5 Reasons That Normal-Looking Free Newspaper (In Your Hometown) Is Anything But
Maybe you've noticed in your hometown newspaper boxes offering free copies of the Epoch Times, or maybe you've seen their ubiquitous online presence. At a glance, they look a lot like any other publication. They lean conservative, and they don't like the Chinese Communist Party, but hey, who does? But dig a little deeper and you'll find they offer the kind of brain-melting hot takes that make the politics of Fox News look normal by comparison.
They Look Innocent Enough, At First
Compared to the OANs and Breitbarts of the world, the Epoch Times has a bland, professional homepage with a bland, professional slogan ("Truth and Tradition"). Many headlines are bland too; "Biden Picks Warren Allies to Head Financial Sector Oversight Agencies, SEC and CFPB" and "How to Stay Positive When the News Cycle is Negative" aren't going to raise any hackles, although the latter, much like their slogan, will soon look deeply ironic.
There's a lot of entertainment and history and culture, a lot of inoffensive stories taken from the Associated Press, a lot of reasonable shots at China's human rights violations. But then there are the headlines like "A New Leninism Is Gripping America," and the columns that declare "We watched the theft of this election take place right before our eyes," and then you start to wonder how many grandmas are being duped.
Unlike Trump Jr. using Twitter to scream that he's being censored on Twitter, or Ben Shapiro whining that the libs at Rotten Tomatoes didn't like his shitty Die Hard In a Columbine movie, Epoch manages to make denying reality sound downright mundane. Even a piece that complained about Macaulay Culkin's "ridiculous virtue-signaling" (that infamous Marxist liked a joke tweet about removing Trump from Home Alone 2), and accused Trump critics who spent four years going by the admittedly cringeworthy nickname "the Resistance" anti-Semitic because they -- and this is a real argument -- culturally appropriated World War II's French Resistance, is a dry read.
But if you read Epoch for long enough, as I've had the misfortune of doing, clear narratives emerge. The Democrats commit voter fraud as easily and as often as they breathe. Trump's electoral defeat was illegitimate. True patriots should rally at the Capitol in defense of Trump, but all the violence they committed was the fault of shadowy left-wing provocateurs. The "CCP virus" is a rogue bioweapon that's running rampant through China, but instead of trusting nefarious vaccines try condemning Communism, which has led to miraculous cures. Oh, and that QAnon fellow sure seems to have some good ideas.
The dryness is the point -- they're making the most insidious bullshit of our day look like the reasonable ideas of stilted but well-meaning intellectuals. If much of their news is mundane, and if they don't like those darn Communists, then maybe this guy who's calmly saying that leftists are transforming America into a terrifying dictatorship knows what he's talking about too, right?
They Began As Fringe Dissidents
Epoch launched in 2000 from a Chinese-American grad student's basement, and from day one they were associated with Falun Gong, a religious movement founded in China in 1992. Falun Gong has some, uh, interesting beliefs, including that evolution isn't real, that much of modern medicine can't be trusted, that homosexuality and miscegenation are destroying humanity, and that aliens trying to undermine human development have introduced immoral, soul-sucking technologies used to control us. Yes, your PS5 is part of a galactic conspiracy. Dig into their interdimensional cosmology and Scientology starts to look like a lowkey alternative.
But you can make any belief system sound ridiculous by highlighting its strangest abstractions, even though they have little impact on daily life; a Christian taking the message about feeding and clothing the poor seriously probably isn't giving much thought to fringe eschatological debates. Falun Gong also emphasizes good deeds, good physical and mental health, and generally becoming a better person who's engaged with society. Cracked is wildly unqualified to weigh in on the ongoing argument about their overall merits, but given that China spent decades stamping out every trace of spiritual belief it shouldn't be a surprise that the vacuum they created was filled with a bizarre vengeance.
Regardless of how Falun Gong strikes you, none of what its adherents believe justifies the brutal campaign China has waged against them. Hundreds of thousands of practitioners have been sent to brutal labor camps and subjected to sleep deprivation, starvation, sexual assault, and other abuses. At least 2,000 believers have been tortured to death, and many others have been executed so their organs can be harvested. So ... it's not great.
The CCP actually liked Falun Gong in its early years -- founder Li Hongzhi buttered up authorities, and encouraging people to eat healthy and engage with society sounded fine. Then Hongzhi's claims got weirder and the CCP discovered that engaging sometimes meant criticizing, and a growing PR battle culminated in 1999 with the largest public protest since Tiananmen Square. One horrifying crackdown later and China was locked in a Forever War with meditating grandmas.
What does all of this have to do with the Epoch Times? Well, it turns out that widespread human rights abuses don't make people less political, and the CCP turned a movement that once discouraged engagement with worldly politics into one of its fiercest critics. For 15 years, Epoch was part of a media war on China. They kept their links to Falun Gong quiet and their takes lukewarm; 2015 opinion articles included "US Soft Power Shines in FIFA Probe" and "How to Save California's Precious Groundwater," a far cry from the madness they're shilling today. Other than routine anti-China editorials they were about as offensive and memorable as off-brand vanilla ice cream.
Then Trump happened, they made a bajillion dollars, and they went fucking insane.
They Got Really, REALLY Into Trump
Given everything you just read, you can see why Trump's promise of a trade war with China would look appealing to Epoch. When 2016 began they were financially moribund, avoiding strong stances on American politics, and staying afloat with Buzzfeed-lite inanity. With no clear future, they asked a Tea Party strategist to make their anti-China stance appeal to American conservatives in the hopes of building support for Falun Gong, because if the Trump administration had one clear priority it was aiding foreigners.
And so by 2017 they were pro-Trump, in 2018 and 2019 they spewed Trump's nonsense while lamenting that such a brilliant leader had been unfairly maligned by the mainstream media (large chunks of the paper were dedicated to the, ugh, "Spygate" conspiracy), and by 2020 COVID had thrust their sideshow views on China into the spotlight. This forced Epoch to perform some impressive mental gymnastics, like simultaneously arguing that all centralized government power is evil but also that the government must seize control of Twitter so Trump can return to whining on it, but that didn't slow them down.
Reporters who ditched Epoch like a friend trying to make them invest in Herbalife described a worldview where Trump was divinely destined to destroy the CCP. One fleeing employee said the moral stances the paper once held vanished. But hey, pesky morals get in the way of making bank, and Epoch's revenue quadrupled during the Trump administration. In 2019 they made $15.5 million, and no one's entirely sure how.
Ex-employees were told that wealthy Falun Gong practitioners were donors, and prominent conservative donors like Robert "the Civil Rights Act was a major mistake" Mercer chipped in. One of Epoch's board members is a horrible ex-NBC executive who created Before It's News (current headline: "Inauguration Cancelled, Trump Remains in Office, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN, MSNBC to Lose Licenses") and runs a crypto hedge fund, a resume that just screams financial and journalistic integrity. All good bastions of truth redact their funding sources, right?
This Deus Ex subplot culminated in a 2020 media blitz. Targeted swing state neighborhoods were blanketed with newspapers telling voters "Don't let communists win," accusing Biden of being in bed with the CCP (he indicated he'll keep tariffs in place), and declaring that they were the only trustworthy publication in a world where commies are hiding everywhere. When Trump lost they went into denial overdrive, alleging conspiracy theories and inventing alternate paths to victory. And yet somehow that wasn't the weirdest part...
They Fought A Stupid War With Facebook
If you're wondering how so many Trump supporters went from "Well, they say he'll bring jobs back to America" to "Well, they say he's fighting a globalist cabal of deep state pedophiles and we should help him by beating a police officer to death," Epoch deserves as much blame as anyone. In 2019 they dropped $1.5 million on pro-Trump Facebook ads, second only to the Trump campaign itself. Throw in YouTube and Twitter and they racked up three billion views, miles ahead of the traditional papers they were busy accusing of being run by feckless Democratic stooges. It was all conspiratorial crap, and their associated YouTube channels were even worse, diving into alien abductions, 9/11 conspiracies, and full-throated QAnon endorsements.
While Facebook's vision of corporate responsibility is like a parent telling their children to be careful when they play Chainsaw Lightsaber Duel, Epoch's ads violated what rules they do have. Epoch responded by creating new pages with names like Patriots of America and News Express, running ads for these proxies through shell companies, and encouraging readers to visit Epoch fronts with names like genuinenewspaper.com. No, seriously.
They also created hundreds of fake Facebook and Twitter users with AI-generated profile pictures (which are relatively harder to spot than stock photos or photos stolen from real accounts) to gin up attention for their bullshit. By the time the fake network was stamped out, piles of money had been spent on ads that attracted 55 million Facebook followers, the largest disinformation campaign Facebook had seen. Epoch denied any connection even as they were caught so red-handed it looked like they had just been fisting paint cans.
The end result is a mixed bag. Epoch's "Q is real, hopefully aliens don't nab him" YouTube channel got axed, and Epoch is banned from buying Facebook ads. But the whole idiot affair brought them love from Michael "Let's use martial law to overturn the election" Flynn, Trump's various men-children, the felon turned idiot behind "Stop the Steal," and other folks who would have a prominent seat at Satan's most tedious dinner party. And, of course, Epoch can still tell their nearly eight million Facebook followers that noted radical Joe Biden is preparing to embrace Maoism and give millions of illegal immigrants the vote so they can be "driven to a polling place, offered goodies, and instructed on whom to vote for." That'll teach 'em to cheat the system.
And Now They're Fueling Europe's Neo-Nazis
So why did we tell you all this? Well, aside from being a textbook case of incoherent rage becoming far more profitable than bland moderation, the woesome tale of Epoch isn't going to screech to a halt just because Trump is out the door. They'll continue to blare propaganda in America, while Epoch's Putin-worshipping European editions are fueling the continent's far-right; a New Republic investigation into the German edition called the insane American wing "far tamer." In Germany, Epoch supports the neo-Nazi linked AfD, while in France it's a mouthpiece for Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen, leaders of a party that's dabbled in Holocaust denial and has financial ties to the Kremlin. None of this is going away as long as it keeps working.
Like the American edition, Epoch in Germany was struggling to stay afloat until a crisis -- for them, a 2015 influx of refugees -- allowed them to reinvent themselves as hatemongers. A pile of invented stories meant to incite rage against migrants, link them to baseless Angela Merkel conspiracies, and suggest that secret cabals of Jews were profiting from the crisis later, and they were in business as a site that "disseminates antidemocratic false news and conspiracy theories."
Delving into Epoch's European nonsense would require a second, even bleaker article, given that almost literally nothing they publish is factual (they once ran "news" they sourced from fucking 4chan). But if you've connected all the dots here, you may be wondering why a persecuted religious minority under siege by an authoritarian government has become the most trusted source of a fringe political party that loathes outsiders and wants to see them crushed with an iron fist. There are strange bedfellows, and then there are the couples you can tell are about to divorce in a Body Shop thanks to a screaming match about candles.
But the exact flavor of crap doesn't really matter as long as the volume is overwhelming, and Epoch wants to flood the world. Believing one conspiracy theory is the first step to believing them all, and denying reality is the first step to letting someone with a vested interest reshape it. So the next time you wonder "How can anyone believe this garbage?"-- Q, 2020 election fraud, foreign hordes conspiring to exterminate white people, whatever -- just remember that millions of dollars are being spent to accomplish exactly that.
Top image: The Epoch Times