On January 21, Steffen Löhnitz held an open-air press conference in the center of Vienna. The German activist was eager to defy the cold to share his research on coronavirus infections with German and Austrian “alternative” media who showed up. He accused the Austrian government of deliberately inflating the number of infections to usher in a lockdown, and likened it to “a criminal organization”. Amplified by the German edition of the Epoch Times, a New York-based newspaper 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. The Epoch Times reported that Löhnitz had long been digging up the “correct number” of coronavirus infections. He reported Löhnitz’s allegations of “massive fraud” against the people of Austria and Germany as fact. Figures from the German anti-lockdown movement known as Querdenken shared the Epoch Times story through their network. The article quickly gained hundreds of thousands of views on Telegram, the favorite platform for Covid skeptics and anti-vaxxers in Germany.
“The Epoch Times has played a notable role in conveying and amplifying many anti-vaccine narratives,” said Raquel Miguel, researcher for European watchdog EU DisinfoLab.
The Epoch Times was founded in the United States over two decades ago by Falun Gong practitioners who had fled persecution in China. And aside from opposing the Chinese Communist Party, the Epoch Times editorial was largely apolitical.
That changed in the 2016 US presidential election, when she took a pro-Trump line, posting misinformation and content adjacent to extreme conspiratorial ideologies like QAnon. Ultimately, he became a well-known cog in the right-wing media landscape.
But in Europe, The Epoch Times has received less attention. This is where the medium has become a key source of information for the Covid-skeptical and anti-vaxx movements in several countries including France, Italy and Spain. It is currently considering an expansion into the UK. Although reporters from American media 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 denouncing the legitimacy of PCR testing and splattering conspiracy theories about rampant vaccination mishaps are rife. Anti-lockdown group Querdenken and Germany’s largest QAnon Telegram group, Qlobal Change, often refer to Epoch Times articles.
Granted, not everything the Epoch Times publishes is disinformation — much of its content consists of simple factual accounts, often from news organizations. But according to NewsGuard, a journalism and technology tool that assesses the credibility of news websites and tracks misinformation, The Epoch Times fails to collect and present information responsibly, rarely corrects or clarifies errors, and remains opaque as to its ownership and financing. “If it was a Russian thing, everyone would be working on it,” said Angelo Carusone of US watchdog group Media Matters.
The Epoch Times was founded in 2000 by John Tang, a Falun Gong practitioner in the United States. Falun Gong is a blend of gentle physical exercises, mental disciplines and moral principles 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 may have been built by Atlanteans or that there are humanoid populations living on the ocean floor. The movement was conservative from the start and its founder promoted a return to traditional morality, warning against uncontrollable advances in science and technology, suggesting that heavens are separated by race and calling homosexuality a “state of filthy and deviant 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, calling the group an “evil cult.” After a series of protests, the authorities declared the organization illegal and started arresting practitioners en masse.
Many Falun Gong practitioners have nothing to do with The Epoch Times. And The Epoch Times downplays ties to the group.
The Epoch Times’ hostility to the Chinese government dovetailed with Trump’s anti-China rhetoric and policies, and the media company took on a major role within the Trump movement and the American hard-right — in 2019, NBC reported. discovered that The Epoch Times had spent $1.5 million on 11,000 pro-Trump ads, second only to the Trump campaign itself.
But his turn to the far right actually began in Europe when in 2015 refugees from the Middle East migrated to EU countries. It was then that the German edition of The Epoch Times began to experience a surge in web traffic, coinciding with its coverage of the anti-migrant group Pegida and frequent interviews with politicians from the emerging right-wing populist Alternative for Islam party. Germany, or AfD. . Its website garnered four million views in January 2016, up from 1.7 million the previous year.
In 2017, journalist Stefanie Albrecht spent a week undercover at the Epoch Times offices in Berlin. Albrecht told us that all of the Epoch Times writers and editors she worked with were Falun Gong practitioners. “At one point a bell rang, reminding them that it was time to meditate,” Albrecht said. “They would sit in front of their computer for up to 10 minutes meditating. Then they would go back to work,” she said.
Early on, Albrecht was exposed to debunked conspiracy theories, including Pizzagate, time-changing machines, and the Great Replacement. 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. One writer told Albrecht that they have little time for original research and sometimes only repackage content posted by other “alternative” websites without verification. “They often took stories from right-wing bloggers,” Albrecht said.
“They go to where the center of the strongest infrastructure or opportunity is to get as much audience, influence and reach,” said Media Matters analyst Angelo Carusone, adding that this complexity makes The Epoch Times “radically different and difficult to understand”. That’s because The Epoch Times doesn’t use the same measure of success as other media outlets that might be driven by money or a specific political agenda. Instead, according to Carusone, the measure of success for The Epoch Times is simply influence.
The pandemic presented an opportunity for all disinformation outlets — but the virus’s Chinese origins and accusations of government obstruction made it a home run for The Epoch Times.
The Epoch Times has long provided fertile ground for casting doubt on modern science and medicine. “Falun Gong has a history of rejection of modern medicine, which obviously overlaps perfectly with the beliefs of many anti-vax communities,” said Elise Thomas of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The belief that following Falang Gong teachings, not medicine, can prevent disease is widespread among practitioners of the movement.
“They’ve been anti-medicine for a long time,” said Ben Hurley, a former Epoch Times Australia staffer and former Falun Gong follower. Hurley added that many practitioners refuse medical treatment. “Many ex-believers know many people who have died of treatable illnesses,” he said. “It’s their belief that they don’t need drugs, because they’re super human beings.”
In late 2020, a storm of pro-Trump content and voter fraud from The Epoch Times Germany helped cultivate an obsession with Trump among Covid skeptics. The Epoch Times was omnipresent among those organizing and attending huge anti-lockdown rallies in Germany and among German QAnon groups.
Much of The Epoch Times’ internal operations are a black box. We contacted dozens of current and former Epoch Times employees in Europe, but few responded. “There’s a very strong us and them mentality,” said Hurley, a former Falun Gong adherent in Australia and Epoch Times staffer. “Falun Gong people believe that they are superior spiritual beings, and that ‘ordinary’ people are ignorant and literally somehow dirty, deceived – don’t know what they want.” – Rappler.com
This article was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.
Alessio Perrone is a freelance journalist based in Milan. Darren Loucaides is a writer based in Barcelona.
This article was republished from Coda Story with permission.