As COVID-19 began to spread, I tuned into the nightly newscast of China Daily to watch what was happening inside the secretive country. They did an excellent job of showing videos that portrayed the country's situation as dire while documenting its existing regime's lies. It was clear that the news outlet had an anti-Xi bias because they called it the CCP virus. The CCP is one of the evilest regimes in existence, so I didn't mind the bias or alternative perspective. After a search, I learned that the Epoch Times was run by adherents of Falun Gong.
On the surface, this group founded in 1992 has a lot of merits. First, it opposes the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, many of its members suffer torture or abductions as a result. It is hard to resist supporting oppressed people.
Secondly, it has a standard new age belief system. From Wikipedia: "Falun Gong combines meditation and qigong ('Qi/Chi cultivation') exercises with a moral philosophy. The practice emphasizes morality and the cultivation of virtue, and identifies as a practice of the Buddhist school, though its teachings also incorporate elements drawn from Taoist traditions. Through moral rectitude and the practice of meditation, practitioners of Falun Gong aspire to eliminate attachments, and ultimately to achieve spiritual enlightenment."
Headquartered in Deerpark, New York on a 400-acre compound, hundreds of adherents study the beliefs of Li Hongzhi. Born in China, he became a permanent US Resident in 1998. Much of what we know about him comes from either hagiography by followers or the Chinese government. Since 2000, he has increasingly retreated from the public eye, and biographies of him are no longer pushed by Falun Gong. He is either a virtuous man that comes from a long line of holy men, or he's an unremarkable phony.
He does have some strange beliefs. According to the book "Cults in Our Midst," many families of adherents report that Falun Gong followers are encouraged to disconnect from their families. When families do speak to their young loved ones, they're met with a string of sayings by Li. Li according to the author "has declared himself to be above normal mortals, an enlightened being who has assumed human form to walk the earth and offer salvation, or "consummation," to his disciples." Leaders in the group still "claim that Master Li is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent; can see the future and heal the sick; can actually fly, on and off the Earth; and has other supernatural qualities and skills.
As evidenced by the Epoch Times reporting on vaccines, they have beliefs similar to other cult groups when it comes to doctors. Again from "Cults in Our Midst," "One particular worry some relative have is that their kin may have terminated needed medical treatment for a serious disorder because Falun Gong strongly discourages going to a doctor. Followers believe that the practice and the belief can prevent illness by helping them to reach "higher levels."
In the 1990s, he declared the following, as identified by "Cults":
The moon is hollow and was created by prehistoric humans.
There was a large-scale nuclear reactor built on Earth two billion years ago, which operated for about five hundred thousand years.
The Pyramids were not built by the Egyptians.
There are people who live in the sea and look like us, but with gills.
Some of us will be able to go higher plane, but many won't. Those who are left behind will become more and more corrupt, and there's no way out for them but to be annihilated, lest they pollute the Earth.
Aliens have come from other planets to invade the human mind and corrupt mankind.
Cult expert Margaret Thaler Singer, author of the book being quoted offers this assessment: "Personally, I have no doubt that Falun Gong has many of the characteristics of a true cult, including utter obedience to a charismatic leader, coercive thought control, financial exploitation of its followers, a doomsday prediction that promises salvation only through total obedience and subservience to the cult leader, zero tolerance for dissent, and a very strict organization from which it is difficult to escape."
This brings us to the Epoch Times. Launched in 2000 in a basement, Georgia graduate student John Tang and other members of the Falun Gong sect wanted to shed light on the repression of their beliefs by the CCP. While banned in China, it has expanded to multiple countries and a large presence on various platforms with different brands like the China Daily program I mentioned earlier. The news outlet generally avoided US Politics until 2016, when it began supporting Donald Trump. They became the second-largest advertiser of pro-Trump causes on Facebook after the Trump campaign itself.
The business has boomed in the Trump era. According to NBC, It's growth "appears to have occurred alongside the 2017 arrival of a new vice president at The Epoch Times, Chris Kitze, and huge jumps in the paper’s revenue from $3.8 million in 2016 to $8.1 million in 2017 and $12.4 million in 2018." It has also been funded by Robert Mercer, who funded Breitbart and other right-wing publications.
Kitze runs a crypto hedge fund, and ran "Before It's News." In its heyday, it was in league with Natural News and Infowars. In other words, if you shared one of their links, friends would shame you for it. (This was the system of fact-checking that worked best on social platforms. What's happening now isn't.)
This begs the question, "Why are they a better source of information than the Washington Post?" To call their beliefs odd is to undermine the integrity of the word. The spiritual leader of this group has a tenuous relationship with truth and basic historical facts, and they have a financial stake in being pro-Trump. The same can be said of Alex Jones. Why is he credible when he openly admits on his show his struggles with alcohol and told Joe Rogan that he believes in interdimensional shape-shifting aliens?
This year has shown the peril and promise of new media. Alternative media has become an important check and balance on mainstream media. The existence of digital outlets forced mainstream media to either get better, like the New York Times or to drop the mask totally and descend into unapologetic partisanship, like CNN.
Platforms like Substack allow independent journalists or opinion journalists to find a freedom that isn't allowed at an institutional brand. There are dangers to it. Intellectuals need guardrails and pushback, or else they spin off into some weird places. Journalists need editors. Bloggers and podcasters need commenters to push back when they get it wrong.
Glenn Greenwald is not going to be stronger as a journalist outside of the intercept. He is going to drift further into strange places because no one is telling him he's out of bounds. Eventually, he will become so disconnected from the conversation that his site will become an author and a group of readers that push each other further and further into bizarre places. Isolation is not healthy for intellectual pursuits.
I checked out of Trump news, and the outlets devoted to him, a month ago of our exhaustion, busyness, and a desire to move on from someone that is no longer all that relevant. Once a week, I will accidentally run across this ecosystem, and things keep getting more deluded and bizarre.
Why? Many alternative media outlets have stopped listening to pushback, especially those on the right. Tools like "Trump Derangement Syndrome," "Red Pill/Blue Pill," calling differing opinions "The Cathedral", and the use of outrage at hypocrisy (especially the mainstream media) have become essential tools to keep audiences from listening to dissenting voices.
A grain of truth is distorted to look like a silo full of said grains. Outlets like the Epoch Times have become "true" sources of news, while experts sharing information in the New York Times are globalists grifters hellbent on domination. Why should we trust alternative media outlets more than the Times or the Post? Why does Tim Pool, Andy Ngo, or members of the Intellectual Dark Web get a pass from being self-interested and biased?
The New York Times is biased towards the left and the elites, but it has a rigorous editorial process that the Epoch Times or Alex Jones does not. Journalistic institutions are going to exist whether Trump is President or not. A lot of alternative media has turned into fan service for the Trump movement because it's a profitable business.
There's now a financial imperative that Trump remains in power for much of right-wing media. Once Trump is powerless and it is admitted that he is unpopular, they're sunk. If the other team is in power, they might be held accountable for pushing bullshit by either their audience or other media outlets. Keeping the reality distortion field in place is existential. The further from reality they drift, the higher the stakes become.
When evaluating information, I always try to understand both the foundational principles and financial motivations of the sources I look at. Be wary of any source offering secret knowledge. They're usually con artists looking to manipulate their audience for money or power.