plot in which former Obama and Clinton staffers, a handful of magazines and newspapers, private investigators and government bureaucrats plan to take down the Trump presidency.
In his published response, publisher Gregory said the media outlet’s ads “have no political agenda.”
While The Epoch Times usually straddles the line between an ultraconservative news outlet and a conspiracy warehouse, some popular online shows created by Epoch Times employees and produced by NTD cross the line completely, and spread far and wide.
One such show is “Edge of Wonder,” a verified YouTube channel that releases new NTD-produced videos twice every week and now has more than 33 million views. In addition to claims that alien abductions are real and the drug epidemic was engineered by the “deep state,” the channel pushes the QAnon conspiracy theory, which falsely posits that the same “Spygate” cabal is a front for a global pedophile ring being taken down by Trump.
One QAnon video, titled ”#QANON - 7 facts the MEDIA (MSM) Won’t Admit” has almost 1 million views on YouTube. Other videos in the channel’s QAnon playlist, which include videos about 9/11 conspiracy theories and one titled “13 BLOODLINES & their Diabolical End Game,” gained hundreds of thousands of views each.
Travis View, a researcher and podcaster who studies the QAnon movement, said The Epoch Times has sanitized the conspiracy theory by pushing Spygate, which drops the wildest and more prurient details of QAnon while retaining its conspiratorial elements.
“QAnon is highly stigmatized among people trying to push the Spygate message. They know how toxic QAnon is,” View said. “Spygate leaves out the spiritual elements, the child sex trafficking, but it’s certainly integral to the QAnon narrative.”
Gregory denied any connection with “Edge of Wonder,” writing in a statement that his organization was “aware of the entertainment show,” but “is in no way connected with it.”
But The Epoch Times has itself published several credulous reports on QAnon and for years, the webseries hosts Rob Counts and Benjamin Chasteen were employed as the company’s creative director and chief photo editor, respectively. In August 2018, six months after the creation of “Edge of Wonder,” Counts tweeted that he still worked for Epoch Times. Counts and Chasteen did not respond to an email seeking clarification on their roles.
Meanwhile The Epoch Times has promoted “Edge of Wonder” content in dozens of Facebook posts, still visible on its official Facebook page . That page is currently topped with a pinned ad for its Trump coverage that reads, “Where can you get real news that doesn’t push any hidden agendas?”