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Inside the Epically Murky ‘Epoch Times’ Ad Campaign

The full extent of the publication’s pro-Trump YouTube adgasm is hidden from view.
December 17, 2020
Inside the Epically Murky ‘Epoch Times’ Ad Campaign
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

If you’ve spent any time watching videos on YouTube, you surely have seen the ads from the Epoch Times, the “news source” of the Falun Gong, a Chinese cult that operates out of a compound in New York state.

Many of the ads feature a handsome, nerdy-looking fella named Roman Balmakov who might otherwise be cast as a Peter Parker-type in a low-rent Spider-Man spin-off, but has instead found himself rising through the ranks of an agitprop news outlet. In the ads he’s asking you to subscribe to the ET to learn about all the “real news” that the evil mainstream media has decided isn’t fit to print.

You know, things like:

  • The Chinese Communist Party’s dishonest track record [okay, cool . . .]
  • How Americans have lost their appreciation for traditional values [Okay, can see the value in this . . .]
  • The fact that Donald Trump is a brilliant leader who is being slandered by the media [record-scratch]
  • An inside look at how President Obama spied on Donald Trump in the greatest scandal in history [wait, this is not what I was . . .]
  • The shocking investigative report on how Chinese are harvesting the organs of Falun Gong members because their god-leader—who must be referred to exclusively as Master Li—has created exercises that make Falun Gong members’ spleens stronger than any spleens in the entire world [wtf just happened?]

So yeah, maybe when the Epoch Times ads say the publication offers the “real news”—

—they mean it with some artistic license. The way the movie Dodgeball was based on “a true underdog story.”

To say that the Epoch Times coverage of Trump is favorable would be an epochal understatement (or if you go based on Roman’s weird Keanu Reeves-esque pronunciation of the outlet, an “epic understatement”). In a recent interview with the New York Times, a former Epoch Times reporter said that the paper’s leadership has an “almost messianic view” of Trump. Former practitioners of the Falun Gong cult told NBC that Trump is helping to bring about a “judgment day” that will damn the Communists to hell.

In case you’re keeping score, we now have two different conspiracy-addled groups who each see Trump as ushering in a Götterdämmerung. The QAnons think Trump is breaking the Deep State and using The Storm to round up all the Satanic child pedophiles. The Falun Gong think Trump is destroying the Chicoms.

But funnily enough, even though the QAnons and the Falun Gongs are working from different conspiracy theories, they’re using the same playbook. For instance, this week the ET published an editorial call to invoke the Insurrection Act to force a “military audit” of the election and “arrest those who have conspired to deprive the people of their rights through election fraud.”

Where we go one we go all, I guess?

But here’s the thing: The QAnons aren’t organized enough to have their own house organ, which pretends for all the world to be a normal news outlet.

And the Falun Gongs do.

The Epoch Times has been around for two decades, but only really took off in the American consciousness over the last two years when Master Li issued his dogma about Prophet Trump. At which point—by coincidence—ET was able to go from being a fringe alt-news operation to a major presence on social media.

Last year, the Epoch Times got into a spot of bother with Facebook after it was discovered that they spent more money on pro-Trump advertising on the platform than any group except the Trump campaign itself. Which was kind of weird for a news source, right?

In an effort to avoid further scrutiny, the Epoch Times was then caught trying to go around the transparency rules for advertising by using sockpuppet accounts with super-subtle names such as “Pure American Journalism.” And for this, Facebook banned them.

Yet despite having some of their biggest accounts booted from the platform, they continue to drive big traffic through pages such as Epoch Times Canada and—according to a recent report from the New York Times—other linked pages such as “America Daily,” which has 1.1 million Facebook followers who are delivered content that runs the gamut from cat pics to COVID-19 trutherism.

Fortunately for Master Li, the Epoch Times has had no such problems on YouTube, where its propaganda ads run and run and run and run and run.

According to the Google ads library—which requires transparency around “election”-related ads—Epoch has spent over $2 million on the platform since 2018. You can see the ads that were reported here. They mostly relate to the ET’s breathless promotion of the Durham Report and some direct discussion of the campaign.

But other Epoch Times ads are missing from the archive thanks to a “carve-out” for “news” orgs advertising on YouTube.

Here’s a pre-roll ad that I was served on Monday of this week that doesn’t show up in the Google archive for ads that have run in December (the ad is listed as having run for two days in August). It features Mr. Handsome mansplaining to his sweet, innocent lady friend about how the countries that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic are the ones with the deepest ties to the Communists.

Epoch Times Advertisement

Which, given the infection and death totals in America, and our case fatality rate, probably says something about Donald Trump’s administration that the Epoch Times doesn’t intend. But whatever.

The point is, this ad has been running for the past few weeks, first appeared in May, and it’s not clear that we know how much money they have put behind it. When I asked YouTube about this, a company representative confirmed that all the ads “in the scope of their political ads policies” are in the report and could not “pinpoint” why some ads might not be in the report. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The same goes for this search ad—which lands you on an Epoch Times subscription page featuring hot endorsements from influencers such as Sean Hannity and Larry Elder and highlighting the paper’s work “at the forefront of exposing problems with the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign”—but doesn’t appear in the archive:

This has been happening for a while. In November, Mark Bergen of Bloomberg was served an Epoch Times ad that doesn’t show in Google’s political ad library on an “election fraud” video and was told later in the day that the ad was being removed from the video.

But that same screenshot appeared in an ad delivered to a different Twitter user four days later.

The Epoch Times has also taken its ad campaign international. Earlier this week a Canadian Twitter user reported seeing this ad about the aforementioned organ harvest, and in this truly enjoyable fisking of the Falun Gong, Canadian YouTuber J.J. McCullough reported that the Epoch Times is delivering hard copies of the paper unsolicited in Canada and is running ads all over YouTube in the Great White North.

While there isn’t any evidence that the Epoch Times is advertising on claims of voter fraud and election rigging, the “news” site that the ads take you to and the ET‘s main YouTube page are both replete with such claims. Despite promises by YouTube that such videos would be taken down.

So in summary here is what we know:

  • A foreign cult that thinks Donald Trump is on a messianic mission has a “news site” that has spent at least $2 million on YouTube ads since 2018, mostly in 2020.
  • This “news site” has called for a violent insurrection to keep Trump in power.
  • We have evidence that there are additional ads running on top of the $2 million that has been reported, but the extent of this buy is unknown.
  • This “news” organization has a history of using sockpuppets to avoid reporting the full extent of their ad spending.
  • Anecdata suggests that Epoch Times ads may be running at an unusually high volume as there are myriad complaints of this nature on Twitter and in the comments section of the YouTube videos.
  • The group behind the ads has seemingly unlimited resources and was the second-largest pro-Trump advertiser on Facebook before such ads were banned.
  • They believe the stakes are a literal apocalyptic battle between good and evil.

Kind of makes you wonder just how much money this “news” organization really poured into the election in order to boost Donald Trump.

The Falun Gong adgasm comes at a time when the big social media platforms are making big shows of their draconian crackdowns on political advertisers in the name of stunting “disinformation” and “fake news.” Political ads are now banned on many social media platforms and YouTube is among the few that are limiting the targeting capabilities of political ads in response to the moral panic.

But in what world does it make sense to throttle the advertising capabilities of a mayoral campaign in Dayton that’s trying to talk to voters about community issues, while allowing a fake news site run by a literal foreign cult that thinks the president is a tiny-fingered prophet ushering in the end times to spend unreported millions on their propaganda?

Because that’s the world that ET has landed on.

And it’s working out damn well for Master Li.

Not so much for the rest of us, though.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.