“There is no sense in avoiding or diluting the magnitude of this turn in our story: One major political party no longer accepts democracy.”
The author of this sentence is the former Obama White House speechwriter Ben Rhodes, writing recently in The Atlantic, but it could have flowed from the keyboard of a hundred different writers in the post-Trump, post-Jan. 6 era. That conservatism and the Republican Party have turned against government by the people, that only the Democratic Party still stands for democratic rule, is an important organizing thought of political commentary these days.
So let’s subject it to some scrutiny — and with it, the current liberal relationship to democracy as well.
First, there’s a sense in which conservatism has always had a fraught relationship to mass democracy. The fear of mob rule, of demagogues rallying the masses to destroy a fragile social order, is a common theme in many different right-wing schools of thought, showing up among traditionalist defenders of aristocracy and libertarians alike.
To these general tendencies, we can add two specifically American forms of conservative anxiety about the franchise: the fear of corrupt urban-machine politics that runs back through the 1960 presidential election to the age of Tammany Hall and the racist fear of African American political power that stamped the segregation-era South.
Because all these influences touch the modern G.O.P., conservative skepticism about mass democracy was a somewhat normal part of American politics long before Donald Trump came along — and some of what’s changed in the Trump era is just an events-driven accentuation of existing tendencies.
Republicans have long feared voter fraud and noncitizen voting, for instance, but the fear — and for liberals, the oft-discussed hope — that demographic change could deliver permanent Democratic power has raised the salience of these anxieties. Likewise, Republicans have long been more likely to portray America as a republic, not a democracy, and to defend our system’s countermajoritarian mechanisms. But today this philosophical tendency is increasingly self-interested, because shifts in party coalitions mean that those mechanisms, the Senate and Electoral College especially, advantage Republicans somewhat more than in the recent past.
But then things get complicated, because the modern Republican Party is also the heir to a strong pro-democracy impulse, forged in the years when Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon won crushing presidential-level majorities but conservatives felt themselves constantly balked by unelected powers, bureaucrats and judges especially.
This experience left the right deeply invested in the idea that it represents the true American majority — moral, silent, what have you — while liberalism stands for elite power, anti-democratic forms of government, the bureaucracy and the juristocracy and the Ivy League.
And that idea and self-image have remained a potent aspect of the right-wing imagination even as the old Nixon and Reagan majorities have diminished and disappeared: With every new age of grass-roots activism, from the Tea Party to the local-education revolts of today, the right reliably casts itself as small-d democrats, standing boldly athwart liberal technocracy singing “Yankee Doodle.”
Against this complicated backdrop, Trump’s stolen-election narratives should be understood as a way to reconcile the two competing tendencies within conservatism, the intellectual right’s skepticism of mass democracy and comfort with countermajoritarian institutions with the populist right’s small-d democratic self-image. In Trump’s toxic dreampolitik there’s actually no tension there: The right-wing coalition is justified in governing from a minoritarian position because it deserves to be a true electoral majority, and would be if only the liberal enemy weren’t so good at cheating.
So seen from within the right, the challenge of getting out from under Trump’s deceptions isn’t just a simple matter of reviving a conservative commitment to democracy. Trump has succeeded precisely because he has exploited the right’s more democratic impulses, speaking to them and co-opting them and claiming them for himself. Which means a conservative rival can’t defeat or replace him by simply accusing him of being anti-democratic. Instead the only plausible pitch would argue that his populism is self-limiting and that a post-Trump G.O.P. could win a more sweeping majority than the one his supporters want to believe he won already — one that would hold up, no matter what the liberal enemy gets up to.
But if that argument is challenging to make amid the smog of Trumpenkampf, so is the anti-Trump argument that casts American liberalism as the force to which anyone who believes in American democracy must rally. Because however much the right’s populists get wrong about their claim to represent a true American majority, they get this much right: Contemporary liberalism is fundamentally miscast as a defender of popular self-rule.
To be clear, the present Democratic Party is absolutely in favor of letting as many people vote as possible. There are no doubts about the mass franchise among liberals, no fears of voter fraud and fewer anxieties than on the right about the pernicious influence of low-information voters.
But when it comes to the work of government, the actual decisions that determine law and policy, liberalism is the heir to its own not exactly democratic tradition — the progressive vision of disinterested experts claiming large swaths of policymaking for their own and walling them off from the vagaries of public opinion, the whims of mere majorities.
This vision — what my colleague Nate Cohn recently called “undemocratic liberalism” — is a pervasive aspect of establishment politics not only in the United States but across the Western world. On question after controverted question, its answer to “Who votes?” is different from its answer to “Who decides?” In one case, the people; in the other, the credentialed experts, the high-level stakeholders and activist groups, the bureaucratic process.
Who should lead pandemic decision making? Obviously Anthony Fauci and the relevant public-health bureaucracies; we can’t have people playing politics with complex scientific matters. Who decides what your local school teaches your kids? Obviously teachers and administrators and education schools; we don’t want parents demanding some sort of veto power over syllabuses. Who decides the future of the European Union? The important stakeholders in Brussels and Berlin, the people who know what they’re doing, not the shortsighted voters in France or Ireland or wherever. Who makes important U.S. foreign policy decisions? Well, you have the interagency process, the permanent regional specialists and the military experts, not the mere whims of the elected president.
Or to pick a small but telling example recently featured in this newspaper, who decides whether an upstate New York school district gets to retain the Indian as its high school mascot? The state’s education commissioner, apparently, who’s currently threatening to cut funds to the school board that voted to keep it unless they reverse course.
Whereas the recent wave of right-wing populism, even when it doesn’t command governing majorities, still tends to champion the basic idea of popular power — the belief that more areas of Western life should be subject to popular control and fewer removed into the purview of unelected mandarins. And even if this is not a wise idea in every case, it is a democratic idea, whose widespread appeal reflects the fact that modern liberalism really does suffer from a democratic deficit.
Which is a serious problem, to put it mildly, for a movement that aspires to fight and win a struggle on behalf of democratic values. So just as a conservative alternative to Trump would need to somehow out-populist him, to overcome the dark side of right-wing populism, American liberalism would need to first democratize itself.
New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including the latest report from the Associated Press that shows no widespread voter fraud in 2020, the latest revelations from Congress’ Jan. 6 investigation, and how President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda is faring.
Washington (CNN) Two lawyers who went to court to claim voter fraud after the 2020 election must pay nearly $180,000 to the defendants they sued, a federal magistrate judge ordered Monday, saying their lawsuit aimed to “manipulate gullible members of the public and foment public unrest.”The order from Magistrate Judge N. Reid Neureiter of the US District Court in Colorado adds to the federal judiciary’s condemnations of attempts by attorneys supporting then-President Donald Trump to use the courts to vet right-wing conspiracies in the days after the presidential election.Attorneys Gary D. Fielder and Ernest John Walker will have to pay attorneys fees of $50,000 to Facebook (now Meta), about $63,000 to Dominion Voting Systems, about $63,000 to the non-profit Center for Tech and Civic Life, more than $6,000 to the state of Pennsylvania and nearly $5,000 to the state of Michigan.“They need to take responsibility for their misconduct,” Neureiter wrote in his order, adding that the lawsuit defamed the defendants.He continued: “I believe that rather than a legitimate use of the legal system to seek redress for redressable grievances, this lawsuit has been used to manipulate gullible members of the public and foment public unrest. To that extent, this lawsuit has been an abuse of the legal system and an interference with the machinery of government. For all these reasons, I feel that a significant sanctions award is merited.”The lawsuit from late December 2020 was an attempt to create a class action challenge to the election on behalf of American voters, including eight named plaintiffs. Neureiter previously wrote a scathing 68-page opinion condemning the post-election lawsuit.close dialogThe plaintiffs had no lawyers or experts that were able to support their claims of switched votes and government conspiracies, the judge noted, calling the lawsuit itself “one enormous conspiracy theory.”Neureiter’s earlier ruling was the first major consequence in federal court to befall lawyers and litigants who pushed Trump’s attempt to undermine the 2020 election result in court. Other courts are still considering penalties for other lawyers involved in the failed pro-Trump lawsuits.In August, a federal judge in Michigan sanctioned pro-Trump lawyers Sidney Powell and Lin Wood, as well as several other attorneys, ordering them to reimburse the attorneys’ fees that the city of Detroit and Michigan state officials paid in seeking the sanctions. The judge said the lawyers, who worked on Trump-aligned lawsuits seeking to challenge election results, had “engaged in litigation practices” that were “abusive and, in turn, sanctionable.”
Days before lawyers allied with Donald Trump gave a news conference promoting election conspiracy theories, his campaign had determined that many of those claims were false, court filings reveal.
Two weeks after the 2020 election, a team of lawyers closely allied with Donald J. Trump held a widely watched news conference at the Republican Party’s headquarters in Washington. At the event, they laid out a bizarre conspiracy theory claiming that a voting machine company had worked with an election software firm, the financier George Soros and Venezuela to steal the presidential contest from Mr. Trump.
But there was a problem for the Trump team, according to court documents released on Monday evening.
By the time the news conference occurred on Nov. 19, Mr. Trump’s campaign had already prepared an internal memo on many of the outlandish claims about the company, Dominion Voting Systems, and the separate software company, Smartmatic. The memo had determined that those allegations were untrue.
The court papers, which were initially filed late last week as a motion in a defamation lawsuit brought against the campaign and others by a former Dominion employee, Eric Coomer, contain evidence that officials in the Trump campaign were aware early on that many of the claims against the companies were baseless.
The documents also suggest that the campaign sat on its findings about Dominion even as Sidney Powell and other lawyers attacked the company in the conservative media and ultimately filed four federal lawsuits accusing it of a vast conspiracy to rig the election against Mr. Trump.
According to emails contained in the documents, Zach Parkinson, then the campaign’s deputy director of communications, reached out to subordinates on Nov. 13 asking them to “substantiate or debunk” several matters concerning Dominion. The next day, the emails show, Mr. Parkinson received a copy of a memo cobbled together by his staff from what largely appear to be news articles and public fact-checking services.
Even though the memo was hastily assembled, it rebutted a series of allegations that Ms. Powell and others were making in public. It found:
That Dominion did not use voting technology from the software company, Smartmatic, in the 2020 election.
That Dominion had no direct ties to Venezuela or to Mr. Soros.
And that there was no evidence that Dominion’s leadership had connections to left-wing “antifa” activists, as Ms. Powell and others had claimed.
As Mr. Coomer’s lawyers wrote in their motion in the defamation suit, “The memo produced by the Trump campaign shows that, at least internally, the Trump campaign found there was no evidence to support the conspiracy theories regarding Dominion” and Mr. Coomer.
Read the Trump campaign’s internal memo
Last November, communications staff members on the Trump campaign hastily assembled a memo examining outlandish election claims. The memo found that many of the allegations were baseless.
Even at the time, many political observers and voters, Democratic and Republican alike, dismissed the efforts by Ms. Powell and other pro-Trump lawyers like Rudolph W. Giuliani as a wild, last-ditch attempt to appease a defeated president in denial of his loss. But the false theories they spread quickly gained currency in the conservative media and endure nearly a year later.
It is unclear if Mr. Trump knew about or saw the memo; still, the documents suggest that his campaign’s communications staff remained silent about what it knew of the claims against Dominion at a moment when the allegations were circulating freely.
“The Trump campaign continued to allow its agents,” the motion says, “to advance debunked conspiracy theories and defame” Mr. Coomer, “apparently without providing them with their own research debunking those theories.”
Mr. Coomer, Dominion’s onetime director of product strategy and security, sued Ms. Powell, Mr. Giuliani, the Trump campaign and others last year in state district court in Denver. He has said that after the election, he was wrongly accused by a right-wing podcast host of hacking his company’s systems to ensure Mr. Trump’s defeat and of then telling left-wing activists that he had done so.
Soon after the host, Joe Oltmann, made these accusations, they were seized upon and amplified by Ms. Powell and Mr. Giuliani, who were part of a self-described “elite strike force” of lawyers leading the charge in challenging Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory.
On Nov. 19, for example, Ms. Powell and Mr. Giuliani appeared together at the news conference at the Republican National Committee’s headquarters and placed Mr. Coomer at the center of a plot to hijack the election by hacking Dominion’s voting machines. By Ms. Powell’s account that day, the conspiracy included Smartmatic, Venezuelan officials, people connected to Mr. Soros and a “massive influence of communist money.”
Ms. Powell and Mr. Giuliani did not respond to messages seeking comment on the documents. Representatives for Mr. Trump also did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Mr. Trump continues to falsely argue that the election was stolen from him, and in recent months Ms. Powell and Mr. Giuliani have stuck by their claims that the election was rife with fraud. A lawyer for Mr. Giuliani said in a court filing last month that at least some of his claims of election fraud were “substantially true.”
And as recently as three weeks ago, Ms. Powell told a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the 2020 election was “essentially a bloodless coup where they took over the presidency of the United States without a single shot being fired.”
It remains unclear how widely the memo was circulated among Trump campaign staff members. According to the court documents, Mr. Giuliani said in a deposition that he had not seen the memo before he gave his presentation in Washington, and he questioned the motives of those who had prepared it.
“They wanted Trump to lose because they could raise more money,” Mr. Giuliani was quoted as saying in the deposition.
Trump’s Bid to Subvert the ElectionCard 1 of 4
A monthslong campaign. During his last days in office, President Donald J. Trump and his allies undertook an increasingly urgent effort to undermine the election results. That wide-ranging campaign included perpetuating false and thoroughly debunked claims of election fraud as well as pressing government officials for help.
But at the time that the internal report was prepared, Mr. Giuliani and Ms. Powell were both “active supervisors,” as he put it in his deposition, in the Trump campaign’s broader plan to challenge the election results — an effort that eventually included more than 60 failed lawsuits filed across the country. While Ms. Powell soon went her own way in claiming that Dominion had conspired to steal the election, Mr. Giuliani continued working closely with Mr. Trump and his campaign, ultimately changing strategies and seeking to persuade state legislatures to overturn the popular vote.
The motion notes that “the lines were blurred” as to whom Ms. Powell was working for at the time: herself, her nonprofit organization or the Trump campaign. Almost immediately after she promoted the conspiracy theory about Dominion at the news conference in November, Mr. Trump sought to distance himself from her. But by December, as Mr. Trump’s legal options narrowed, the former president considered bringing her back into the fold and discussed whether to appoint her as a special counsel overseeing an investigation of voter fraud.
The release of the documents was only the latest legal trouble for Mr. Giuliani and Ms. Powell, both of whom have been sued directly by Dominion for defamation. Dominion has also brought a defamation suit against Mike Lindell, the chief executive of MyPillow, for amplifying false election claims. Last month, a federal judge in Washington ruled that the cases could continue moving toward trial.
About the same time, a federal judge in Detroit ordered penalties to be levied against Ms. Powell and eight other pro-Trump lawyers — Mr. Giuliani was not among them — who filed a lawsuit that sought to overturn the election results in Michigan using the false claims about Dominion.
“This case was never about fraud,” the judge, Linda V. Parker, wrote in her decision. “It was about undermining the people’s faith in our democracy and debasing the judicial process to do so.”
In June, a New York court suspended Mr. Giuliani’s law license, ruling that he had made “demonstrably false and misleading statements” while fighting the results of last year’s election for Mr. Trump.
Even recently, the new court documents say, former Trump campaign officials have continued to cling to the baseless notion that the election was marred by fraud.
When lawyers for Mr. Coomer asked Sean Dollman, a representative of the Trump campaign, in a deposition if the campaign still believed that the election was fraudulent, he answered, “Yes, sir.”
The lawyers then asked, “What is that opinion based on?”
According to the court documents, Mr. Dollman gave a less than certain answer.
“We have no underlying definite facts that it wasn’t,” he said.
Following the 2020 United States presidential election, Trump’s former lawyer, Sidney Powell, accused election technology companies Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic of rigging the election.
Donald Trump declared the vote was a “major fraud on the American people”.
Rather than face defeat, he and his allies began a campaign claiming the election had been stolen.
This conspiracy theory was then peddled by a number of high-profile Fox News anchors.
Now, Fox News and three of its stars are facing $4.3 billion in lawsuits from two voting technology companies.
Four Corners reporter Sarah Ferguson interviewed Sidney Powell and asked her to justify her claims.
The interesting things about the Kraken story are:
- it emerged, fully formed and with amazingly specific detail
- but with not a speck of evidence
- and with no suggestion of how and from where the story had emerged.
Additionally, the “Kraken” was not “unleashed” until the less outrageous myths (dead people, forged ballots, dumped ballots etc) had been thoroughly discredited.
I would suggest that the Kraken claim (which actually has no connection to any specifics of the election) had been developed months, even years earlier and kept in that glass-fronted cabinet labeled “In case of emergency, break glass”.
While the theory was outrageous and completely unprovable, it had one attractive feature – it could in a single stroke explain millions of “fake votes” in dozens of states.
In short, it was the final, desperate “Hail Mary” play.
Since 2016, the Falun Gong-backed newspaper has used aggressive Facebook tactics and right-wing misinformation to create an anti-China, pro-Trump media empire.
For years, The Epoch Times was a small, low-budget newspaper with an anti-China slant that was handed out free on New York street corners. But in 2016 and 2017, the paper made two changes that transformed it into one of the country’s most powerful digital publishers.
The changes also paved the way for the publication, which is affiliated with the secretive and relatively obscure Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, to become a leading purveyor of right-wing misinformation.
First, it embraced President Trump, treating him as an ally in Falun Gong’s scorched-earth fight against China’s ruling Communist Party, which banned the group two decades ago and has persecuted its members ever since. Its relatively staid coverage of U.S. politics became more partisan, with more articles explicitly supporting Mr. Trump and criticizing his opponents.
Around the same time, The Epoch Times bet big on another powerful American institution: Facebook. The publication and its affiliates employed a novel strategy that involved creating dozens of Facebook pages, filling them with feel-good videos and viral clickbait, and using them to sell subscriptions and drive traffic back to its partisan news coverage.
In an April 2017 email to the staff obtained by The New York Times, the paper’s leadership envisioned that the Facebook strategy could help turn The Epoch Times into “the world’s largest and most authoritative media.” It could also introduce millions of people to the teachings of Falun Gong, fulfilling the group’s mission of “saving sentient beings.”
Today, The Epoch Times and its affiliates are a force in right-wing media, with tens of millions of social media followers spread across dozens of pages and an online audience that rivals those of The Daily Caller and Breitbart News, and with a similar willingness to feed the online fever swamps of the far right.
It also has growing influence in Mr. Trump’s inner circle. The president and his family have shared articles from the paper on social media, and Trump administration officials have sat for interviews with its reporters. In August, a reporter from The Epoch Times asked a question at a White House press briefing.
It is a remarkable success story for Falun Gong, which has long struggled to establish its bona fides against Beijing’s efforts to demonize it as an “evil cult,” partly because its strident accounts of persecution in China can sometimes be difficult to substantiate or veer into exaggeration. In 2006, an Epoch Times reporter disrupted a White House visit by the Chinese president by shouting, “Evil people will die early.”
Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist and a former chairman of Breitbart, said in an interview in July that The Epoch Times’s fast growth had impressed him.
“They’ll be the top conservative news site in two years,” said Mr. Bannon, who was arrested on fraud charges in August. “They punch way above their weight, they have the readers, and they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
But the organization and its affiliates have grown, in part, by relying on sketchy social media tactics, pushing dangerous conspiracy theories and downplaying their connection to Falun Gong, an investigation by The Times has found. The investigation included interviews with more than a dozen former Epoch Times employees, as well as internal documents and tax filings. Many of these people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation, or still had family in Falun Gong.
Embracing Mr. Trump and Facebook has made The Epoch Times a partisan powerhouse. But it has also created a global-scale misinformation machine that has repeatedly pushed fringe narratives into the mainstream.
The publication has been one of the most prominent promoters of “Spygate,” a baseless conspiracy theory involving claims that Obama administration officials illegally spied on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. Publications and shows linked to The Epoch Times have promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory and spread distorted claims about voter fraud and the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently, they have promoted the unfounded theory that the coronavirus — which the publication calls the “CCP Virus,” in an attempt to link it to the Chinese Communist Party — was created as a bioweapon in a Chinese military lab.
The Epoch Times says it is independent and nonpartisan, and it rejects the suggestion that it is officially affiliated with Falun Gong.
Like Falun Gong itself, the newspaper — which publishes in dozens of countries — is decentralized and operates as a cluster of regional chapters, each organized as a separate nonprofit. It is also extraordinarily secretive. Editors at The Epoch Times turned down multiple requests for interviews, and a reporter’s unannounced visit to the outlet’s Manhattan headquarters this year was met with a threat from a lawyer.
Representatives for Li Hongzhi, the leader of Falun Gong, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did other residents of Dragon Springs, the compound in upstate New York that serves as Falun Gong’s spiritual headquarters.
Many employees and Falun Gong practitioners contacted by The Times said they were instructed not to divulge details of the outlet’s inner workings. They said they had been told that speaking negatively about The Epoch Times would be tantamount to disobeying Mr. Li, who is known by his disciples as “Master.”
The Epoch Times provided only partial answers to a long list of questions sent to its media office, and declined to answer questions about its finances and editorial strategy. In an email, which was not signed, the outlet accused The Times of “defaming and diminishing a competitor” and displaying “a subtle form of religious intimidation if not bigotry” by linking the publication to Falun Gong.
“The Epoch Times will not be intimidated and will not be silenced,” the outlet added, “and based on the number of falsehoods and inaccuracies included in the New York Times questions we will consider all legal options in response.”
Clarifying the Truth
Falun Gong, which Mr. Li introduced in China in 1992, revolves around a series of five meditation exercises and a process of moral self-improvement that is meant to lead to spiritual enlightenment. Today, the group is known for the demonstrations it holds around the world to “clarify the truth” about the Chinese Communist Party, which it accuses of torturing Falun Gong practitioners and harvesting the organs of those executed. (Tens of thousands across China were sent to labor camps in the early years of the crackdown, and the group’s presence there is now much diminished.)
More recently, Falun Gong has come under scrutiny for what some former practitioners have characterized as an extreme belief system that forbids interracial marriage, condemns homosexuality and discourages the use of modern medicine, all allegations the group denies.
When The Epoch Times got its start in 2000, the goal was to counter Chinese propaganda and cover Falun Gong’s persecution by the Chinese government. It began as a Chinese-language newspaper run out of the Georgia basement of John Tang, a graduate student and Falun Gong practitioner.
By 2004, The Epoch Times had expanded into English. One of the paper’s early hires was Genevieve Belmaker, then a 27-year-old Falun Gong practitioner with little journalism experience. Ms. Belmaker, now 43, described the early Epoch Times as a cross between a scrappy media start-up and a zealous church bulletin, with a staff composed mostly of unpaid volunteers drawn from the local Falun Gong chapters.
“The mission-driven part of it was, let’s have a media outlet that not only tells the truth about Falun Gong but about everything,” Ms. Belmaker said.
Mr. Li, Falun Gong’s founder, also saw it that way. In speeches, he referred to The Epoch Times and other Falun Gong-linked outlets — including the New Tang Dynasty TV station, or NTD — as “our media,” and said they could help publicize Falun Gong’s story and values around the world.
Two former employees recalled that the paper’s top editors had traveled to Dragon Springs to meet with Mr. Li. One employee who attended a meeting said Mr. Li had weighed in on editorial and strategic decisions, acting as a kind of shadow publisher. The Epoch Times denied these accounts, saying in a statement, “There has been no such meeting.”
The line between The Epoch Times and Falun Gong is blurry at times. Two former Epoch Times reporters said they had been asked to write flattering profiles of foreign performers being recruited into Shen Yun, the heavily advertised dance performance series that Falun Gong backs, because it would strengthen those performers’ visa applications. Another former Epoch Times reporter recalled being assigned to write critical articles about politicians including John Liu, a Taiwanese-American former New York City councilman whom the group viewed as soft on China and hostile to Falun Gong.
These articles helped Falun Gong advance its goals, but they lured few subscribers.
Matthew K. Tullar, a former sales director for The Epoch Times’s Orange County edition in New York, wrote on his LinkedIn page that his team initially “printed 800 papers each week, had no subscribers, and utilized a ‘throw it in their driveway for free’ marketing strategy.” Mr. Tullar did not respond to requests for comment.
Ms. Belmaker, who left the paper in 2017, described it as a bare-bones operation that was always searching for new moneymaking ventures.
“It was very short-term thinking,” she said. “We weren’t looking more than three weeks down the road.”
A Trump Pivot
By 2014, The Epoch Times was edging closer to Mr. Li’s vision of a respectable news outlet. Subscriptions were growing, the paper’s reporting was winning journalism awards, and its finances were stabilizing.
“There was all this optimism that things were going to level up,” Ms. Belmaker said.
But at a staff meeting in 2015, leadership announced that the publication was in trouble again, Ms. Belmaker recalled. Facebook had changed its algorithm for determining which articles appeared in users’ newsfeeds, and The Epoch Times’s traffic and ad revenue were suffering.
In response, the publication assigned reporters to churn out as many as five posts a day in a search for viral hits, often lowbrow fare with titles like “Grizzly Bear Does Belly Flop Into a Swimming Pool.”
“It was a competition for traffic,” Ms. Belmaker said.
As the 2016 election neared, reporters noticed that the paper’s political coverage took on a more partisan tone.
Steve Klett, who covered the 2016 campaign for the paper, said his editors had encouraged favorable coverage about Mr. Trump after he won the Republican nomination.
“They seemed to have this almost messianic way of viewing Trump as the anti-Communist leader who would bring about the end of the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Klett said.
After Mr. Trump’s victory, The Epoch Times hired Brendan Steinhauser, a well-connected Tea Party strategist, to help make inroads with conservatives. Mr. Steinhauser said the organization’s goal, beyond raising its profile in Washington, had been to make Falun Gong’s persecution a Trump administration priority.
“They wanted more people in Washington to be aware of how the Chinese Communist Party operates, and what it has done to spiritual and ethnic minorities,” Mr. Steinhauser said.
All In on Facebook
Behind the scenes, The Epoch Times was also developing a secret weapon: a Facebook growth strategy that would ultimately help take its message to millions.
According to emails reviewed by The Times, the Facebook plan was developed by Trung Vu, the former head of The Epoch Times’s Vietnamese edition, known as Dai Ky Nguyen, or DKN.
In Vietnam, Mr. Trung’s strategy involved filling a network of Facebook pages with viral videos and pro-Trump propaganda, some of it lifted word for word from other sites, and using automated software, or bots, to generate fake likes and shares, a former DKN employee said. Employees used fake accounts to run the pages, a practice that violated Facebook’s rules but that Mr. Trung said was necessary to protect employees from Chinese surveillance, the former employee said.
Mr. Trung did not respond to requests for comment.
According to the 2017 email sent to Epoch Times workers in America, the Vietnamese experiment was a “remarkable success” that made DKN one of the largest publishers in Vietnam.
The outlet, the email claimed, was “having a profound impact on saving sentient beings in that country.”
The Vietnamese team was asked to help Epoch Media Group — the umbrella organization for Falun Gong’s biggest U.S. media properties — set up its own Facebook empire, according to that email. That year, dozens of new Facebook pages appeared, all linked to The Epoch Times and its affiliates. Some were explicitly partisan, others positioned themselves as sources of real and unbiased news, and a few, like a humor page called “Funniest Family Moments,” were disconnected from news entirely.
Perhaps the most audacious experiment was a new right-wing politics site called America Daily.
Today, the site, which has more than a million Facebook followers, peddles far-right misinformation. It has posted anti-vaccine screeds, an article falsely claiming that Bill Gates and other elites are “directing” the Covid-19 pandemic and allegations about a “Jewish mob” that controls the world.
Emails obtained by The Times show that John Nania, a longtime Epoch Times editor, was involved in starting America Daily, along with executives from Sound of Hope, a Falun Gong-affiliated radio network. Records on Facebook show that the page is operated by the Sound of Hope Network, and a pinned post on its Facebook page contains a promotional video for Falun Gong.
In a statement, The Epoch Times said it had “no business relationship” with America Daily.
Many of the Facebook pages operated by The Epoch Times and its affiliates followed a similar trajectory. They began by posting viral videos and uplifting news articles aggregated from other sites. They grew quickly, sometimes adding hundreds of thousands of followers a week. Then, they were used to steer people to buy Epoch Times subscriptions and promote more partisan content.
Several of the pages gained significant followings “seemingly overnight,” said Renee DiResta, a disinformation researcher with the Stanford Internet Observatory. Many posts were shared thousands of times but received almost no comments — a ratio, Ms. DiResta said, that is typical of pages that have been boosted by “click farms,” firms that generate fake traffic by paying people to click on certain links over and over again.
The Epoch Times denies using click farms or other illicit tactics to expand its pages. “The Epoch Times’s social media strategies were different from DKN, and used Facebook’s own promotional tools to gain an increased organic following,” the outlet said, adding that The Epoch Times cut ties with Mr. Trung in 2018.
But last year, The Epoch Times was barred from advertising on Facebook — where it had spent more than $1.5 million over seven months — after the social network announced that the outlet’s pages had evaded its transparency requirements by disguising its ad purchases.
This year, Facebook took down more than 500 pages and accounts linked to Truth Media, a network of anti-China pages that had been using fake accounts to amplify their messages. The Epoch Times denied any involvement, but Facebook’s investigators said Truth Media “showed some links to on-platform activity by Epoch Media Group and NTD.”
“We’ve taken enforcement actions against Epoch Media and related groups several times,” said a Facebook spokeswoman, who added that the social network would punish the outlet if it violated more rules in the future.
Since being barred from advertising on Facebook, The Epoch Times has moved much of its operation to YouTube, where it has spent more than $1.8 million on ads since May 2018, according to Google’s public database of political advertising.
Where the paper’s money comes from is something of a mystery. Former employees said they had been told that The Epoch Times was financed by a combination of subscriptions, ads and donations from wealthy Falun Gong practitioners. In 2018, the most recent year for which the organization’s tax returns are publicly available, The Epoch Times Association received several sizable donations, but none big enough to pay for a multimillion-dollar ad blitz.
Mr. Bannon is among those who have noticed The Epoch Times’s deep pockets. Last year, he produced a documentary about China with NTD. When he talked with the outlet about other projects, he said, money never seemed to be an issue.
“I’d give them a number,” Mr. Bannon said. “And they’d come back and say, ‘We’re good for that number.’”
‘The Moral Objective Is Gone’
The Epoch Times’s pro-Trump turn has upset some former employees, like Ms. Belmaker.
Ms. Belmaker, now a freelance writer and editor, still believes in many of Falun Gong’s teachings, she said. But she has grown disenchanted with The Epoch Times, which she sees as running contrary to Falun Gong’s core principles of truth, compassion and tolerance.
“The moral objective is gone,” she said. “They’re on the wrong side of history, and I don’t think they care.”
Recently, The Epoch Times has shifted its focus to the coronavirus. It pounced on China’s missteps in the early days of the pandemic, and its reporters wrote about misreported virus statistics and Chinese influence in the World Health Organization.
Some of these articles were true. But others pushed exaggerated or false claims, like the unproven theory that the virus was engineered in a lab as part of a Chinese biological warfare strategy.
Some of the claims were repeated in a documentary that both NTD and The Epoch Times posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than five million times. The documentary features the discredited virologist Judy Mikovits, who also starred in the viral “Plandemic” video, which Facebook, YouTube and other social platforms pulled this year for spreading false claims.
The Epoch Times said, “In our documentary we offered a range of evidence and viewpoints without drawing any conclusions.”
Ms. Belmaker, who still keeps a photo of Master Li on a shelf in her house, said she recoiled whenever an ad for The Epoch Times popped up on YouTube promoting some new partisan talking point.
One recent video, “Digging Beneath Narratives,” is a two-minute infomercial about China’s mishandling of the coronavirus. The ad’s host says The Epoch Times has an “underground network of sources” in China providing information about the government’s response to the virus.
It’s a plausible claim, but the video’s host makes no mention of The Epoch Times’s ties to Falun Gong, or its two-decade-long campaign against Chinese communism, saying only that the paper is “giving you an accurate picture of what’s happening in this world.”
“We tell it like it is,” he says.