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Is the news industry ready for another pivot to video?
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Oct. 26, 2020, 1:32 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   October 26, 2020

This website, August 21, 2019:

We at Nieman Lab have gotten the question from readers several times: What exactly is The Epoch Times? It publishes in more than 20 languages, including Slovak, Hebrew, and Ukrainian; it’s attached (or not attached?) to the Falun Gong movement and banned in China; it really seems to like Donald Trump. And it has free newspaper boxes on a lot of street corners in major cities — including one a block from our office here in Cambridge.

That story was prompted by this piece by NBC News’ dynamic disinformation duo, Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, looking at the strange rise of The Epoch Times, which was busy pushing QAnon and spending “more than $1.5 million on about 11,000 pro-Trump advertisements [on Facebook] in the last six months…more than any organization outside of the Trump campaign itself, and more than most Democratic presidential candidates have spent on their own campaigns.” A few months later, it came out that Epoch had spent $9.5 million on ads promoting a network of imaginary Americans (who were actually Vietnamese using AI-generated photos).

If you wanted to know more, this weekend was for you, with two new big stories giving a window into The Epoch Times and its strange role in this, er, epoch.

The New York Times’ Kevin Roose came out with a big investigation on the origin story for its pro-Trump strategy:

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.

That partisan news coverage has tipped into some dark places:

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.

Their Facebook strategy is by now a familiar one: gather likes with soft stuff and dollars, then pivot.

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.

For their part, The Epoch Times seems to believe the Chinese Communist Party is behind the Times piece.

The other big Epoch Times piece came from the Atavist Magazine, which published this piece by Oscar Schwartz on a poet-turned-staff-writer names Steven Klett, who was hired there in 2016.

The story of how he became a cog in a burgeoning propaganda machine — and why he stayed on even as the paper’s history and biases became clear — offers a glimpse into the right-wing news industry that has upended the media landscape. It’s a story about the perils of clickbait journalism and disinformation, and the consequences of apathy and alienation. It’s also about the Byzantine collection of interests that helped usher in the Trump presidency.

Klett said that during his stint at the Epoch Times, he had a front-row seat to the epistemic crisis triggered by Trump’s ascendancy, one that has made distinguishing truth from political fiction increasingly difficult.

When he worked there, The Epoch Times digital news team had six journalists, each expected to hit 100,000 pageviews a week on their stories: “The stories they wrote were short and required no original reporting—they were rewrites or pastiches of existing articles and press releases. The work was not particularly absorbing, but the atmosphere in the office was comfortable.”

Klett, who in conversations with me made reference more than once to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, imagined himself as a kind of postmodern information worker: He generated “content” the meaning and significance of which had nothing to do with him. It was a formal exercise, one that he was getting better at every day.

Meanwhile, the print staff “generally kept to themselves…Many of them seemed to be married to or seeing someone else on staff. They were workaholics, arriving each day before the digital team and leaving well after. Stranger still, many — if not all — of them were followers of Falun Gong.

Photo of an Epoch Times distribution point in Jerusalem in 2008 by Rahel Jaskow used under a Creative Commons license.

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