The Epoch Times was founded by Chinese-American adherents to a spiritual movement and meditation practice known as Falun Gong. That news outlet has in recent years, as reported by BuzzFeed News and NBC News, transformed into a misinformation-laden, pro-Trump mouthpiece. After Facebook banned The Epoch Times from buying ads on that social media network in the summer of 2019, several “sock-puppet pages” popped up promoting Epoch Times content without disclosure. Facebook banned these pages from ad buys as well in August, following NBC News’ follow-up reporting.
Here, Snopes reports on a pro-Trump media network whose reach is rapidly expanding on Facebook and is linked in multiple ways to The Epoch Times. This outlet, which goes by the name The BL (The Beauty of Life) and first appeared around 2016, is a large international operation. It has a prodigious social media presence on Facebook that can be linked to at least 82 Facebook groups and pages representing a total of over 28 million followers. The site has spent at least $510,698 on Facebook ad buys with pro-Trump content and other promotions. Its staff members also appear to be cultivating several Trump-specific Facebook pages and groups and covertly administering them under the umbrella of The BL, in most cases without disclosure.
Despite the fact that the CEO of the company that owns The BL was once the CEO of Epoch Times Vietnam, and despite the fact that The BL's editor-in-chief is a former editor-in-chief of The Epoch Times English language edition, an unnamed representative of The BL told us by email that “The BL has NO connection with The Epoch Times.” Similarly, The Epoch Times’ publisher, Stephen Gregory, told us by email that “The Epoch Times is not affiliated with the BL.” Such statements, we believe, are not reflective of reality.
The Falun Gong Media Empire
The Epoch Times was founded in 2000 by followers of the Falun Gong movement. Falun Gong, according to its adherents, is “an ancient ... way for improving mind and body” which includes meditation and other exercises along with spiritual teachings. “At the core of these teachings are the values of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance,” a post by the non-profit Friends of Falun Gong stated. However, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Beijing declared Falun Gong an evil cult and launched a brutal crackdown on its practitioners in China” In 1999. This investigation is not about the Falun Gong movement or its practices, but about media properties linked to the movement.
According to a 2004 description on their website, the inspiration for The Epoch Times’ founding was a “response to the growing need for uncensored coverage of events in China.” As part of an effort to raise awareness about their cause and persecution, Falun Gong followers created a global web of media entities, including a newspaper, a television station, and a radio station: The Epoch Times, New Tang Dynasty TV (NTD TV), and Sound of Hope Radio. Starting in 2016, these companies began to dedicate significant resources to entering the pro-Trump media market.
“Before 2016, The Epoch Times generally stayed out of U.S. politics, unless they dovetailed with Chinese interests,” NBC News reported in August 2019. “The publication’s recent ad strategy, coupled with a broader campaign to embrace social media and conservative U.S. politics — Trump in particular — has doubled The Epoch Times’ revenue ... and pushed it to greater prominence in the broader conservative media world.” From a raw numbers perspective, the paper’s support of Trump is prolific. On Facebook, The Epoch Times has “spent more money on pro-Trump ... advertisements than any group other than the Trump campaign,” NBC stated.
The Epoch Times’ actions have also drawn the scrutiny of Facebook, who in July 2019 began to ban some Epoch Times Facebook pages from running political ads. “Over the past year we removed accounts associated with the Epoch Times for violating our ad policies, including trying to get around our review systems," a Facebook spokesperson told NBC news. To circumvent this hurdle, The Epoch Times used “sock-puppet” Facebook accounts to direct users to generically named URLs such as genuinenewspaper.com and truthandtradition.news which then redirected those users to The Epoch Times' subscription page, NBC News reported. This work-around appears to have been shut down by Facebook by August 2019.
A response to NBC News’ reporting in the form of an open letter first published on the Falun Gong website faluninfo.net accused NBC reporters Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins of presenting “distortions that track very closely to official Chinese communist party propaganda points.” This open letter was published on NTD.com, The Epoch Times website, and — notably — TheBL.com.
The Many, Many Connections Between The BL and The Epoch Times
The assertion that “The BL has no connection with The Epoch Times” strains credulity for several reasons. The BL -- which we again note stands for “The Beauty of Life” -- is owned by a company first registered in California as Beauties of Life, Inc. in 2016. The company later switched its state of incorporation to Wyoming and its name to The Beauty of Life, Inc. Two individuals are named in the Wyoming corporate documents as directors of the company: Trung Vu and John Nania. Trung Vu had been the CEO of the Vietnamese edition of The Epoch Times and later worked for the related NTD TV. John Nania served as editor in chief at The Epoch Times English edition from 2004 to 2015 and later for a website, America Daily, that was run by another Falun Gong-linked media operation: Sound of Hope Radio Network:
In response to a followup email in which we listed several apparent connections between The BL and The Epoch Times, an unnamed person at The BL told us that “Our CEO Trung Vu was the CEO of Epoch Times Vietnam from 2014, and had been working for NTD Television from mid 2016 to the end of 2017. He left NTD and has been fully working on The BL after that.”
Despite claims of total corporate independence between The BL and Epoch Times properties, Vu used his NTD email address when he registered The Beauty of Life, Inc. in 2019 — two years after he allegedly left NTD TV. “The email in the document is his old email address, it doesn't mean The BL is a property of NTD or has connection with NTD Television company,” The BL explained, without explaining how or why the email address had been used as recently as January 2019, two years after Vu was said to have left NTD.
The BL also asserted in their email that their “servers and network infrastructure are ... own[ed] by The BL.” But at least one server used by The BL at the time of this writing was registered to Epoch Times Vietnam by Trung Vu — another fact we raised for which we did not receive a direct response. Like the email address used in corporate documents, Vu chose to use this contact information despite the fact that the server was registered well after Beauties of Life, Inc. had been incorporated as its own company.
The Middletown, New York, address listed for The BL is not without its own connections to Falun Gong associated media, either. Based on public record searches performed by Snopes, that location is linked to or owned by the Falun Gong “Sound of Hope Radio Network.” As it turns out, this connection may be because the same address was once the location of a production studio used by well-known Falun Gong YouTuber Mikey Chen, who produces the shows “Beyond Science” and “Strictly Dumpling,” among others. Until he left this studio and created what may be his own media company, these shows were produced by the Sound of Hope Radio Network, Inc. according to employee descriptions of their work which we found on LinkedIn:
A video tour of the actual office in question, in which at least two people we identify as past writers for The Epoch Times are introduced, is available on Chen’s YouTube channel and matches real estate photographs advertising the Middletown property. “The BL is ... not a company or property of Sound of Hope Radio Network, we rent the office in Middletown NY,” The BL told us, without disclosing from whom they rented it.
A suspiciously large number of The BL's editorial staff members are currently or were previously in the employ of The Epoch Times. The managing editor of The BL, Orysia McCabe, at the time of this writing listed her current employer on LinkedIn as The Epoch Times. The page manager of the The BL's main Facebook page, Margaret Trey, was a health and wellness writer for The Epoch Times and a writer for NTD TV.
Several political writers or commentators have a similar background. Angela Anderson, an on-camera host for The BL, wrote for Epoch Times until June 2019. Matt Tullar, another on-camera host and commentator, was once the director of circulation for The Epoch Times and lists his current job on LinkedIn as sales & marketing director for the Orange County edition of The Epoch Times. Gregory, the Epoch Times publisher, told us “Tullar stopped working for The Epoch Times in October 2016. The Orange County edition of The Epoch Times closed years ago.”
Chris Ford, The BL’s politics editor, wrote for The Epoch Times until August 2019. Several other of The BL's political reporters come from The Epoch Times as well. A “few of our staff has job experience ... working in The Epoch Times, but now they are working full time in The BL,” The BL explained to us via email.
On at least one occasion a video about the persecution of Falun Gong posted on the Epoch Times website displayed an overt link between NTD TV, Epoch Times, and The BL — all three were listed as sponsors in the video's credits. Asked why all three entities were included at the end of the video if no connection existed between The BL and the other two companies, Stephen Gregory, The Epoch Times' publisher, told us that “the video was an external production and lists media companies who promoted the production.”
The BL, for their part, reiterated in their second email to us that “The BL is a separate company and independent from The Epoch Times, not a property of The Epoch Times or [connected] with [them]. It is just different media company with [a] different vision.”
A “Different Vision”
“The BL,” according to the About section of their Facebook page, “is like a pure mountain spring, moistening the heart of every reader. It aims to plant the seeds of sincerity, goodness, and tolerance deep into the soul, so that it may grow and prosper.” Their mission, they state, is “to present to the world the most beautiful aspects of life [by focusing] on content that represents fundamental moral standards and values.” Vague aphorisms aside, The BL — like The Epoch Times — is a hotbed of fervent Trump fandom.
“We're proud to show our support for this president and we choose to report on the many positive outcomes and values-based direction this presidency is going,” BL video host Rich Crankshaw explained in a Facebook ad for The BL. “The mainstream media serves to instill fear and hate into the hearts of their followers ... Instead of just reporting the facts, we aim to balance that negativity with The BL, the beauty of life, and the greatness of this nation.”
Editorially, The BL provides the same fawning coverage of Trump as The Epoch Times, content which serves to amplify White House talking points and proffer (or repost) pro-Trump takes on White House scandals. The BL, for example, has attempted to discredit the Ukraine whistleblower as part of a George Soros conspiracy and has pushed the conspiracy theory that the Clinton family kills their political enemies. At least one BL-owned Facebook page has promoted the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory. Sometimes cutting out the middleman entirely, The BL directly reposts unedited statements from the White House, as they did for their anti-Mueller post “The 2-year, $25 million witch hunt.”
From an advertising perspective, The BL's approach also appears indistinguishable from The Epoch Times': purchase a massive volume of Facebook ads that are putatively promotions for their outlet but are in most cases indistinguishable from basic Trump campaign ads:
There are multiple official “The BL” pages on Facebook, and many of them have paid for these pro-Trump ads. Their main English-language page, The BL.com, has spent a total of $276,929 on Facebook ads. The BL TV and The BL Story spent over $100,000 each on Facebook ads. The BL Video, The BL News, and The BL Shedding Light spent another $12,000 or so. All told, at least $510,698 has gone to Facebook from The BL.
The BL’s success in preventing their ads from being banned by Facebook is also comparable to the success exhibited by the Epoch Times, which is to say extremely limited. Based on Facebook’s Ad Library tool, The BL posted 908 ads, of which 864 were taken down for violating Facebook’s policies. All 121 of the ads run by The BL TV and all 168 run by The BL Stories were removed as well. The outlet, as a whole, hasn’t posted a Facebook ad since August 2019, roughly when Facebook started cracking down on Epoch Times-related content.
We reached out to Facebook to ask if these BL pages have been banned from running ads and if that circumstance was due to a link to The Epoch Times, but we had not received a response by press time. The BL appears to be employing other methods to gain followers outside of ad buys, however.
How Does The BL Have 28 Million Followers on Facebook?
The BL’s Facebook reach is massive and expanding. The Spanish-language BL page Bellezas de la Vida is the largest, with over 10 million followers. That page, perhaps counter-intuitively, appears most aggressive, with some pro-Trump conspiracy theories, postings about Q, and advertisements for a show that alleges real collusion between the Clintons and China. There are, at our last count, at least 22 Facebook BL pages with the BL logo, some of which are geared toward different countries, languages, and themes. The BL’s presence in the Asian market, based on links from The BL's English edition, appears to go by the name DKN TV.
But The BL's Facebook operation is more than just these official pages. The BL Facebook pages, as well as accounts tied to The BL's staff members, appear to be gaining control of and/or creating several pages and groups with no obvious link to the BL, gaining control of their followers, and in some cases adding links to a BL website. Such pages and groups are in some cases officially created by The BL, leading to a complex web of interrelated Trump pages ultimately moderated by Facebook profiles with a clear connection to both The Epoch Times and The BL. A Facebook account bearing the same name as managing editor Orysia McCabe, as an example, appears to run at least six pro-Trump Facebook groups that are linked to The BL. Matt Tullar, host and commentator for The BL, seems to run at least three.
As another example, an official BL-controlled Facebook group is named PRESIDENT TRUMP - AMERICA 2020. This group’s connection to The BL is not secret, as it is listed as one of the groups on The BL's main English-language Facebook page. The Trump 2020 group has several moderators or administrators, including one that is a Vietnamese-based page named America First. America First, in turn, serves as the moderator for at least 17 other groups whose other moderators are clearly linked to The Epoch Times and/or The BL. A group named TRUMP MAGA 2020 moderated by America First, for example, is also moderated by the Facebook account of David Montgomery. Montgomery, on his own Facebook timeline, has interacted with The BL's CEO Trung Vu and primarily shares links to both The Epoch Times and The BL.
Other pages or groups appear to have been purchased or otherwise transferred from unrelated entities. These pages, whose names often include the themes “Beauty” and “Life,” predate the formation of the media network but now advertise a link to a BL website and even sometimes display the Middletown, New York, address, while consisting solely of posts unrelated to The BL.
An example of this practice can be found in a Chinese-language page whose English-language URL is “BeautiesOfLifeLoveQuotes.” This page was created in 2014 and has built a substantial following of over 800,000 users. Prior to 2017, when the name of the group was changed, its content consisted primarily of sultry pictures of women. Following this shift, it started posting what appear to be uplifting text and photo memes about relationships. In terms of content, there is no reason to think the page has anything to do with The BL, yet the page — with its substantial follower base — displays a link to the Chinese-language version of The BL and a map to the Middletown address.
Scanning for BL-related groups that fit either of the above descriptions, Snopes has identified at least 60 additional groups or pages tied to The BL but which lack their logo in their profile photos or “The BL” in their titles. All told, these Facebook entities’ followers comprise at least 3.5 million of the 28 million followers of all BL pages or groups we identify in the table below. By any metric, this is a massive reach for a media outlet.
To What End?
We do not know why The BL refuses to acknowledge any connection to the broader Epoch Times media group, nor do we know what they plan to do with the prodigious number of followers they appear to be rapidly accumulating. What we do know, however, is both The Epoch Times and The BL are being less than forthright by categorically denying any connection between their organizations.
In the early 2000s, the Wall Street Journal described one of the major problems facing the perceived legitimacy of The Epoch Times as “their unwillingness to identify themselves as having any association with the [Falun Gong], despite ample evidence to the contrary.” Faced with the same quandary, The BL seems to have a similar aversion to admitting any association with The Epoch Times.