Since the start 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 the COVID skeptic and anti-vaccine movements in France, Italy and Spain. The organization recently launched an advert for journalists 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 the pandemic is a planned project of a dark global elite) and cast doubt on the safety or effectiveness of COVID tests and vaccines.
Key Querdenken figures interviewed by openDemocracy consider him a reliable source. According to political data specialist Josef Holnburger of the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy (CeMAS), his German edition was the most shared outlet among Germany’s sprawling skeptical movement for much of the pandemic.
Not everything published by The Epoch Times is considered disinformation – much of its content consists of simple reports, often from news organizations. But according to NewsGuard, a journalism and technology tool that assesses the credibility of news websites and tracks misinformation, it fails to collect and present information responsibly, rarely corrects or clarifies errors and remains opaque. as to its ownership and financing.
Until now, organizations that monitor disinformation have viewed state-backed media as the biggest threat. But representatives from several organizations told openDemocracy that The Epoch Times is now reaching a comparable scale of operations. “Russia is not the only bad actor,” said Angelo Carusone, director of the US nonprofit Media Matters. “If it was a Russian thing, everyone would be working on it.” Given the comparable reach and impact of The Epoch Times around the world, shouldn’t we give it more attention?
Connections to Falun Gong
The Epoch Times was established in 2000 as a Chinese-language newspaper by US-based Falun Gong practitioner John Tang to oppose the Chinese government’s suppression of the religious movement. Falun Gong itself was founded in northern China a few years earlier by Li Hongzhi, who promoted it as a practice of self-cultivation: a mixture of gentle physical exercises, mental disciplines and of moral principles similar to those found in Buddhism and Taoism.
Falun Gong’s worldview was conservative from the start, with Li promoting a return to traditional morality, warning against runaway advances in science and technology, suggesting that heavens are separated by race, and calling homosexuality a ‘”dirty and deviant state of mind”. Li’s writings also show interest in the paranormal, hinting that the pyramids may have been built by Atlanteans, or that there are humanoid populations living on the ocean floor.
At first, the Falun Gong movement avoided taking political positions in public, but that changed in 1999 when the Chinese government began cracking down on it, calling it an “evil cult.” After Falun Gong practitioners staged a series of protests to complain about negative media coverage and police repression, then-Chinese leader Jiang Zemin described the rise of the movement as the most significant political development. grave from Tiananmen Square.
Authorities have outlawed Falun Gong organizations and carried out mass arrests of followers. There are no reliable figures on the number of arrests, but Benjamin Penny, an Australian scholar specializing in the study of modern East Asian religions, puts it at several thousand in his trusted book. “The Religion of Falun Gong”.
With many of its practitioners living overseas, the movement has become highly critical of the Chinese government. Although The Epoch Times denies any direct connection to Falun Gong, in 2004 it published Li’s “Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party,” which describes the Chinese ruling party (CCP) as a “force against nature.” and humanity, causing endless agony and tragedy”. ”. 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 alleged CCP crimes.
Falun Gong followers are often serious, well-meaning people who find meaning in the movement’s spiritual practice, which they believe espouses compassion and honesty. Many have nothing to do with The Epoch Times. But two former staffers told openDemocracy that its authors are usually Falun Gong practitioners. They also claimed editorial direction came from Li, who called The Epoch Times and sister media such as New Tang Dynasty (NTD) Television “our media.”
Multilingual extension, plus radio and TV
In September 2003, The Epoch Times launched an English news website, with a print edition in New York a year later. Editions in Spanish, Russian, German, French, Romanian, Swedish, Czech and Slovak soon followed. In the early 2000s, several other Falun Gong-related media outlets were launched, including Vision Times, the Sound of Hope radio network, and NTD TV. The sources of funding for these different outlets are unclear. According to The New York Times, former Epoch Times employees believed the outlet was “funded by a combination of subscriptions, advertising, and donations from wealthy Falun Gong practitioners.”
The Epoch Times’ support for Trump is generally explained by the fact that he was perceived as being anti-China. NBC found The Epoch Times spent $1.5 million on 11,000 pro-Trump ads over six months in 2019, second only to the Trump campaign itself. But its far-right shift actually began in Europe, during the 2015 refugee crisis – and appears to be as much a product of online media dynamics as the result of a deliberate editorial decision.
As the refugee crisis began to make headlines, the German edition of The Epoch Times began to see a surge in traffic, driven by its coverage of anti-migrant group Pegida and interviews with party politicians. emerging far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). In January 2016, its German website received four million views, up from 1.7 million in January the previous year, according to media outlet Meedia.
In 2017, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), an anti-extremism think tank, found that the German edition “spreads anti-democratic fake news and conspiracy theories, incites hatred against migrants and makes indirectly advertising for the AfD”. Much of The Epoch Times’ 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 in 2017, for German broadcaster RTL. On the first day, Albrecht entered a somewhat dingy building and climbed a dark staircase. The office was tiny but contained enough desks for half a dozen employees. Posters of Shen Yun, a globally touring dance troupe linked to Falun Gong, adorned the walls.
Albrecht told openDemocracy that all of the writers and editors she worked with were Falun Gong practitioners. “At one point a bell rang, reminding them that it was time to meditate,” she said. “They would sit in front of their computer for up to ten minutes meditating. Then they went back to work.
Early on, Albrecht heard his new colleagues lay out conspiracy theories, including “Pizzagate” about child sex trafficking in the United States, the anti-immigration “Great Replacement” theory, and one about machines changing the world. time. None of his colleagues had a journalistic background – one was a physicist, the other a fashion blogger – and they wrote articles exclusively from the office.