In 2017, Stefanie Albrecht, an investigative reporter for German broadcaster RTL, was in the midst of what would become a prize-winning investigation of Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party that would go on to shock the world by winning seats in parliament on an anti-immigrant and anti-Islam message.
Much like their alt-right peers in the United States, supporters of the AfD distrust traditional media, preferring to consume the work of alternative news sources typically shared through Facebook. One of their principal sources of information is an online newspaper little known outside of far-right circles. And that’s how Albrecht, armed with a hidden camera, came to spend several days filming inside the Berlin offices of The Epoch Times.
What Albrecht got was a rare look into the strange and secretive world of the newspaper, which was founded by practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual discipline that originated in China. The Times’ staff members Albrecht met in the Berlin office were all devotees of Falun Gong. Every day at 6 p.m., a bell rang, and everyone in the newsroom stopped what they were doing, sat at their desks, and meditated.
Even stranger were the topics of discussion. “The conversations were so weird,” Albrecht told me over the phone from RTL’s offices in Germany. “I was there for half an hour and they talked about so many conspiracy theories. It was raining outside and they started talking about these machines that can change the weather. ‘Have you recognized that it was raining the day before the Brexit election? Maybe somebody wanted to influence that?’”
In the United States, the Times bills itself as the newspaper that President Donald Trump views as “the most credible” and the only one he trusts. The U.S. version of the newspaper is a far tamer version than its German cousin, but it has won over fans in the far-right with its exhaustive coverage of “Spygate,” a theory pushed by the president who claims the FBI “spied” on his campaign and a “criminal deep state” sought to undermine his presidency. Revenues for the newspaper have doubled since Trump took office, according to the group’s tax filings.
Based in New York City, where it was founded in 2000 by followers of Falun Gong, the U.S. version of the Times focuses most of its attention on China, with the occasional foray into fake news (“3-year-old Remembers Past Life as a Snake”). After the 2016 election, it embraced the Trump presidency—in more ways than one. NBC News recently revealed that the newspaper had purchased more than $1.5 million worth of pro-Trump Facebook ads, more than most Democratic candidates have spent on their own campaigns. NBC’s report, which followed an earlier investigation from Popular Information, prompted Facebook to ban The Epoch Times from advertising on its platform the following day.
But to focus only at the U.S. version of the paper is to ignore the bigger story about the publication—namely, its reach. The Times has built a global propaganda machine, similar to Russia’s Sputnik or RT, that pushes a mix of alternative facts and conspiracy theories that has won it far-right acolytes around the world. Unlike Russia’s state-run networks that cynically push disinformation to further Kremlin policy goals of undermining the West, the paper is delivering its own bespoke version of the truth—and has found an especially receptive audience for it in Germany.
Why has a shamelessly pro-Trump paper gained such a foothold there? And what does it stand to gain from its dalliance with the AfD? The answers are, in a way, mind-blowing.
The Epoch Times bills itself as the “most widely published Chinese newspaper in the world.” Published in 21 languages and in 35 countries, the organization lays claim to a total circulation rate of 1.6 million. If you live in a major city in the United States, chances are good that you’ve encountered newspaper boxes bearing the brand on the street corner, alongside those of more mainstream publications.
In France, the Times gives an unfettered platform to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the patriarch of the French far right, and his daughter, Marine, who leads the nationalist party her father founded. After thousands rallied against anti-Semitism in France earlier this year, The Epoch Times France transcribed a YouTube video posted by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who thought there was no need for such a rally. More recently, the paper reported that Le Pen, dubbed “the Devil of the Republic,” believed—without evidence—that the Notre Dame fire was a criminal act.
After 51 worshippers were gunned down in a mosque in New Zealand, the Times ran a column by Trevor Loudon, an anticommunist zealot based in Christchurch whose books on Barack Obama as a secret Red attracted attention in the past from conservatives in the United States. Loudon argued that the shooter, Brandon Tarrant, wasn’t an extreme right-winger at all but rather a “National Bolshevik,” a curious mix of Nazi and communist ideologies.
But the Times has been especially successful in Germany. There, the newspaper’s site regularly ranks in the top 10 most active news sites on social media, according to a German social media tracking site.
Zhihong Zheng, editor-in-chief and managing director of The Epoch Times Germany, declined to answer written questions from The New Republic, describing them as “leading questions, marked by demonstrably incorrect allegations, vicious, falsifying conclusions, and libelous misrepresentations.”
“Epoch Times Germany is an independent news portal committed to the value of the free democratic constitutional order of the Federal Republic of Germany, preserving the dignity of all humans, independent of their origin, their beliefs, their political—or any other—orientation,” Zheng said in a written response in German. “Our employees work strictly according to recognized journalistic standards of high-quality media in a pluralistic society.”
Readership soared during the German refugee crisis of 2015, when the Times—previously a money-losing, anodyne news site focusing on China—began to exploit the strain that one million refugees, many from war-torn Syria, were placing on the country. Manyan Ng, the CEO of Epoch Times Europe GmbH, the site’s publisher, told a German business weekly that the number of visitors doubled and the Times began to turn a profit.
By 2017, the Times’ website had more than four million monthly visitors, according to IVW, the German audit bureau of circulation. A 2017 study by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a London-based think tank that counters extremism, found the Times primarily runs “anti-West, anti-American and pro-Kremlin content,” a high proportion of which was based on unverified information. The site “disseminates antidemocratic false news and conspiracy theories, incites hatred against migrants and indirectly advertises for the AfD.”
One 2017 story, with the sensational headline “Refugees with two wives in Germany: Both can get welfare” over a picture of two women in black hijabs, was shared nearly 62,000 times on Facebook, a study by the Technical University of Munich found. But the piece was nothing more than political clickbait carved out of an old piece of news—in this case, a ruling handed down by a local court 13 years earlier.
“The German media landscape is hard to enter and they managed to enter it by saying the things no one else is willing to say because it’s a taboo,” said Cornelius Puschmann, a researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Media Research who has studied the Times and its relationship to the AfD.
The Times’ willingness to say the unsayable has much to do with the unique nature of the newspaper’s staff. Albrecht, the German TV reporter, found that staff members, which included a physician and a fashion designer, had no training in journalism. They admitted they didn’t check facts, trusting instead in the alternative sources they consulted. “Every alternative source is a good one for them,” Albrecht said.
Ben Hurley, a former Falun Gong practitioner who helped launch The Epoch Times in Australia, said editorial direction for the newspaper typically came from New York. “We were to completely avoid coverage of anything to do with homosexuality,” he wrote in an online essay about his days as an unpaid volunteer at the newspaper. “There were also some specific people who we absolutely weren’t to cover. One was Hillary Clinton, who was seen as having sold herself out to the Chinese government. Another was Kofi Annan, then head of the United Nations, which had something to do with him being a ghost or devil in another dimension.”
It’s hard to understand what marching orders, if any, the German version of the Times is receiving from its editorial masters, because it appears to be willing to publish almost anything. One now-deleted story about Hillary Clinton fleeing to Bahrain lifted material from The Globe, a U.S. supermarket tabloid. Another “Pizzagate” story about a posting by an “anonymous FBI agent” on the 4chan website disappeared after The New Republic started asking questions. A Times report about a familiar anti-Semitic trope—the Rothschild family profiting from German refugees—was derived from Info-direkt, a conspiracy-driven website that Vice magazine traced to the extreme far-right in Austria. Sputnik, a Kremlin media outlet, is another source.
There was no conspiracy theory too strange for the staff of The Epoch Times Germany to believe, Albrecht found: chemtrail alarmism, Pizzagate, and discredited tales of children murdered by refugees all found a purchase on its pages. The paper wrote about Angela Merkel’s big migration plan to transform German society by introducing refugees, a version of the “great replacement” theory espoused in manifestos left by mass shooters. “They say the normal people are not ready to get in touch with all these theories so we just spread topics like that from time to time in little portions,” she said.
This style of thinking mirrors that of Li Honghzi, a former trumpet player from China who founded Falun Gong and now lives in upstate New York. Honghzi has told his disciples that he is speaking from a “higher understanding” that “differs from the theories of ordinary people.” In 1999, he told Time magazine that aliens taught humans science to control us spiritually. (He later said this was a Buddhist metaphor.) In his teachings, posted online on Falun Gong’s website, he has dismissed the theory of evolution, described mixed race children as “physically and intellectually incomplete” and listed homosexuality among “bad deeds.” Messages left with the Falun Dafa Information Center were not returned.
China has banned Falun Gong as an “evil cult” and has repressed its followers for years. There are reports that practitioners of Falun Gong have been detained, tortured, and even subjected to forced organ harvesting. Understandably, Falun Gong harbors deep resentment to China and Communism in general. In this way, The Epoch Times’ support of Trump makes sense. The president’s willingness to stand up to China leads devout practitioners to see him as a savior “sent by heaven to destroy the Communist Party,” Hurley, the Falun Gong apostate, told NBC News.
But the symbiotic relationship between The Epoch Times Germany and the AfD is puzzling. Why would a newspaper closely linked to Falun Gong, a group sensitive to the plight of fellow practitioners fleeing religious persecution in China, become a trusted source for a party that wants to protect Germany’s Christian culture, close the country’s borders, and turn away non-European immigrants? “Hardly any medium is as popular with AfD supporters as The Epoch Times,” Die Zeit, Germany’s biggest weekly newspaper, noted in 2017.
This is a question that will vex a logical thinker, for the answer has less to do with reason and more to do with belief. “They wouldn’t say they are working for or supporting the AfD,” said Boris Schumatsky, who analyzed The Epoch Times for the Institute of Strategic Dialogue. “They would say they are working for the truth. They are providing the people with alternative—and alternative always means better—facts.” What might look like conspiracy theories to most, Schumatsky explained, are “alternative facts” to them—all capable of illuminating a secret world beyond the ken of mainstream reporting.
Hurley, the former Falun Gong practitioner who broke with the group, wrote that the real purpose of the Times, like all of the group’s projects, was “purely evangelical, although perhaps not in the way evangelical Christians might understand.” He likened it to a “kind of giant PR campaign to warm people to Falun Gong but not necessarily to convert them.”
The Epoch Times Germany, then, isn’t really a newspaper at all. It’s not even really propaganda; it’s proselytizing—a vehicle for prying open minds. Once you believe in one conspiracy theory, the thinking goes, it’s easier to believe the next one, and so on, until one day the scales will fall from your eyes. Followers of Master Li’s teaching of a “higher understanding,” I was told, view it as their duty to help the world understand what they see as the true nature of the universe.
It’s not surprising then, that The Epoch Times would be read by AfD voters or the American alt-right. These groups have their own quasi-religious alternative truths; the Great Replacement theory, Jewish domination, and the “deep state” conspiracies all view the world from a god-like perspective where the actions of powerful, hidden actors are thrown into relief.
Immersion in this world, the thinking goes, will result in an awakening that American alt-right members proudly describe as “red-pilling,” a reference to the film The Matrix where the hero swallows a red pill that reveals the awful truth of the world to him. Followers of the QAnon conspiracy cult decipher delphic messages about a global conspiracy of powerful pedophiles left by their oracle “Q” on an Internet bulletin board. The left has its own quasi-religious beliefs, to be sure, but it lacks a U.S. president and the Fox News personalities breathing life into them.
It’s not a shared set of political ideas that brought a newspaper linked to the Falun Gong in league with the alt-right. What The Epoch Times has in common with the extreme right-wing in Germany, the United States, and elsewhere is a shared faith that they possess the higher understanding necessary to see the ugly truth about the world that’s hiding behind the curtain. It may sound like a difficult sell, but across Europe, people are buying it—and reshaping the political order.