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22 April 2020updated 21 Sep 2021 6:35am

How US conspiracy theorists are targeting local government in the UK

Councillors and Scottish politicians are the subject of a misinformation campaign by the Epoch Times, a website the New York Times has called “one of the most mysterious fixtures of the pro-Trump media universe”. 

By Sarah Manavis

Over the past several weeks the Epoch Times, a newspaper that has devoted extensive funding and support to Donald Trump in the US and far-right groups in Europe, has been targetting councillors across the UK with misinformation about coronavirus, the New Statesman can reveal.

Councillors in and around Bradford, Sutton, West Sussex, London and Wigan are among local government officials who have reported receiving emails claiming that the coronavirus pandemic was covered up for six weeks by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The email also makes claims about the origin of the virus, and links to the newspaper’s latest digital issue which calls for Covid-19 to be renamed “CCP virus”. An hour-long documentary about the “hidden truth” behind the global pandemic, which currently has over 1.1 million views, is also linked. 

Other councillors reported that, although they didn’t receive content directly from the Epoch Times, they and their colleagues had received emails ostensibly from constituents repeating much of the same language, citing the Epoch Times’s ideas about coronavirus. These emails urged councillors to investigate the paper’s “findings” and to advocate for renaming coronavirus in order to “reflect its origin”. 

The Epoch Times was founded in 2000 in the United States by a group of Americans linked to Falun Gong, a spiritual movement in China. It has been described by the New York Times as “one of the most mysterious fixtures of the pro-Trump media universe.” Much of its content is directed against communism and the CCP, but it has also long been a proponent of conspiracy theories such as the “Spygate” and “QAnon” delusions. 

Many of its positions on coronavirus, such as renaming it the “CCP virus” or the “Wuhan virus”, echo Trump’s own suggestions, and the Epoch Times has been an enthusiastic advocate of the president. After an investigation by NBC News found that the Epoch Times had spent over $1.5 million on 11,000 pro-Trump ads, the company was found to have broken Facebook’s political transparency rules and was banned from advertising on Facebook. It pivoted to YouTube, where users reported being unable to avoid ads from the outlet, and was thought by industry experts to be spending more on YouTube ads than publishers such as the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Fox News. 

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The emails to politicians in the UK were sent through the newsletter marketing service Mailchimp, which includes a link in the footers of emails to answer the question: “Why did I get this?” UK politicians were told that they had signed up via the Epoch Times website, but those who spoke to me reported that they had never heard of the publication before and had not registered on its website. The Epoch Times did not reply to a request for comment on these reports.

While it is predominantly councillors who have reported receiving emails from the publication, it’s unclear whether they’re the only politicians being targeted. Members of Scottish Parliament (MSPs) from constituencies in Edinburgh also reported receiving the same emails.

While the Epoch Times is well known in some parts of the world as a proponent of bizarre and extreme views, misinformation and support for the far right, it is relatively unknown in the UK. As conspiracy theorists gather to protest public health measures in the US and misinformation spreads on the Covid-19 pandemic in Britain, these emails suggest that it has seen an opportunity to gain a foothold in the UK.

Reporting on this story is ongoing. If you have any tips or further information, please contact Sarah Manavis at sarah.manavis@newstatesman.co.uk