Epoch Media Casts Wider Net to Spread Its Message Online
Epoch Media Casts Wider Net to Spread Its Message Online
The company’s ties to more than a dozen sites illustrate how conservative media companies are branching out after Facebook and Twitter began stiffer policing of false information.Youmaker, a little-known video site, prominently featured a video alleging that a far-left extremist movement was plotting to destroy America.
On Sagebook, a Twitter-like social network filled with posts from right-leaning users, a sidebar of trending topics contained the hashtags for “Stop the Steal,” “Censorship” and “Facebook.”
And Right on Times, an obscure right-wing news aggregator, recently promoted favorable articles about Republican officials who refused to recognize Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory in the 2020 election.
All three are among about a dozen websites spreading misleading information with ties to the Epoch Media Group, a news organization that has become a top purveyor of conspiracy theories and political misinformation, according to data provided by the research group Advance Democracy and analyzed by Global Disinformation Index, a nonprofit that studies disinformation.
Youmaker hosts the videos on The Epoch Times website. Sagebook was recently used to run The Epoch Times’s comments system. When Right on Times launched a few months ago, numerous Epoch employees promoted the site on their social media feeds, and Right on Times ran many articles from Epoch properties. Researchers found that the other sites have digital fingerprints, like advertising identification tags, that match those used by Epoch Media properties.
The websites illustrate how conservative media organizations that spread misleading information, facing crackdowns by the largest social networks, are casting a wider net to reach online audiences. Epoch Media, which is affiliated with the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, regularly publishes anti-Chinese Communist Party content as well as conspiracy theory-laden articles about QAnon and unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
The biggest social media companies, like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, have taken steps to limit misinformation in recent months, removing thousands of accounts, including former President Donald J. Trump’s. Since then, many right-wing pundits moved to messaging services like Parler and Telegram, and media outlets publishing conservative points of view turned to other alternative services.
Epoch Media appears to be “anticipating a move by the bigger companies to push them off the more mainstream platforms,” said Joan Donovan, the research director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
The ownership of the websites is unclear. At least one, Youmaker, discloses a video partnership with the Epoch Media Group. Many others do not disclose any ties with Epoch. The Global Disinformation Index, a nonprofit research group, found the ties among the sites by analyzing their hosting records, website analytics and advertiser identifiers.
Right on Times does not disclose any partnership with Epoch, nor do the two websites share a unique digital identifier. But when it launched in October, its articles were posted on social media by Epoch employees. Right on Times also had a prominent ad campaign on Epoch properties, and it included many articles from Epoch properties on its service. Those actions led disinformation researchers, including those at the Global Disinformation Index, to conclude there was coordination.
Epoch Times said that Right on Times was one of its advertisers, and that Youmaker was an “independent business partner.” Sagebook, the company said, was being phased out. (The Sagebook site was no longer accessible as of last week.)
“The premise of your article is incorrect,” the company said in an email. “The Epoch Times does not deal in conspiracy theories. We pride ourselves on rigorous, fact-based reporting, which has attracted a large and rapidly growing audience.”
The largest media brand run by the Epoch Media Group remains The Epoch Times, which regularly publishes pro-Trump misinformation. In the past year, articles from The Epoch Times garnered 123.7 million likes and shares on social media, according to the social media analysis tool Buzzsumo. It has tens of millions of social media followers and has become a true rival of successful conservative outlets like The Daily Caller and Breitbart News. It now has dozens of international versions.
In 2019 and 2020, Facebook alleged links between The Epoch Times and brands including “The BL” and “Truth Media,” saying they were all part of the Falun Gong orbit. The brands operated hundreds of accounts that automatically published posts on Facebook at a rapid clip about conservative ideology and the 2020 election, as well as misinformation about the coronavirus. Eventually, Facebook ruled that many of those accounts violated its “coordinated inauthentic behavior” policies. The company removed them in two separate takedowns.
“We have clarified repeatedly that The Epoch Times has no relationship with The BL and Truth Media,” Epoch Media said.
Epoch began to make use of the alternative social media platforms, like Sagebook and Youmaker, in late 2020. Youmaker draws about 1.5 million unique visitors per month, according to data from the website analytics company SimilarWeb. Sagebook attracted 38,000 monthly visitors and Right on Times sees 15,000, according to SimilarWeb data.
While small, the audience has grown quickly. Compared with last November, in January Youmaker’s traffic had increased by 42 percent, Sagebook’s increased by nearly 300 percent, and Right on Times’s traffic had jumped 715 percent, according to SimilarWeb data.
Much of the content on the sites is shared from The Epoch Times. For months, the websites have pushed stories and videos amplifying unfounded allegations of mass voter fraud.
On Sagebook, a stream of stories favorable to Mr. Trump and denouncing President Biden dominated the social network at the beginning of the year. “#StopTheSteal. This election isn’t over,” read one post on Sagebook.
“Anti CCP caravan at the Million MAGA March in Washington D.C. #TAKEDOWNTHECCP #stopthesteal #ChinaJoe,” said another post. It included a picture of a car with a sign stuck to its roof that read: “CCP spread Covid-19. Say no to communism.”
In January, Youmaker’s most viewed video pushed a conspiracy about Ashli Babbit, who was shot by a Capitol Police officer as she and a group of Mr. Trump’s supporters swarmed the Capitol; it was viewed over 400,000 times. Youmaker also powers video on The Epoch Times website.
After the inauguration of President Biden on Jan. 20, the websites switched their focus to publishing articles that criticized Mr. Biden and his administration.
“In major speech, Biden reveals his deep misunderstanding of foreign policy,” said a headline collected by the news aggregator Right on Times. Another aggregated article highlighted comments from Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, in which he criticized Mr. Biden’s policy shift toward China as “disheartening.”
The money behind Epoch Media, like the funding behind the new ventures, remains cloudy. Former employees previously told The New York Times that The Epoch Times was financed by a combination of subscriptions, ads and donations from wealthy Falun Gong practitioners.
“There are only a few people in this world, and few entities or organizations in this world, that could potentially build the infrastructure that would rival the big mainstream social platforms,” Dr. Donovan, the disinformation researcher, said.
“It’s critical that we keep an eye on these cloaked infrastructures to make sure it’s clear who owns them, how they are managed and how they play into the rest of our information ecosystem,” she added.
The tech companies said they enforced their policies against Epoch Media properties on their platforms as needed. The social networks have a history of removing posts and links that have ties to accounts and publications that it has banned in the past. They say they will continue to be on the lookout for spam or coordinated inauthentic behavior from the new sites.
“We’ve taken enforcement actions against Epoch Media and related groups several times,” a Facebook spokesman, Andy Stone, said in a statement. “If we discover that Epoch is engaging in deceptive actions in the future we will enforce against them.”
“All publishers must abide by our policies,” said Michael Aciman, a spokesman for Google, which owns YouTube. YouTube recently suspended The Epoch Times from its partner program for violating its policies on controversial issues and sensitive events and harmful and dangerous acts, and prohibited it from earning advertising money on the platform. “If we find content that violates those policies, we take the appropriate action.”
Michael H. Keller, Jacob Meschke and Ben Decker contributed data analysis.
Correction: March 9, 2021
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the source of data on websites with ties to Epoch Media Group. The data was provided by Advance Democracy, a research group, and analyzed by the nonprofit Global Disinformation Index, not provided solely by GDI.
Davey Alba is a technology reporter covering disinformation. In 2019, she won a Livingston Award for excellence in international reporting and a Mirror Award for best story on journalism in peril. @daveyalba