The Epoch of Social Media
Facebook is supposed to be shining a light on entities that are attempting to influence the 2020 election on its platform. This is the purpose of the Facebook Ad Library, which catalogs any advertisements that Facebook deems are "related to politics or issues of national importance" and "appear on Facebook in the United States."
In addition to disclosing the ads themselves, Facebook requires "information about who paid for them." For example, this Trump ad is paid for by the Trump campaign.
This disclosure has enabled Popular Information to identify ads from the Trump campaign that blatantly violate Facebook rules -- ads that target users by gender or provide misleading information about border policy or the second amendment.
The scrutiny forced Facebook to take those Trump campaign ads offline. But the Trump campaign's political message did not disappear from Facebook. It just moved to darker corners, including an obscure publication called The Epoch Times.
The Epoch Times spends hundreds of thousands of dollars promoting pro-Trump videos
The Epoch Times, an obscure publication aimed at the Chinese diaspora, was one of the top three political spenders on Facebook in the last week in April. The paper outspent every presidential candidate except Biden and Trump himself, according to an analysis by Acronym.
The Epoch Times spent this money to promote stories that Trump's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has championed, including the New York Times story on "Spygate."
(They were not promoted by The Epoch Times primary Facebook page. Instead, they were funneled through a subsidiary page called "Coverage of the Trump Presidency by The Epoch Times." This made it harder to find the actual ads through the database.)
For example, this video features a smiling young man summarizing the New York Times story.
According to Facebook, The Epoch Times has spent almost as much on Facebook ads in the last week ($148,937) than the Trump campaign ($149,610).
Who is paying for The Epoch Times?
We are now deep down the rabbit hole of the Facebook Ad library. It is supposed to tell us who is paying for these ads. We've learned its The Epoch Times. But where does The Epoch Times get its money?
The Epoch Times is organized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit based in New York. That means it gets some of its funding from donors. Who are the donors? Under U.S. law, The Epoch Times is required to report them to the IRS but not required to make them public. So we don't know.
What does Facebook have to say about all this?
A Facebook spokesperson told Popular Information that the "challenge of transparency in political and issue advertising is one that extends beyond Facebook." The company noted that there are no "laws or federal agencies that list specific issues that are subject to regulation for digital ads."
Facebook acknowledged there was no foolproof way of tracking the original source of the funding for the ads placed by The Epoch Times or anyone else. "Facebook uses a variety of signals – like ensuring the currency is local and confirming a Facebook profile location – to determine whether the ads are coming from an authorized user in that country. If we determine that the ad is not coming from an advertiser located in the targeted country, it will be disapproved," the company said, "This problem isn’t limited to Facebook or new."
That's true. What is new is the ability of mysterious entities to reach millions of U.S. voters seamlessly.
What is The Epoch Times?
The Epoch Times is a newspaper that has long been linked to Falun Gong -- although The Epoch Times denies any official affiliation. The Epoch Times is banned in China, where Falun Gong is being persecuted, and distributed free in the United States and other locals around the world. It was founded in 2000 by John Tang and other Chinese Americans affiliated with the Falun Gong movement. It has been publishing in English since 2004.
It has also emerged as "one of the staunchest defenders of Donald Trump’s presidency," according to BuzzFeed.
In recent weeks, the newspaper...has published articles and graphics that would be a credit to Breitbart, promoting some of the most strident and paranoid claims from the Trump administration and its defenders.
In one tour de force infographic, published last week, the paper laid out in excruciating and sweeping detail the claim that “Spygate” — the claim that the real heart of the Russia investigation is illegal American spying on Trump’s campaign — is “the biggest political scandal in modern history.”
An updated version of the infographic has been featured in recent video ads by The Epoch Times on Facebook.
The Epoch Times has also praised a new move by the pro-Trump duo Diamond and Silk, interviewed obscure Republican candidates seeking to unseat Democrats, and claimed that Trump reads the paper daily.
An Epoch Times photographer created a controversy when she passed a folder to Trump in the White House. Many Epoch Times staffers are practitioners of Falun Gong who work for the paper part-time for little or no pay.
Is this even legal?
None of The Epoch Times' activities represent a clear violation of campaign finance law, Paul S. Ryan, an expert with Common Cause, told Popular Information. One reason is that there is a broad exemption for media. While The Epoch Times ads push Trump talking points, they also sell subscriptions.
This may say more about America's outmoded campaign finance laws than the propriety of The Epoch Times' activities. In 2016, Russia intervened in the election in part through its state-owned media outlets -- RT and Sputnik. This allowed Russia to skirt U.S. campaign law. But there is little difference between direct foreign intervention and a "media" company pushing government propaganda.
The Epoch Times, however, is different. It is an antagonist, not a mouthpiece, of the Chinese government. That may explain its attraction to Trump.
Why The Epoch Times loves Trump
The Epoch Times is written by people who are persecuted by the Chinese government. Trump is destabilizing the relationship between the U.S. and China through a trade war.
On Sunday, Trump "announced in two tweets...that he would raise American tariffs on Friday to 25 percent from 10 percent for $200 billion a year in Chinese goods. The Trump administration cited what it called backpedaling by Chinese officials during talks held last week in Beijing."
Tariffs are ultimately paid by American consumers, but they could also slow Chinese economic growth and make the current Chinese government less popular. A full-blown trade war could slow Chinese GDP growth by 1.2 to 1.5 percent.
"We see the Trump administration’s efforts to change socialist policies in America, as well as set policies to counter infiltration and subversion by China, as remarkable reversals from past policies, and sincere efforts that, if fully realized, will benefit America and the world as a whole," Jasper Fakkert, the Editor-in-Chief of The Epoch Times, said in an open letter responding to the BuzzFeed story.
Thanks for reading!