A network of YouTube channels connected to the pro-Trump media outlet Epoch Times launched after Election Day as part of a disinformation campaign to keep President Donald Trump in office. Only one of the channels discloses its ties to the newspaper, which traffics in conspiracy theories and has become one of the president’s staunchest media allies.
Hours after a mob of Trump supporters violently occupied the Capitol Wednesday, the host of one channel, Eye Opener With Michael Lewis, went live on YouTube to lie about the coup attempt, election fraud, and antifa.
“There is mounting evidence to show that an old Communist tactic was used here,” said Lewis, dressed in a matching bow tie and suspenders. “These people instigated the crowd and stirred up the people into a fervor ... It looks to be antifa from early reports."
None of this is true. But it is standard fare for Lewis's channel. Since its creation on Nov. 10, 2020, it’s been a clearinghouse for election disinformation propagated by Trump, his attorneys, and conspiracy theorists. It’s working: Eye Opener gained more than 200,000 subscribers and more than 11.6 million views on Youtube in less than two months.
The channel’s About page portrays it as an independent effort by Lewis “and a few friends” who “felt like truth was dying.” In reality, Eye Opener is one of seven newly launched channels connected to the Epoch Times and Falun Gong, a religious movement the Chinese government labeled a cult and banned in 1999.
The YouTube channels have spread lies about voting technology companies, votes being flipped from Trump to Biden, disappearing USB drives, suspicious servers in Germany, and the Christmas Day bombing in Nashville. Since November, they’ve attracted more than 1.1 million subscribers and tens of millions of views.
Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard, told BuzzFeed News the network of channels is “alarming, but not surprising” because the platform has failed to rein in operations like the Epoch Times. She called the channels dark propaganda influence campaigns that obscure their true origins.
“Platform companies should be aware of this by now and guard against it,” she said. “If people believe they are viewing news when they are really seeing dark propaganda, what responsibility does YouTube have to limit or label this content? Years ago, the openness of YouTube was a benefit to artists, activists, and creative types, but YouTube is now a major component of scaling disinformation campaigns.”
The Epoch Times and the YouTube channels did not respond to requests for comment.
After being contacted by BuzzFeed News, YouTube removed “several” videos from the channels because they violated the site’s Presidential Election Integrity policy, according to Farshad Shadloo, the site’s head of policy communications.
“Over the last month, we’ve removed thousands of videos which spread misinformation claiming widespread voter fraud changed the result of the 2020 election, including several videos from the channels sent over by BuzzFeed,” Shadloo said. “Any channel posting new videos with these false claims in violation of our policies will now receive a strike, a penalty which temporarily restricts uploading or livestreaming. Channels that receive three strikes in the same 90-day period will be permanently removed from YouTube."
He did not say how many videos were removed from the channels.
In response to inquiries from BuzzFeed News, Facebook removed two pages managed by people associated with Falun Gong that were lying about election fraud. It also began labeling some of the content.
The only channel that discloses its connections to the Epoch Times is Facts Matter With Roman Balmakov, which launched Nov. 18 and has close to 420,000 subscribers. Its host is featured in Epoch Times YouTube ads, and his channel displays an Epoch Times logo. Three other YouTube channel hosts, Scott Goulet, Brendon Fallon, and Trevor Loudon, are current or former contributors to the Epoch Times, but do not disclose that. Another, David Zhang, has been promoted multiple times by Epoch Times Facebook pages as well as those run by a related operation, NTD News.
Michael Lewis, the host of Eye Opener, is a Falun Gong practitioner in Toronto. Lewis was photographed at a 2012 Falun Gong rally in Toronto. A photo of him appears in a 2014 Globe and Mail article describing his campaign against a Chinese government–backed initiative in Toronto schools, and his membership in the group was the subject of a 2016 profile on a Falun Gong website.
Another channel is Sound of Hope News, which is run by a nonprofit media entity run by Falun Gong practitioners. It shares employees with the Epoch Times, according to their LinkedIn profiles. Sound of Hope also launched a Facebook page on Nov. 27 to spread its YouTube content.
At least two other Facebook pages with undisclosed ties to Falun Gong sprouted up after the election.
One of the pages, True Focus, shared content from some of the YouTube channels. The other page, Evidence of Election Fraud, published memes with debunked election fraud claims.
A Facebook spokesperson said it removed True Focus and Evidence of Election Fraud because they were managed by people in the Philippines and Canada, but targeted a US audience with domestic political content.
“We removed a number of Pages and accounts for engaging in inauthentic behavior and spammy tactics to misled people about the origin of their content and who they are,” a company spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. ●