A key source for Covid-skeptic movements, the Epoch Times yearns for a global audience
On January 21, Steffen Löhnitz held an outdoor press conference in central Vienna. The German activist was eager to defy the cold to share his research into coronavirus infections with the German and Austrian “alternative” media that showed up. He accused the Austrian government of deliberately inflating infection numbers to usher in a lockdown, and compared it to “a criminal organization.” Amplified by the German edition of the Epoch Times, a newspaper headquartered in New York City and linked to the religious group Falun Gong, Löhnitz’s comments quickly went viral.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, false or misleading Epoch Times articles about Covid have circulated widely on social media in Germany. Epoch Times reported that Löhnitz had been digging up “correct numbers” of coronavirus infections for a long time. It reported Löhnitz’s claims of “massive fraud” against the populations of Austria and Germany as fact. Figures from Germany’s anti-lockdown movement known as Querdenken shared the Epoch Times story through their network. The article was soon viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Telegram, the favored platform for Covid-skeptics and anti-vaxxers in Germany.
“The Epoch Times has played a noticeable role in transmitting and amplifying many anti-vaccine narratives,” said Raquel Miguel, a researcher for the European watchdog EU DisinfoLab.
Epoch Times was founded in the U.S. more than two decades ago by practitioners of Falun Gong who had fled persecution in China. And apart from opposition to China’s Communist Party, Epoch Times’s editorial was largely apolitical.
That changed during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when it embraced a pro-Trump line, publishing misinformation and content adjacent to extreme conspiratorial ideologies like QAnon. Ultimately, it became a well-known cog in the right-wing media landscape.
But in Europe, the Epoch Times has received less attention. It is there that the media outlet has become a key information source for Covid-skeptic and anti-vaxx movements in several countries including France, Italy and Spain. It is currently eying expansion in the U.K. Although journalists at U.S. outlets like the New York Times and NBC have reported on the Epoch Times, outside the United States the media company is also becoming more influential — now publishing in 33 countries and 21 languages.
The most striking example is Germany. Epoch Times articles blasting the legitimacy of PCR tests and splattering conspiracy theories about runaway vaccination mishaps are commonplace. The anti-lockdown group Querdenken and the biggest QAnon Telegram group in Germany, Qlobal Change, often link to Epoch Times articles.
To be sure, not everything the Epoch Times publishes is disinformation — a lot of its content consists of straightforward factual accounts, often sourced from news agencies. But according to NewsGuard, a journalism and technology tool that rates the credibility of news websites and tracks misinformation, Epoch Times fails to gather and present information responsibly, rarely corrects or clarifies errors, and remains opaque as to its ownership and funding. “If this was a Russia thing, you’d have every person in the world working on it,” said Angelo Carusone from U.S. watchdog group Media Matters.
The Epoch Times was founded in 2000 by John Tang, a Falun Gong practitioner in the U.S. Falun Gong is a mix of gentle physical exercises, mental disciplines, and moral tenets similar to those found in Buddhism and Taoism. The group also has a documented interest in the paranormal, with its founder Li Hongzhi hinting that the pyramids might have been built by Atlanteans, or that there are humanoid populations living on the oceans’ floors. The movement leaned conservative from the start, and its founder promoted 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.”
Falun Gong largely avoided taking political positions in its early years, but that changed abruptly in 1999 after the Communist Party unleashed a policy of repression, labeling the group an “evil cult.” After a series of demonstrations, authorities declared the organization illegal and began arresting practitioners en masse.
Many of Falun Gong’s practitioners have nothing to do with Epoch Times. And the Epoch Times downplays links to the group.
The Epoch Times’ hostility to the Chinese government dovetailed with Trump’s anti-China rhetoric and policies and the media company assumed a major role within the Trump movement and in the American hard-right — in 2019, NBC found that the Epoch Times had spent $1.5 million on 11,000 pro-Trump ads, second only to the Trump campaign itself.
But its shift to the far-right actually started in Europe when in 2015 refugees from the Middle East migrated to EU countries. It was then that the German edition of Epoch Times started to enjoy a steep rise in web traffic, coinciding with its coverage of the anti-migrant group Pegida and frequent interviews with politicians from the emerging right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany, or AfD. Its website garnered four million views in January 2016, up from 1.7 million the previous year.
In 2017, the journalist Stefanie Albrecht spent a week undercover in the Epoch Times office in Berlin. Albrecht told us that all Epoch Times writers and editors she worked with were Falun Gong practitioners. “At some point a bell would ring, reminding them it was time to meditate,” Albrecht said. “They would sit in front of their computers for up to 10 minutes meditating. Then they would go back to work,” she said.
From the start, Albrecht was exposed to debunked conspiracy theories, including Pizzagate, weather-changing machines, and the Great Replacement. None of her colleagues had any journalistic training — one was a physicist, another a fashion blogger — and they wrote articles exclusively from the office. One writer told Albrecht that they had little time for original research and would sometimes only repackage content published by other “alternative” websites without checking. “They often took stories from right-wing bloggers,” Albrecht said.
“They go where the center for the strongest infrastructure or possibility of getting as much audience and influence and reach is,” said Angelo Carusone, the Media Matters analyst, adding that this complexity makes the Epoch Times “radically different and hard to understand.” That’s because Epoch Times is not using the same metric of success as other outlets who might be motivated by money or a specific political agenda. Instead, according to Carusone, the metric of success for Epoch Times is simply influence.
The pandemic represented an opportunity for all disinformation outlets — but the China origins of the virus and the accusations of government obstruction made it a home run for the Epoch Times.
The Epoch Times has long provided fertile ground for sowing doubt about 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,” said Elise Thomas at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The belief that following Falang Gong’s teaching, not medicine, can prevent ailments is widespread among the movement’s practitioners.
“They’ve been anti-medicine for a long time,” said Ben Hurley, an ex-staffer from Epoch Times Australia and former Falun Gong believer. Hurley added that many practitioners refuse medical care. “Many 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 super human beings.”
At the end of 2020, a blizzard of pro-Trump and election fraud content from Epoch Times Germany helped to cultivate an obsession with Trump among Covid-skeptics. The Epoch Times was ubiquitous among those organizing and attending huge rallies against lockdowns in Germany and among German QAnon groups.
Much of the internal operations of the Epoch Times is a black box. We reached out to dozens of current and former Epoch Times staffers in Europe, but few responded. “There’s a very strong us and them mentality,” said Hurley, the former Falun Gong adherent in Australia and Epoch Times 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.”
This article was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.
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