Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction

Inside the ‘Epoch Times’: How an aspiring poet in Brooklyn became a tool in a right-wing propaganda blitz linked to Falun Gong.

By Oscar Schwartz

The Atavist Magazine, No. 108


Oscar Schwartz has written for The Guardian, The Baffler, The Atlantic, and Wired, among other publications. Originally from Australia, he is now based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter: @scarschwartz.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Photographer: Jonno Rattman

Published in October 2020.

*Indicates a pseudonym.

I.

“Blame it on the Falun Gong / They’ve seen the end and you can’t hold on now.”

This lyric from the title track of Guns N’ Roses’ album Chinese Democracy popped into Steven Klett’s head as he rode the New York City subway one sunny Wednesday morning in March 2016. Klett, 27, was on his way from his apartment in Brooklyn to a job interview at a newspaper. He was wearing a green button-down shirt, a suit jacket, and black pants. His shoulder-length auburn hair was tied back in a tight, low ponytail. He needed this job desperately.

The position—breaking-news web content writer—was not his ideal gig. Klett had an MFA in poetry, and his chapbook A Field Full of Mirrors had been published in 2015 to some acclaim. He had dreamed, however briefly, of being a full-time poet. Now he was spending his days writing freelance copy for a public relations firm, earning $10 per article. He was a tidy, proficient writer, and had applied to jobs at venerable media outlets like Mother Jones and Slate. This was his first interview.

Before encountering the listing online, Klett had not heard of the Epoch Times. He browsed articles on its website, mostly brief reports cribbed from other news sources. The opinion section leaned conservative, offering takes that might appeal to Klett’s father. Klett considered himself something of an anarchist. But, as with his poetic aspirations, he was ready to set aside his political beliefs in order to make rent without having to skip meals.

One detail about the newspaper that seemed peculiar was its extensive coverage of human rights abuses in China. In particular, there were numerous reports about an organization called Falun Gong. Klett had not heard of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement whose followers, his cursory research showed, had been targeted for persecution by the Chinese government. As the subway rattled beneath the East River and Guns N’ Roses played in his mind, Klett wondered: Blame Falun Gong for what?

Klett arrived at the 12-story brick building on West 28th Street and took the elevator up to the fifth floor. He was greeted by the newspaper’s human resources manager and two senior editors—Cindy Drukier, who had a subtle Canadian accent, and Jasper Fakkert, a tall, slim man with a ginger beard that he scratched nervously. Drukier began the interview by noting that the two writing samples Klett had submitted concerned politics. She asked where he got his news. He said The Atlantic and The Washington Post, eager to veer as close to the ideological center as possible. The editors nodded.

After asking about his education, his work experience, his writing skills, and his poetry, the conversation turned to current events. The previous evening, Donald Trump had convincingly beaten his Republican opponents on Super Tuesday, and the prospect of his candidacy was being taken more seriously. Hillary Clinton had edged out Bernie Sanders. Klett, like many Americans, believed she had a real shot at the presidency.

Fakkert, who had a Dutch accent, explained that he was only interested in hiring reporters who would be able to cover the news in a fair and impartial way. “Here at the Epoch Times,” he said, “we are a nonpartisan news source.” Fakkert asked if Klett could write from a perspective that conflicted with his own views.

Klett had prepared for this question. He explained that a few months earlier he’d been asked by a manager at the PR firm where he freelanced to write a short blog post about Trump’s appearance hosting Saturday Night Live. Personally, Klett found Trump unfunny and self-aggrandizing, but the manager told him that Eric Trump, one of the candidate’s sons, was a client at the firm. “I was taking as neutral a position as I could,” Klett said of the post he ultimately wrote. “I thought of it as an exercise and a challenge to take my opinion out of the article.”

The editors smiled and thanked him for coming in. Later that day, they offered him the job.

As the subway rattled beneath the East River and Guns N’ Roses played in his mind, Klett wondered: Blame Falun Gong for what?

At a sports bar on a cold evening in December 2019, Klett leaned forward on his stool so I could hear his gentle, droning voice above the obnoxiously loud Christmas music. His long hair was magnificent, voluminous, excessively brushed. It lent him a strong resemblance—but for a long scar running down his forehead—to Axl Rose. He had a meticulous memory and offered keenly observed details about his experience at the Epoch Times. The outlet, Klett learned during his tenure there, did much more than cover Falun Gong.

Since coming to global attention in the late 1990s, Falun Gong has flourished precisely because its adherents use print and digital media to reach sympathetic audiences beyond China. Falun Gong simultaneously spreads news of its plight and amplifies the worldview of its charismatic founder, Li Hongzhi, who claims that his teachings are rooted in ancient beliefs and practices and promise believers health, freedom, and moral fortitude. But where some see a virtuous community, others see a cult: Critics say that Li is a narcissistic charlatan who enlists guileless followers to adopt his conservative social views.

Falun Gong practitioners insist that this portrayal is false, concocted by Beijing to tarnish Li’s name because the Communist regime perceives his movement as a threat. But while it is true that China’s state media routinely depicts Falun Gong as deviant, the movement’s positive image emanates largely from its own information apparatus. When reporting on Falun Gong, Western journalists tend to draw on both characterizations, presumably in the name of objectivity. If each is a fabrication serving divergent ideological ends, though, can the result be anything but a collage of propaganda?

The Epoch Times is a key player in the ongoing information war between China and Falun Gong. Indeed, the newspaper is the cornerstone of a media empire that the spiritual movement has built over the past 25 years. It publishes editions in 36 countries and 22 languages; most of the bureaus are run by Li acolytes. In the United States, it reportedly reaches 250,000 weekly print readers, with 34 million monthly page views online. (The Epoch Times and the editors named in this story did not respond to multiple requests for interviews and comment.)

Klett didn’t know any of this when he was hired. Nor was he aware that the Epoch Times was becoming embroiled in yet another power struggle, this one in the United States. As the 2016 election approached, the newspaper morphed into a pro-Trump bullhorn. Writing on his personal blog, Klett would later compare the work he did at the paper to that of Russian bots, which “sow discord in the name of activism, and reduce talking points and political agendas to the conflicts that they engender and narratives that they inhabit.” In the lead-up to the 2020 election, the Epoch Times has pursued this strategy more vigorously than ever. An NBC investigation found that, in the first half of 2019, the newspaper laid out $1.5 million for some 11,000 pro-Trump Facebook ads—the only organization that spent more was the Trump campaign itself. More recently, the newspaper has peddled narratives about COVID-19 that cast China as the pandemic’s chief villain and Trump as a potential savior.

Klett is no longer employed by the newspaper, but he sent me documentation from the period when he worked there and contact information for friends and former colleagues who could corroborate his account. 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. “In that first interview, I was being honest when I said I could be neutral. I really believed that was possible,” Klett admitted, hands shoved deep into his pockets as we walked down a Brooklyn street in search of a quieter bar. “By the time I left, just a few days before the election, I realized what everyone is still coming to terms with.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“That there’s no difference between the news and propaganda. That objectivity is about who has power.”

II.

The ubiquitous newspaper boxes of New York City—those colorful plastic and metal shells that, day in and day out, once served up the latest information about the world—today look like relics of a bygone media heyday. The red ones from which generations of New Yorkers grabbed the Village Voice stand empty. The blue and white dispensers of The New York Times are often vandalized beyond recognition. The containers that still offer the city’s free dailies are largely ignored by commuters staring at their social media feeds—unless they’ve been repurposed as receptacles for takeaway coffee cups.

The Epoch Times is an exception. Its bright yellow boxes adorned with royal blue text sit on street corners and near train stations everywhere from Chinatown to midtown Manhattan to Flushing, Queens. They are well maintained and frequently restocked, offering passersby a weekly tabloid for 50 cents. If the vast majority of New York’s dilapidated, graffiti-covered newspaper boxes offer a tangible symbol of the death of print, the Epoch Times containers, which are often secured firmly to the ground with metal chains, signify the newspaper’s staunch if quixotic mission to reach the largest possible audience by all available means.

Klett was told that his role at the paper would be to expand its reach on social media. As part of a new digital team, he would generate fast-paced, engaging news articles designed to increase traffic via Facebook and Twitter, where audiences were orders of magnitude larger—and even more chaotic—than on the bustling streets of New York. As was the case with his other writing jobs, clicks would be the metric by which his performance was assessed. He would be paid $2,500 per month, with the expectation that he’d get 100,000 hits per week. Anything over that would earn him a bonus.

Klett’s title was political reporter. At the time, he was following politics with obsessive focus. Like many of his friends, he was fascinated with Bernie Sanders’s campaign and spent many nights in bars talking about whether democratic socialism would ever come to America. Klett’s friends, like Klett himself, were mostly overeducated, underpaid, and downwardly mobile, snapped out of political apathy by the prospect of a revolution “for the people.” Klett was horrified by the spectacle of Trump’s campaign. He knew that there was an America that greed and bigotry appealed to, but it felt far away from his present circumstances in Brooklyn—far away, even, from the mostly white, middle-class town where he grew up.

Born in the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Klett was raised in Clifton, New Jersey, in a two-story house on a dead-end street with a well-kept lawn and an aboveground pool. His father was quiet and worked a job that he only ever described to his family as “middle management.” Klett’s mother stayed home to take care of him and his brother. His father was a Republican, his mother a centrist Democrat. But they didn’t talk much about ideologies or affiliations. Politics were private, a matter of personal taste.

From a young age, Klett understood that he perplexed his parents. Where they sought to find a frictionless path through their suburban existence, Klett, though withdrawn, always seemed to stick out. He was an avid, precocious reader with a predilection for classic novels. In elementary school, he read Moby Dick. In middle school, he insisted on carrying around a copy of War and Peace. He rejected his parents’ Christianity and could quote Friedrich Nietzsche from memory. In high school, when his mother pushed him to join the marching band, he agreed begrudgingly, then complained that the conductor was an authoritarian. Klett made few friends and spent a lot of time in the counselor’s office.

His two salves were rock music—Soundgarden, Nirvana, Iron Maiden—and his grandmother. She lived on the lower floor of the family home. When Klett was fighting with his parents, he went downstairs to watch MSNBC with his grandmother or listen to her read from The New York Times. Sometimes she told him stories about when she worked as an air traffic controller in the Mojave Desert during World War II. She made the world feel bigger than Clifton, New Jersey.

After high school, Klett went to the College of New Jersey, just over an hour’s drive from home. He joined the track team in an attempt to make friends, but he found the hypermasculine culture of competitive sports menacing. He didn’t drink or do drugs, and he was still a virgin. He wasn’t invited to many parties, and he probably wouldn’t have gone anyway. Klett stayed up late in his room reading William S. Burroughs and writing poetry, imagining himself as one of the lost souls of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, outsiders “who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish.”

In addition to studying philosophy and literature, Klett enrolled in a journalism class. His teacher, an adjunct who also worked at a Philadelphia newspaper, was idealistic about the function of journalism. She told her students that more important than learning to write a good lede was developing a keen, unflinching interest in the pursuit of truth. Bob Woodward was the paradigm for which they should strive—a Republican in his private life whose yearning for truth was so pure that he wrote stories that brought down a Republican president.

Several weeks into the semester, Klett’s instructor was assigned to cover a mass shooting. A 32-year-old man had stormed a one-room Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania, shooting 11 students and killing five, all of them girls. When the instructor returned to class a week later, she looked as if she hadn’t slept. She told her students that no one in the Amish community would speak to her—her editor was expecting a story, but she had nothing to work with. Standing behind the lectern, she cried.

To Klett, it seemed that she had absorbed the trauma of the people she was covering. He empathized. As a child, he had on occasion become so deeply engrossed in stories that the boundaries between his life and other people’s blurred. In fourth grade, when he first learned about the Holocaust, he became severely depressed; he knew that his family had German ancestry, and he felt implicated. His mother demanded that Klett stop watching coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial after he confessed to having visions that he was the one who’d murdered Nicole Brown Simpson.

As the semester continued, Klett experienced a familiar muddling of his internal world and external reality. He had considered becoming a journalist but now realized he was ill-equipped to deal with other people’s pain. The future felt uncertain. Klett kept to himself more than ever. He stopped eating and interacting with other students. When a concerned peer told an RA that Klett hadn’t left his room in several days, the college called his parents. Klett never received a clear diagnosis, but doctors prescribed him a long list of pharmaceuticals.

The rest of college passed at a steady, medicated cadence. Klett spent the weekends at home and found his parents overbearing. As a diversion he started a band, the Undercover Rabbis. He met a woman who invited him to live with her and some friends at a winery in Pennsylvania, an offer he accepted after graduating in 2010. The group worked at Whole Foods Market during the day and threw raves at night. Klett used drugs and drank and slept with women and men, all for the first time. He identified as queer, first with trepidation, then with joy—the word itself helped explain why he had always felt so different.

In 2011, Klett received a transfer to work at a Whole Foods in New York City, where he lived for a time in an apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. His grandmother, who had recently died, had left him a small amount of money, which Klett used to pay for an MFA in poetry at the New School. When he wasn’t packing boxes or swiping items through the checkout at Whole Foods, he composed poems that were more controlled than his college writing. His final portfolio, exploring the boundaries between madness and inspiration, intimacy and abuse, was chosen by his professors to be published. “My favorite sex position is the Van Gogh,” one poem begins. “I won’t draw you a picture but it ends with you cutting off my ear / We can only do it twice.”

If Klett was succeeding creatively, his personal life was in disarray. He was trying to leave an abusive relationship and struggling to keep his job. Shortly after graduating, he was fired. He wrote copy for content farms to make rent on a Brooklyn apartment he shared with Martin*, a young housing lawyer and professed Marxist who lectured Klett about the failures of the Obama administration and how the impending Clinton presidency would be more of the same.

Klett listened to Martin, who seemed to know more about political theory than he did. He too felt alienated from what he called “the liberal elite.” But he also remembered the night Obama won the 2008 election. Fireworks outside his college dorm lit up his room, and he could hear spontaneous renditions of “We Shall Overcome” in the hallways. It was a time when Klett was feeling stable, and optimistic about the future. Now he was broke and bored, obsessively following the news and skipping meals. He could feel his reality once again begin to tremble.

When he received the offer from the Epoch Times, which on the surface appeared to offer stability and predictability, along with a regular paycheck, Klett felt a profound sense of relief. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

Klett wrote copy for content farms to make rent on a Brooklyn apartment he shared with  a young housing lawyer and professed Marxist who lectured him about the failures of the Obama administration.

Klett settled into the rhythms of working life. He awoke around 6:30 a.m., switched on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, smoked a joint with Martin, and then headed into the office. He scrolled through his news feeds while drinking a large iced coffee and jotted down story ideas for Fakkert, the digital team’s editor. Fakkert arrived each day at 9 a.m. and squeezed a red stress ball while listening to the day’s pitches.

There were five other journalists on the digital team. A man from Staten Island with tattoos on his arms and contacts at local police precincts; he worked the crime beat. There were two women from Brooklyn, one who had studied journalism and specialized in human-interest stories, and another who covered celebrity gossip and entertainment. A third woman was from Queens; she had previously worked on NBC’s breaking-news desk. Lastly there was Jenna*, a sharp-tongued, perpetually ironic philosophy student who covered science and technology. She and Klett became friends.

Their work was like that of any number of millennials paid to generate content to feed the insatiable appetite of social media. Each team member sat in a small cubicle and churned out content, trying to reach 100,000 clicks per week. It seemed like a huge number, but their bosses assured them it was achievable. 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. After being assigned his stories— “Former Russian World Chess Champion Criticizes Bernie Sanders’s Revolution as ‘Dangerously Absurd,’” “Fox News Poll Gives Hope to Kasich, Discourages Rubio”—Klett would put in his earphones and write as quickly as possible, pausing only to grab a burger or sushi for lunch with Jenna. He headed home at 6 p.m., and prepared for the next day by reading the latest news on social media before going to sleep.

Klett noticed a stark division in the office. The digital team sat together in a small room, apart from the writers, editors, and designers who worked for the print newspaper. The bathroom and kitchen were shared, but the print staff generally kept to themselves. When Klett tried to engage, they were friendly but impersonal. They steered most conversations to the stories he was working on that day.

Whereas the digital team was made up mostly of people who grew up in or around New York, the print staff was geographically diverse, hailing from China, Europe, Canada, and Australia. 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.

The relationship between the spiritual movement and the newspaper had been touched upon briefly during the digital team’s orientation. Stephen Gregory, the paper’s publisher—a large, balding man who favored khakis and polo shirts—had explained in a lilting voice how the Epoch Times was founded at the turn of the millennium to inform the world about Falun Gong’s persecution at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP. (The new hires were later shown an hour-long film featuring a Chinese man, a Falun Gong practitioner, sitting in a blossom-filled garden talking about how he had escaped to America to live a life of peace.) Gregory said that the paper had since expanded its mission, striving to offer objective, independent reporting on current affairs and world news. While the paper was no longer explicitly connected to Falun Gong, it shared certain values with the movement. These were encapsulated in the Epoch Times’ motto: “Truth and Tradition.”

The digital team was also given a tour of the two floors immediately above the newsroom, which were the headquarters of New Tang Dynasty Television, a cable channel with the same mission as the paper. They were greeted by a senior executive, a Chinese-American man, who guided them to a large room filled floor to ceiling with monitors. The network broadcast programs in dozens of cities around the world, including several in mainland China, where viewers used circumvention tools to bypass firewalls and censors. It was necessary work, the new hires were told. The network had to tell the people of China the truth.

III.

In “golden monkey splitting its body,” the arms form a straight line with the shoulders, stretching toward the horizon on either side of the body. In “two dragons diving into the sea,” the arms reach forward. In “bodhisattva touching the lotus,” the arms are positioned diagonally with the body, hands pointing toward the ground. These movements are part of the recommended hour-long physical routine that many Falun Gong practitioners perform every day. The exercises are serene, deliberate, symmetrical; often they’re done with eyes closed. From New York to Toronto, Sydney to Bangkok, groups of people—many wearing yellow shirts—gather in parks in the early morning to do the movements together.

If you ask a devout Falun Gong practitioner, they might say that the exercises are physical expressions of wisdom dating back to a divine, prehistoric culture, discovered and revived by a spiritually gifted leader to help humanity reconnect with a godly essence. If you ask a historian of China, they’ll likely trace the origins to the 1950s, when the ascendant Communist regime was manufacturing a new national character—one that was modern and scientific, superior to the feudalism of the past, yet still maintained a distinct Chinese identity. Among other things, this immense project demanded a new medical paradigm that preserved traditional healing practices while rejecting their religious and spiritual foundations. Such a paradigm presented itself when a young government clerk wrote a report claiming to have cured himself of various ailments with slow exercises and breathing methods later called qigong, or “energy cultivation.” The report caught the attention of high-ranking officials, who found it useful for their purposes. Medical authorities studied the clerk’s “cultivation system,” as the exercises became known, and used them throughout the late 1950s in specialized clinics and sanatoriums to help people manage pain and sickness.

With the dawning of the Cultural Revolution came a reversal: Qigong was denounced by the state as “feudal superstition.” The government clerk was jailed for being “the creator of the poisonous weed.” The exercise regimen disappeared from public life until the late 1970s, when the paranoia of the “ten-year catastrophe” began to recede.

Qigong experienced a grassroots resurgence in parks throughout Beijing. Amateur teachers who had continued practicing in private during the purges began offering their own particular cultivation systems. State authorities gave tacit approval, and charismatic teachers expanded their followings. By the early 1990s, qigong fever had swept the country. The most popular teachers, or “masters,” became national celebrities. This spurred aspiring spiritual leaders from the provinces to travel to Beijing in the hope of launching their own qigong schools. Among them was Li Hongzhi, who arrived in the capital in 1992 with a cultivation system he called Falun Gong, meaning “the way of the dharma wheel.”

Like other qigong masters, Li had an instinct for self-mythology. He claimed to have been born on the same day as the Buddha and to have been a spiritual prodigy instructed by the most learned Buddhist and Daoist teachers in northeast China. By adolescence, the story went, he had acquired supernatural powers and a lucid comprehension of the ultimate truth of the universe—insight that, as an adult, he synthesized into Falun Gong. His regimen of simple, fluid exercises proved popular, and he rapidly found a following.

What distinguished Li from other qigong teachers were certain spiritual and moral elements he considered necessary for cultivation. In addition to exercises and meditation, Falun Gong demanded personal conduct of its practitioners that was consistent with what Li defined as the three moral axioms of the universe: truth, compassion, and forbearance. He also subscribed to a cyclical view of history, characterized by periods of moral decline followed by apocalyptic redemption. The modern world, Li believed, was in a degenerate state, which manifested itself in popular culture and loose social mores. In long, tangential lectures, he railed against drug use, homosexuality, miscegenation, sexual freedom, and “the demon nature that bursts forth on the soccer field.” He claimed that it was his task to help as many people as possible realize the folly of their ways through Falun Gong, so that when the moment of redemption arrived—and Li asserted that it was coming soon—they would be saved. He called this process “Fa-rectification.”

By 1994, Li had become a major star of the qigong world. His rise, though, came at a moment when the CCP was growing suspicious of qigong’s popularity. Sensing that the cultural tide was turning, Li announced that his mission in China had come to an end. In 1995, he departed for an international lecture tour through Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Europe, and Australia, where his teachings were popular among Chinese diaspora communities and some white New Age types. The tour turned into a permanent relocation. Eventually, Li settled in upstate New York.

In July 1996, China’s Central Propaganda Department banned the publication of Li’s writings, including the Zhuan Falun, the Falun Gong bible. Several newspaper articles accused Li of being a swindler who spread superstition and pseudoscience. From New York, Li connected with practitioners in Beijing on websites and email lists, where he encouraged them to peacefully protest the suppression of their movement. Over the next few years, Falun Gong acolytes staged some 300 demonstrations in China.

The protestors, who often sat cross-legged and silent, were mostly tolerated by the authorities. That changed on a Sunday morning in April 1999, when some 10,000 practitioners gathered outside the Western gate of Zhongnanhai, the guarded compound near Tiananmen Square where the CCP is headquartered. The protestors were quiet and calm, but the intimidating scale of the demonstration unnerved CCP leader Jiang Zemin, who behind closed doors declared Falun Gong the most serious political threat to party authority since the student demonstrations a decade earlier. (Li claimed to have more than 100 million followers at the time; scholars put the figure between 20 million and 60 million.)

State-run media launched a full-scale propaganda war, classifying Falun Gong as a cult posing a danger to the nation. Li rejected the characterization. “We do not oppose the government,” he once said at a conference. “We do not involve ourselves in politics.” The Chinese authorities intensified the crackdown, demanding that government officials who had practiced Li’s cultivation style renounce their affiliation and arresting people considered to be the movement’s key organizers. Falun Gong has since alleged that many of its practitioners were tortured while in custody and that hundreds died as a result. (Some human rights organizations have repeated this claim; Chinese authorities deny it.)

Li largely retreated from the public eye. Falun Gong purchased 427 acres of land in the hills of Deerpark, New York, where it built an expansive, ornate, high-security compound known as Dragon Springs. As well as providing Li with new living quarters, Dragon Springs became a spiritual base for his movement. It has a large temple and is now home to a private high school and college. Over the years, neighboring communities have raised concerns about the compound’s growth. Meanwhile, rumors of abuse and cult-like behavior have circulated, based on testimonials from former Falun Gong practitioners.

The task of defending the movement has fallen largely to North American followers, who unlike their counterparts in China face no risk of imprisonment for their support of Falun Gong. They are often middle-class professionals; many are Chinese immigrants. Among them is John Tang, an émigré with a doctorate in theoretical physics from the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2000, Tang founded a small newspaper and named it the Epoch Times—a reference, perhaps, to Li’s frequent insistence that the turn of the millennium would bring “a new epoch.”

Li claimed that it was his task to help as many people as possible realize the folly of their ways through Falun Gong, so that when the moment of redemption arrived they would be saved. 

At first the paper was written, edited, and printed by volunteers—Chinese and non-Chinese followers of Li’s teachings, few of whom had any experience in media. It was funded almost exclusively by donations from wealthy Falun Gong practitioners. The goal was to provide an alternative narrative to China’s propaganda about the movement. The first edition, published in Chinese, appeared in May 2000; an online edition followed later that year.

Participating in the media arm of Falun Gong quickly took on a spiritual dimension. Writing or editing for the Epoch Times became an extension of Fa-rectification, the cosmic mission of saving souls. Li made clear that personal cultivation now included acts of hongfa, which roughly means “clarifying truth” to the wider world. But the paper didn’t always get the facts right. In October 2000, it reported that Jiang Zemin had caught a “strange, fatal disease” requiring his leg to be amputated at the upper thigh, a demonstrably false claim. Other stories were murkier. In 2001, after Chinese state media claimed that Li had incited a group of Falun Gong practitioners, including a 12-year-old girl, to self-immolate in Tiananmen Square, the Epoch Times countered by insisting that the event had been staged by Chinese authorities. International media and human rights groups were unable to verify either side’s version, or anything in between. The Washington Post’s attempt to do so produced an article headlined “Human Fire Ignites Chinese Mystery.” The truth of the matter has never been settled.

For the Epoch Times, funding from a growing diaspora of Falun Gong practitioners and other Chinese dissident communities led to explosive growth. By the mid-2000s, it was publishing editions in dozens of cities and several languages around the globe, including an English version in New York. It joined other Falun Gong–associated media outlets, including New Tang Dynasty Television, under the umbrella of the Epoch Media Group. The paper published special editions, such as 2004’s “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party,” a quasi-McCarthyist screed that claimed the CCP was the real “evil cult,” one that “destroyed traditional culture” and “oppose[d] the universe.” And it promoted any allegation of human rights abuses in China, including regular updates regarding accusations that the government was harvesting organs from thousands of Falun Gong prisoners. (While it is beyond dispute that China has forcibly removed organs from prisoners, it is not clear that Falun Gong believers have ever been singled out for this practice.)

While the newspaper was clearly aligned with Falun Gong’s interests, its senior executives worked to publicly minimize the connection. “The paper’s not owned by Falun Gong, it doesn’t speak for Falun Gong, it doesn’t represent Falun Gong,” Stephen Gregory, who in addition to being the publisher is a longtime Li follower, told an Associated Press reporter in 2007. “It does cover the persecution of Falun Gong in China.” Meanwhile, in online commentary, Li—whose connection to the paper was always kept vague—continued to emphasize the spiritual function of what he called “our media.” In 2009, he delivered an address in the Epoch Times New York newsroom, congratulating the staff for successfully raising awareness of his movement’s struggle and its worldview. He said that they’d had a “major impact in Fa-rectification.”

Staff rarely speak publicly about the newspaper’s affiliation with Falun Gong. Several current and past employees did not reply to my interview requests. Some who did expressed distrust of mainstream media. Those who agreed to speak, including people who worked alongside Klett, preferred to do so anonymously.

On pureinsight.org, a Falun Gong website, I found a testimonial about the experience of working at the Epoch Times, written by someone who referred to himself as a “disciple from New York, USA.” The anonymous writer, who said he began working at the paper in 2012, described waking up at 3 a.m. to distribute 5,000 newspapers across Manhattan, first on foot and later by bicycle. His manager would strap bundles of papers onto his back before he peddled away. Even in the middle of winter, when it was freezing cold and often raining, the writer said he was filled with great joy, knowing that he was on a noble mission.

He eventually moved up at the paper—to the sales department, to editorial, and finally to a digital-side role focused on boosting subscriptions. He confessed to having moments of doubt, wishing for more recognition of his work and questioning the wisdom of his superiors. But they always passed. “I see that in the coming years the amount of work will be daunting as the Epoch Times is expanding across the US and the world,” the disciple wrote. “However, I feel that Master has arranged the wind to be in our sails, and that he is guiding every step in both my and the whole media’s development. As long as I don’t impede Master, there shouldn’t be anything that we can’t do.”

Writing or editing for the Epoch Times became an extension of Fa-rectification, the cosmic mission of saving souls.

By the time Klett was hired, the paper was a purportedly objective outlet with an unconditional bias made obscure to outsiders. One way that bias manifested was in prohibitions on certain content. “Truth and Tradition” meant that reporters could not cover modern music or art, only the classics. Stories about the LGBTQ community were to be avoided—Gregory reportedly told the new digital team that it was a controversial topic that conflicted with the family-friendly position of the paper.

Besides joking about it with Jenna—she liked to say that they’d been hired by a weird cult—Klett didn’t think much about Falun Gong or how it shaped his job. It wasn’t his goal to empathize with the movement’s belief system, which, as far as he could tell, was at odds with his own. He just wanted to reach his weekly target of 100,000 clicks.

Klett achieved this convenient detachment through an intellectual sleight of hand. In college, he’d read postmodern theories by thinkers who seemed to drive a wedge between language and meaning—to insist that words had a multiplicity of possible interpretations that exceeded the intentions of any author or speaker. 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.

A contemporary of Klett’s preferred theorists was Paul de Man, a Belgian national who was a professor of literature at Yale. His controversial, yet influential, thesis held that a text was a paradox no one should seek to resolve; language always contained contradictions, and it was the task of the reader to identify them while resisting the impulse to privilege one interpretation over another. When it was revealed in the years after his death that, during World War II, de Man had written some 200 articles for several Nazi-controlled newspapers—and that some of what he’d published had been anti-Semitic—his acolytes were forced to reckon with his legacy. Some disavowed him. Others tried to redeem him with evidence of good behavior; they pointed out, for instance, that de Man sheltered Jewish friends in his apartment during the war. Derrida went one step further: On close reading, he argued, de Man’s writings revealed a subversive, anti-anti-Semitic interpretation.

For his longtime critics, the disclosure of de Man’s past was vindicating. By reveling in contradiction, they argued, de Man had adopted an essentially nihilistic mode of critique. As one writer put it, he was a “connoisseur of nothingness”—a phrase that could easily apply to Klett during his stint at the Epoch Times.

Still, there were moments that rattled Klett. On June 12, 2016, a gunman opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others. The story broke over the weekend. When Klett arrived at work Monday morning, he noticed that none of the accounts of the incident on the Epoch Times’ website mentioned that Pulse was a gay club. He strategized how he could pitch a story to his editors that acknowledged the facts while bypassing the newspaper’s vague prohibition against covering LGBTQ issues.

That day he was working with an editor named Henry Bevington, a perpetually chipper Australian man with a wispy black beard who wore paisley button-down shirts. Bevington brought Klett tea each morning, pouring it from a red kettle. He was more visible in his allegiance to Falun Gong than some other staff; he once came to work dressed in the movement’s trademark yellow T-shirt after attending a demonstration to raise awareness about persecution in China. Klett realized Bevington might be wedded to the values that determined the paper’s coverage.

Klett pitched a story about the shooting that focused on a speech that Trump, who was still seeking the Republican nomination, had made in the aftermath. Trump split with other Republicans by expressing solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Klett figured that because Trump’s stance on other issues was conservative, the approach might work. Plus, stories Klett had written about Trump had generated a lot of clicks, including one about a Mexican restaurant owner who tripled her business after Trump brought her onstage at a rally. But Klett received a curt no.

Usually, he might have complained to Jenna about the incident and moved on. But he felt pained by the attack on the LGBTQ community, and angry that it hadn’t been acknowledged at his workplace. He sent Fakkert and Bevington an article from a left-leaning blog pointing out how some Republican responses to the shooting had erased the identities of the people targeted. According to Klett, Bevington approached his desk and, with a smile, told him that he didn’t understand the point of the article. “Some people don’t believe in that,” Bevington said, seeming to refer to homosexuality. “You can’t fault someone for not saying something.”

Klett excused himself, walked to the bathroom, and splashed cold water on his face. When he returned to his desk, he sat down and started writing an article about the Orlando shooting that didn’t include the word “gay.” It focused on how, in the wake of the tragedy, President Barack Obama hadn’t used the phrase “radical Islam.”

That words could have multiple, sometimes contradictory interpretations was an idea Klett had found fascinating in a theoretical context. It had been useful in his studies and personal writing. Now, though, it seemed as if he was being asked to use that idea to make real-world events seem uncertain, contested. In retrospect, it was a harbinger of what was to come.

IV.

By the time Trump became the Republican nominee, in the late summer of 2016, the digital team had morphed. Jenna had been laid off for failing to generate sufficient clicks; the reporter who covered crime had been let go, too. Klett, meanwhile, had been promoted. Now earning an extra $500 a month, he wrote his usual number of digital stories as well as the occasional feature for the print newspaper.

When Trump promoted the outrageous lie that Obama and Hillary Clinton were “founders” of ISIS, Klett wrote a story without critical evaluation; the fact of Trump’s comments, rather than their veracity, was what mattered. This seemed more or less in keeping with the Epoch Times’ professed commitment to unbiased coverage and its desire to ramp up page views—inflammatory comments by public figures drive clicks, after all. Other developments, however, made it hard to ignore that an unspoken enthusiasm for the Republican candidate had taken hold in the newsroom. There had been a palpable shift in the paper’s editorial direction, and it seemed to come straight from the top.

While other media outlets reported on Trump’s outlandish and incendiary Twitter behavior, Klett said that his editors discouraged him from covering it. After submitting a story comparing Trump’s and Clinton’s immigration policies, he received an email with feedback from Stephen Gregory; it was important, the publisher explained, to note that Trump was the only candidate addressing the fact that an “open border” allowed gangs, criminals, and terrorists to enter the country. Overall, Gregory said, Clinton’s policies would amplify the power of the executive branch and diminish that of Congress, continuing the legacy of Obama’s presidency.

In another instance, Klett was asked to read over a colleague’s story comparing Trump’s and Clinton’s economic policies. There was one line that caught his attention: “Trump seeks to revive American greatness with policies aimed at kick-starting economic growth.” Klett told his colleague that the word “greatness” was biased and a regurgitation of Trump’s campaign slogan. The colleague, according to Klett, said that Gregory had inserted the line.

Klett noticed that a number of journalists from the print side—mostly young men who practiced Falun Gong and had worked at the paper for a while—were becoming more brazen in their support of far-right ideas. One colleague shared a video by internet pundit Stefan Molyneux, whose YouTube channel promoted scientific racism and white nationalism. Echoing boilerplate language from the right-wing internet, staff said they didn’t necessarily believe everything they circulated in the office, but at least it was an alternative to the lies propagated by mainstream outlets. With blithe arrogance, most U.S. media used the cover of objectivity to conceal liberal bias. Truth tellers—like themselves, even like Molyneux—were pushing against this hegemony, courageously pursuing fair reporting and highlighting ideas that the corrupt media elite would not.

A number of journalists from the print side—mostly young men who practiced Falun Gong and had worked at the paper for a while—were becoming more brazen in their support of far-right ideas. 

Maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising, given its roots, that the Epoch Times would employ people suspicious of establishment forces, or that its socially conservative ethos would make it a natural mouthpiece for Trumpism. Nor, perhaps, should it have shocked anyone that the paper, created with the explicit goal of waging an information war, would thrive in a propaganda-rich election season rife with conspiracy theories. Still, given its affiliation with Falun Gong, the outfit was something of an unexpected player in the right-wing media ecosystem emboldened by Trump’s candidacy. Where its role made the most sense was with regard to China. The paper boosted Trump’s pledges to get tough on Beijing if he was elected. An article Klett wrote about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump wanted to leave and Clinton wanted to strengthen, was syndicated by Infowars.

Klett discussed with his parents the option of quitting. They told him that just because the work was difficult wasn’t a reason to leave, that the time had come for him to accept the reality of adult life, that it would show strength of character to persevere under challenging circumstances. He also discussed his dilemma with Martin, his roommate. At the time, Martin was using his law degree to represent landlords in the Bronx. Just as Klett disliked writing pro-Trump propaganda for a fringe newspaper, Martin didn’t want to evict families from their homes. That millennials had to do work at odds with their political values wasn’t their fault; it was a sign of a fundamental failure of “the system,” Martin insisted, proof of how neoliberal hegemony and late-stage capitalism destroyed the soul. A political revolution was necessary.

This made sense to Klett, and helped him justify going to work every day. He also found it difficult to quit the paper because of how nice everyone in the office was, how misaligned their personal conduct seemed with their political motivations. His editors were helpful, attentive, supportive. They often congratulated him on the work he was doing and rewarded him with longer-form assignments, sometimes even front-page features in the print paper. They knew that he didn’t necessarily share their views, but they were convinced of the basic goodness of their mission and, it seemed to Klett, assumed he’d eventually come around.

Perhaps that’s why, on September 15, 2016, Fakkert asked him to attend a speech Trump was giving to the Economic Club of New York at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. Klett arrived at 9:30 a.m., stoned, wearing a vest and a magenta shirt—Fakkert had told him to dress nicely. He met Valentin Schmid, a journalist from the print side. They were ushered to an upstairs press gallery where a few dozen journalists sat staring at their phones. The attendees in the ballroom were dressed in tuxedos and ball gowns—extravagant, Klett thought, for a lunch event. After taking their seats, the guests were served plates of chicken.

Mike Pence appeared on the ballroom’s stage, gave a brief address about economic prosperity, and then introduced Trump. The candidate spoke of his strong polling numbers in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, about jobs and manufacturing, immigration, the failures of the Obama administration, and, finally, the corporate tax cuts he was planning to roll out. Klett noticed that Schmid was the only journalist who clapped along with the crowd, prompting other reporters to look at him incredulously, which made Klett feel paranoid.

After the event, Schmid took Klett out for lunch at a bistro on 57th Street. Schmid, who was from Germany, wore polo shirts with upturned collars and had a lazy eye. He was among the coterie of young men on the print side who had taken a liking to Trump and his messaging. As they sat eating—Klett a burger, his colleague a steak—Schmid held forth about why Trump appealed to his libertarian sensibilities. To him, Trump was unafraid to speak the truth. The people who feared him most were those in the liberal mainstream media and political elites accustomed to pulling the strings of power in their own favor.

Klett had heard all this before—talk of absorbing bullshit from a broken system before seeing the light, recognizing who the real villains are. He knew that many on the print side were seekers, people who had been on tumultuous, sometimes strange personal journeys before finding Falun Gong and, through that, the Epoch Times. Some had lived in hippie communes. Others had partied as a way to distract themselves from their inner dissatisfaction. In a way, Klett thought, they were not unlike other people from his life: fellow loners in college, the queer community in Pennsylvania, the poetry freaks at the New School, the leftists he met in Brooklyn bars, his roommate. They all felt alienated from reality and wanted a radical change.

Schmid asked Klett about his own political ideology. Klett said he didn’t really have a coherent one, but that he had anarchist leanings. “Aha, so you want what I want,” Schmid replied, taking a bite of his steak. “I want to tear down the system, like you.”

V.

Around then, in September, a group of interns arrived at the Epoch Times. One afternoon, Klett walked into the kitchen to find one of the new arrivals busy on her laptop. She was tall, with straight black hair tied up in a bun; a single blue streak matched the color of her eyeshadow. Klett introduced himself. She looked up and, in a heavy accent, said her name was Gaia Cristofaro. She had just arrived from Italy and was interning with the newspaper’s design team. Klett said that he wrote about politics for the digital side. She said that she didn’t like politics. “Nobody does,” he replied.

Three days later, he again crossed paths with her in the kitchen and decided to sit down for a longer chat. Often he found conversations with people from the print side awkward. Not with Cristofaro. They spoke about art and music and literature. Both had strong opinions about Derrida and Franz Kafka. Both listened to the band Thee Silver Mt. Zion. Both admired the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Cristofaro showed Klett some of the sketches she was working on for the design team. He was impressed. He found her captivating.

They started taking lunch breaks together. Cristofaro—who did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story—was 33 and an artist. She had grown up in Florence, right by the Duomo. She had been rebellious in her younger years, but it left her feeling discontented and lost. She came across one of Li’s books. She had been raised Catholic, and the strict morality and spiritual teleology of Falun Gong resonated with her, as did Li’s supposition that the modern world was degenerate. Cristofaro had since maintained a strict cultivation practice and given much of her spare time to the Falun Gong community. She had organized an art exhibition in Florence on behalf of the movement. And now she was in New York, ready to help in the service of hongfa, before one of the most unusual elections in U.S. history—one in which the candidate the Epoch Times had all but endorsed was turning the very notion of truth on its head.

At lunch one day, Klett noticed that Cristofaro had not touched any of her cucumber sushi. She had dark circles around her eyes, and her hands were shaking. Klett asked if everything was OK. Cristofaro apologized. She hadn’t got much rest, she said, since arriving in the city. Her work schedule—Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.—on top of exercise, meditation, and reading groups with other Epoch Times employees, meant that she had almost no time to herself. Moreover, the room where she was staying in Jersey City, which had been assigned to her by the newspaper, was in the same building where other staff lived. It was more like a big dorm than an apartment complex, she said. She found it uncomfortable and dirty. There was no privacy. She couldn’t sleep.

To make matters worse, Cristofaro had initially been promised that she’d contribute illustrations to the paper, but her superiors now insisted that she work on formatting and other menial tasks. Cristofaro put her head in her hands. “What am I doing here?” she asked Klett.

Cristofaro and Klett began to meet outside work hours. One Sunday, she told him that she was in the United States on a vacation visa and that she wasn’t being paid for her time at the paper. According to Klett, Cristofaro said that uncompensated work was common among Falun Gong practitioners—a claim echoed in news reports and first-person accounts by former acolytes that I read during my reporting. Believers could volunteer at one of the many organizations around the world associated with the movement: an Epoch Times bureau, New Tang Dynasty Television, a magazine called Taste of Life, or the Shen Yun dance company, which is based at the Dragon Springs compound and infamous in New York City for its ubiquitous advertising. Cristofaro had done other internships and enjoyed them, but so far this one had been mostly unpleasant.

Klett wanted to help but didn’t know how. His colleagues on the digital team teased him that he was moving over to the dark side. “Just watch out, or she’ll make you join that group,” one told him. On a Friday afternoon, as Klett was getting ready to clock out, Fakkert asked for a minute of his time. He said that Klett was spending too much time exchanging messages with Cristofaro on the office’s internal chat system. They needed to focus more on their work.

After the encounter, Klett asked Cristofaro who else knew about their friendship. She said that her immediate boss and maybe one other colleague did. Later she sent Klett a message. “Now that I think about it better,” it read, an editor “told me not talk with you too much, he said that very casually.”

“Ciao have a good weekend,” Cristofaro said, “and forget about that.”

Cristofaro had been raised Catholic, and the strict morality and spiritual teleology of Falun Gong resonated with her, as did Li’s supposition that the modern world was degenerate.

Klett decided to keep his distance from Cristofaro in the office. Outside work, however, they saw each other more often. One day in October, they went to Radio City Music Hall to see the Icelandic group Sigur Rós perform. They arrived at the venue early and took their seats. When the music started—ethereal, ambient—they kissed for the first time. Over the next two weeks, they hung out in bars in the West Village after work. As they talked about their lives, or when they kissed by the station where Cristofaro caught a train back to Jersey City, she would remind Klett that she was leaving in November, when her visa expired.

Everything was hurtling toward November. When he wasn’t with Cristofaro or thinking about her, Klett was ensconced in political news and polls. Every time Trump made a shocking new claim—the system is rigged, Hillary is sick, what about her emails?—Klett would observe as the mainstream media reacted with disbelief. This is not America, he heard liberal pundits say. Wasn’t it, though? Plenty of people reading his articles were Americans who liked Trump. It seemed to Klett that divisions ran so deep in America’s collective psyche that one side could no longer see the other.

Living and working amid so much bifurcation was exhausting. Klett was looking forward to the time after the election when things would return to normal. But then, in the last week of October, something changed in the office. Without warning, Fakkert began ignoring the digital team, not hearing their pitches or assigning them articles. They went from pumping out several pieces a day to more or less sitting idle at their desks.

On October 27, the HR manager summoned them into a small office. He told the group sympathetically that digital journalism was more difficult to break into than the paper had first imagined. Other publications were laying people off. The Epoch Times simply couldn’t afford to keep the team on any longer. Their employment was being terminated.

Based on the paper’s web traffic, this didn’t immediately add up to Klett. What’s more, the election was only a week away—it seemed absurd that the paper would get rid of him, a politics reporter. Klett wondered if there was another reason the team was being let go, one he couldn’t see.

He walked out of the room in a daze. Standing there was Fakkert, who took him by the shoulders and cried. Klett started to laugh.

The election was only a week away—it seemed absurd that the paper would get rid of him, a politics reporter.

The next week passed in a blur. Klett watched the news and checked the latest polls, now without purpose. He messaged Cristofaro, trying to arrange times to see her, but she was always caught up with work or cultivation. Finally, in early November, Klett received a text inviting him to dinner in Chelsea. It was her going-away party. She was leaving the next day.

When Klett arrived at the restaurant, Cristofaro was already there with a few other Epoch Times employees and a man she had befriended in a park while doing Falun Gong exercises. They ate pizza and then got gelato. The man from the park did most of the talking, spouting conspiracy theories that he said he’d learned about from Infowars.

Eventually, Klett and Cristofaro walked to the Strand bookstore, then to a movie. Afterward, Klett accompanied Cristofaro to her train. They kissed. He asked if she would consider coming back to his place, to spend one night together. She said no. She told Klett that he wasn’t “virtuous” enough. Cristofaro had hinted before that it was somehow immoral for them to spend time together, that it contravened a code of behavior expected of her by Falun Gong. If Klett wasn’t a practitioner, they couldn’t be together.

Three nights later, with Cristofaro back in Florence, Klett opened a bottle of wine with Martin and sat down to watch the election results. Despite everything he’d seen as a politics reporter—from the shrewd manipulation of content at the Epoch Times, to the devious fearmongering at Breitbart News, to the full-blown conspiracy peddling of Infowars—he still believed that Clinton would win. As he watched the results trickle in, he realized his error. Martin opened another bottle of wine. “Goddammit, I don’t want to have to see Donald Trump’s fucking face for the next four years,” he said.

Klett was silent. He told himself this wasn’t his fault—he was just a lowly worker at an obscure newspaper that had a curious affiliation with the rise of Trumpism. He felt a familiar sensation, one he’d had when he worried about his family’s German ancestry and saw himself holding the knife used to kill Nicole Brown Simpson. Reality was wobbling. But whether Klett was ready to admit it or not, this time his imagination wasn’t to blame. By writing the news, he had become part of the story.

VI.

Klett was unemployed until the following June, when he was hired by the International Business Times. Again he was a digital content writer, required to generate as many articles as possible to get as many clicks as possible. Coincidentally, IBT had been linked to a controversial religious sect known as the Community, a fact that Klett wasn’t aware of when he was hired. In a corner cubicle near Wall Street, he trawled Twitter looking for trending news he could repackage for the website—a celebrity feud, Martin Shkreli controversies, Trump’s Twitter meltdowns. His performance was measured by software called Chartbeat, which his editor monitored assiduously. Klett told me that he was fired after six weeks for not meeting his click quota.

He found a job writing copy for a vaping company. At the time, he was also working on his second poetry collection, The Book of Gaia. After saying goodbye to Cristofaro in early November, Klett thought they’d never speak again. But she’d messaged him the next morning—a cell phone video shot from her plane as it took off, Manhattan receding into the clouds. They’d been texting and making plans to see one another ever since. After a few months, Klett had accrued enough miles on his credit card for a trip to Italy. In September 2017, he boarded a plane, shaking and giddy. It was his first time traveling to Europe.

Klett stayed with Cristofaro in her mother’s apartment in Florence. They took long walks, and Cristofaro was knowledgeable about the city’s heritage. She was also angry at what she perceived as intruding vulgarities—commercialism, tourism, even contemporary art. One afternoon, as they passed the Duomo, Cristofaro stopped in front of the cathedral and wept. It was offensive, she said, that people would simply gawk and take pictures of the building without understanding its context.

Klett learned about Cristofaro’s daily Falun Gong cultivation practice. She meditated at six-hour intervals—dawn, midday, dusk, midnight. He would sit with her and hold her hands while she did it. The thought occurred to him that if he started practicing Falun Gong, their relationship would deepen. “Why don’t you just do it?” a friend asked him. “You could have it all!”

It wasn’t an option, though. Klett didn’t want cosmic answers for everything in his life, and he didn’t like cultivation. He had become more politically active since leaving the Epoch Times. He now volunteered with the Democratic Socialists of America. There was no way he could square his political beliefs or his identity with Falun Gong, even for the person he loved.

Klett worked up the courage to ask Cristofaro how she reconciled the supposed morality of Falun Gong with what she said had happened in New York, the way she’d been exploited at work. She said that she felt like some people in the newspaper office had been corrupted by America, that they had lost their way and were no longer engaging dutifully with Li’s teachings. Klett suggested that maybe Falun Gong had lost its way. Cristofaro became angry and, through tears, told him that as a non-practitioner he had no idea what he was talking about.

Despite the disagreement with Cristofaro, after arriving back in New York, Klett began planning for a return to Italy. He saved money and enrolled in an English-teaching course, hoping to find work in Florence. But then, just a week before Klett was set to fly back in February 2018, Cristofaro told him that she’d changed her mind; she was seeing someone else. It was best if he didn’t come.

In a corner cubicle near Wall Street, Klett trawled Twitter looking for trending news he could repackage for the website—a celebrity feud, Martin Shkreli controversies, Trump’s Twitter meltdowns.

Klett retreated into himself. He worked from home, writing for the vaping company. In his spare time, he read about the Mueller investigation. He began imagining himself back at the Epoch Times as a bot, mindlessly churning out words that became tangled in algorithms that pushed disinformation. When Klett published a blog post on Medium about his experience at the newspaper, he expected it to go mostly unnoticed.

In the spring of 2019, however, he received a message from an investigative journalist at NBC who wanted to talk to him about what he’d written. Klett agreed to meet at the NBC office in Manhattan. By coincidence, the appointment was scheduled on World Falun Gong Day. When Klett got off the train at 47th Street, he found himself surrounded by practitioners marching in celebration. Among the sea of yellow shirts, Klett thought he spotted Valentin Schmid. He lowered his head and made his way into the halls of NBC.

A few months later, NBC News published an online exposé about the Epoch Times’ rise as a right-wing media outlet. It revealed the paper’s massive spending on pro-Trump Facebook ads. It also identified employees who had splintered off to create hugely popular YouTube channels, including Edge of Wonder, which had hundreds of thousands of subscribers. The channel’s upbeat hosts pushed the QAnon conspiracy theory with a smile. Klett recognized them from the paper’s print side.

The NBC investigation wasn’t the first to describe the relationship between the Epoch Times and far-right forces. In 2017, a journalist went undercover at the paper’s Berlin office and found strong support for Alternative for Germany, the country’s nationalist party. The next fall, BuzzFeed News detailed how the paper had pushed the debunked “Spygate” conspiracy theory, which proposed that the Obama administration had infiltrated Trump’s presidential campaign. Then, in May 2019, the progressive nonprofit Acronym identified the Epoch Times as one of the biggest spenders on pro-Trump video content on Facebook.

The NBC investigation went further, emphasizing the connection between the Epoch Times’ political bias and Falun Gong’s apocalyptic worldview. “Former practitioners of Falun Gong told NBC News that believers think the world is headed toward a judgment day, where those labeled ‘communists’ will be sent to a kind of hell, and those sympathetic to the spiritual community will be spared,” the article read. “Trump is viewed as a key ally in the anti-communist fight.”

Stephen Gregory published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal describing NBC’s reporting as “agenda-driven journalism” that was “in line with Beijing’s propaganda.” He claimed that the Facebook ads in question weren’t pro-Trump—they merely spotlighted the newspaper’s work in order to boost subscriptions. “Because we’ve taken the lead in reporting on Spygate … these ads often feature articles reporting on President Trump. That doesn’t make them ads for Mr. Trump,” Gregory wrote. He denied any direct connection between Falun Gong and his newspaper. Klett noticed that some of his former colleagues took to social media to say that no one accused The New York Times of being a Jewish newspaper despite the many Jewish people on staff. (An Epoch Times contributor made similar comments to me in an interview.)

The newspaper started running online ads under the auspices of entities with names like Pure American Journalism and Best News. This went against Facebook’s transparency rules, and in August 2019, the platform banned the Epoch Times from advertising. The paper found other avenues to spread its message. A website called the BL, or Beauty of Life, created a network of phony Facebook profiles, including some with computer-generated faces, which were used to amplify the reach of pro-Trump content. Gregory denied ties between the BL and the Epoch Times, but in December 2019, Facebook told the technology news website The Verge that BL executives “were active admins on Epoch Media Group Pages as recently as this morning when their accounts were deactivated and the BL was removed.”

Meanwhile, at least one news report suggested that the paper’s digital media strategy was influenced by Chris Kitze, an entrepreneur who a decade prior essentially invented the idea of using conspiracy theories to generate viral content with his website BeforeItsNews.com. Kitze happened to be a longtime Falun Gong practitioner.

VII.

There is a slogan inscribed on the main gate of the western wall of Zhongnanhai: “Long live the great Chinese Communist Party.” After 10,000 Falun Gong devotees gathered in protest next to the compound in 1999, China scholars and observers had to wonder: Where did this spiritual movement, which claimed millions of followers in a country that demanded faith only in the ruling party, come from?

One explanation, according to some historians, was that Falun Gong was best understood as a modern incarnation of the White Lotus society, a secretive Buddhist sect that emerged within Chinese peasant communities in the 14th century. Its adherents, said to practice esoteric rites under the cover of night, were considered religious zealots who prophesied the imminent arrival of a messianic bodhisattva who would usher in an era of universal enlightenment. When news of the White Lotus reached the ruling class, the group was deemed a cult. Its rituals were banned, forcing the White Lotus underground. Practicing became a political act, radicalizing segments of society that went on to participate in the bloody rebellions that brought down the Yuan Empire. Over subsequent centuries, fearing the populist power of the spiritual movement, imperial forces responded to reports of White Lotus activities with claims that the group was evil and dangerous.

The hypothesis offered by some of the first scholars of Falun Gong, and repeated by Western media, was that the conflict between Li’s followers and the CCP was, in essence, another cycle in the long history of state versus cult. When I began reporting this story, that struck me as a good framework for understanding Falun Gong and its motivations. But then I found the work of Barend ter Haar, a Dutch professor of Chinese history and religion. He believes that it’s possible much of the primary documentation about the White Lotus—police inquiries, court proceedings, reports, even individual confessions—was fabricated by ruling forces. In other words, the White Lotus might be a myth used by the elite to strike fear into the public and, when convenient, to inculpate political dissidents in a nefarious cabal. It might be fake news.

While reading ter Haar’s research, I felt something akin to the sensation Klett had described, of reality wobbling. It wasn’t the first time a factual bedrock seemed to fall away in my reporting. Researching Falun Gong and the Epoch Times was like holding a sieve. I would establish what I thought was true, only to find enough contradictory information to raise a doubt in my mind. Facts were hard to distinguish from ideological constructions. The layers of spin and myth seemed endless.

I wanted a concrete truth, however tangential or unlikely, to round out my reporting. On a warm Friday evening in late June 2020, Klett pulled up outside my apartment building in a dark blue Toyota Sienna. I got in the back, pushing aside empty cardboard boxes and coffee cups. Klett introduced me to his girlfriend, Arielle, who was sitting up front. He apologized for being late; he had just clocked out at his job delivering pharmaceuticals around Brooklyn, which he’d picked up at the start of the year to earn some extra money. It had been deemed essential work as COVID-19 rippled through the neighborhoods he served.

The pandemic had been a boon for the Epoch Times. When the coronavirus first hit, the paper ratcheted up its anti-China content. It was among the first outlets to spread the story that COVID-19—“the CCP virus,” as the paper dubbed it—was bioengineered and released from a Wuhan research laboratory. In April, the paper unveiled a 54-minute documentary on a subsidiary YouTube channel, “exposing” the “origin of the CCP virus.” It also produced an eight-page special edition entitled “How the Chinese Communist Party Endangered the World” and sent it unsolicited to tens of thousands of mailboxes in the United States, Canada, and Australia. On July 4, it would publish an article promoting the practice of Falun Gong as an antidote to pandemic-induced stress.

Klett and I had been speaking on the phone at night, nailing down the details of his story. He seemed less interested in the Epoch Times’ pandemic propaganda or the impact of his work at the newspaper than in whether there really was a compound in New Jersey where Falun Gong housed overworked acolytes. I had found an online testimonial that described “dorms” provided for practitioners working at the Epoch Times. I asked Klett if he had any way of determining the location of Cristofaro’s old apartment. He had a vague sense that it was near Journal Square in Jersey City. He also had an idea: What if we waited outside the newspaper’s office in Manhattan and, when an employee came out, followed them home?

That’s what we set out to do that Friday. After crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, we approached an exit to Chinatown. Klett pointed to a large billboard featuring a woman leaping into the air, her legs in a split and parallel to the ground, white skirt fanned out against a bright shade of emerald. The copy read, “2020 Shen Yun. 5,000 years of civilization reborn.”

“It’s like I can’t escape them,” Klett said.

We identified two young employees—both wearing cream-colored chinos and blue shirts, with Epoch Times lanyards around their necks—emerging from the newspaper’s office on 28th Street and 7th Avenue. We followed them to New Jersey. In Hoboken, we saw them enter a three-story apartment building. I checked the names on the mailboxes. Nothing stood out. A cardboard box left outside held a dozen secondhand books about Frank Sinatra, including His Way, an unauthorized biography that claimed to go “behind the iconic myth of Sinatra to expose the well-hidden side of one of the most celebrated—and elusive—public figures of our time.”

If a compound for Epoch Times staff existed, this wasn’t it.

As we drove back to Brooklyn, fireworks exploded overhead. There had been a relentless barrage for the past few weeks, colorful explosions beginning each night at sundown and not letting up until early morning. Some New Yorkers were frustrated by the disturbances, while others speculated about their origin in increasingly conspiratorial terms.

Arielle said that she had read—on Twitter somewhere—that there was a man in a white SUV driving around neighborhoods handing out fireworks to young kids. Setting them off was intended to cause chaos and push civilians into a heightened state of alert to prepare for an upcoming military takeover. I stayed silent. Klett laughed.

“At this point,” he said. “I’d believe anything.”

The Epoch Times was among the first outlets to spread the story that COVID-19—“the CCP virus,” as the paper dubbed it—was bioengineered and released from a Wuhan research laboratory.

It’s hard not to empathize—at least to some degree—with Klett’s credulity. We live in a world where a kaleidoscope of information sources compete for our attention, making truth seem relative and waking life feel like an epistemic free-for-all. Journalists have unwittingly promoted or generated propaganda. In September, reports emerged that the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency had hired U.S. reporters to contribute content to a site targeting left-leaning voters with misinformation.  

Trust is eroding, ambivalence is soaring, and, for many people, seeking is becoming a steady state of being. For some, like Klett, detachment—from responsibility, from consequences, from facts—is a defense mechanism. But what does that mean for questions of rightness and moral conviction? Often they are sidelined by apathy and languish, unanswered.

The ultimate beneficiaries are ideologues and megalomaniacs willing to manipulate people’s grasp on reality, along with the opportunists who glom onto their rise. The Epoch Times is an example of the latter: It has capitalized on Trumpism, hoping to promote its versions of truth and tradition and to tip the balance of power in Falun Gong’s information war with Beijing. In a sense, the paper is succeeding. In June, the State Department released a statement designating the U.S. operations of China Central Television, China News Service, the People’s Daily, and the Global Times “foreign missions.” It continued, “While Western media are beholden to the truth, PRC media are beholden to the Chinese Communist Party.” Meanwhile, the Epoch Times was cozier than ever with the Trump administration. Its reporters received special treatment in press briefings, alongside alternative outlets like Gateway Pundit and One America News. In Falun Gong’s decades-long quest for Fa-rectification, there is arguably no more resounding success than having the attention of the White House.

By the end of the summer, a paywall ad promised that, for $77 a year, the Epoch Times’ online subscribers would “get real news other outlets don’t report” from “one of the few media that report factually on President Donald Trump.” As of this writing, the paper routinely mixes pro-Trump messages with anti-China ones. Its daily email newsletter has implied more than once that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden might be in league with the CCP for his family’s own business interests. Trump, meanwhile, is portrayed as committed to protecting America from China’s influence.

Many editions of the newsletter feature glowing quotes from subscribers in praise of the outlet’s mission and values. After witnessing “the contempt for America and its people [that] oozes from mainstream news sources,” one woman says, the Epoch Times “restored my faith in journalism.” Another quote describes the newspaper as “the bible of journalism.”

“Thank God for the TET,” it concludes, “providing truth in a world blinded by fake news.”


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