The Epoch Times, a free newspaper typically found in street boxes, is coming under fire for advancing a conspiracy theory about the origin of the coronavirus — and putting it straight into people’s mailboxes unsolicited.
Some Canadians who received it by mail and a postal carrier who says he is forced to deliver it are angry over a special eight-page edition of the paper exploring the idea that the virus that causes COVID-19 was created as a biological weapon and arguing it should be called “the CCP virus,” a reference to the Chinese Communist Party.
People in Oakville, Etobicoke, Markham, and Toronto, Ont. all reported getting copies of a special edition of The Epoch Times, as did residents in North Vancouver and Kelowna, B.C., and Winnipeg. It’s not clear that all those papers were delivered by Canada Post.
Lisa Armstrong in Kelowna found a copy in her rural mailbox.
“That’s when I got annoyed or suspicious. It’s like, why is this in my mailbox? You expect to see those kind of things online on social media,” she said.
“It did seem to allude to conspiracy theories like, you know, maybe it was manufactured, this virus was manufactured in the lab. Well, no. We know scientifically that’s just not true.”
Scientists have repeatedly said the evidence points to the coronavirus having a natural origin.
Jason Kindrachuk, a Canada research chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba, says that through studying the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, scientists can see it is similar to other bat coronaviruses and that it likely evolved naturally.
“There is an unbelievably high consensus within the scientific community at this point that there is, there is a very close to zero, if not zero, chance that the virus was ever engineered,” Kindrachuk said.
Armstrong was also worried the issue’s anti-Communist Party messaging could inflame racial tensions in Canada during the pandemic.
“It really feels racist and inflammatory,” Armstrong said. “And right now, we’re all scared. We’re all vulnerable. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. Then somebody that starts playing on those fears, [it’s] a very dangerous thing to do at this time.”
Issue sent to ‘specific neighbourhoods’
It’s not clear how many households in Canada received the paper.
Cindy Gu, the publisher of The Epoch Times, declined to say how many copies of that issue were distributed. In an email to CBC News, Gu said the publication had been delivering copies to “specific neighbourhoods.”
“The Epoch Times has recently been ‘sampling’ copies of a special edition on Beijing’s coverup that led to a global pandemic in select areas because we consider that information to be important to Canadians. We regard this sampling as an act of good citizenship,” she wrote.
“This is a standard way of raising brand awareness and recruiting new subscribers.”
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Gu disagrees that the paper will fuel racism against people of Chinese background.
“Some people may have erroneously conflated criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with criticism of the Chinese people,” she wrote.
“Understanding the difference is vital and will eliminate racial tension, as people come to understand that the criticism of the handling of the virus is of the CCP, not the Chinese people.”
Who’s behind The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times, headquartered in New York, is part of a group of organizations under the Epoch Media Group umbrella, which also includes the Shen Yun dance troupe and the New Tang Dynasty TV channel. It says it operates in 23 languages in 35 countries.
A sociology professor says the Epoch Media Group is affiliated with the Falun Gong movement, a religious group that began in China and was declared illegal and a “cult” by the Chinese government in 1999. Its followers say the Chinese government persecutes them and oppresses their religious rights.
“Falun Gong followers started to organize large-scale protest[s] against the Chinese government’s attempt to suppress the practice. So it just evolved into this very antagonistic relationship between the Chinese government and this religious group,” said Xiaoping Li, a professor at Okanagan College who studies media outlets that serve the Chinese-Canadian diaspora.
“There are many stories about how group members were persecuted in China. There could be certain exaggerations but … definitely there is persecution and there are violations of human rights.”
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As for The Epoch Times, Li says it’s not clear where the group gets its funding, but it can afford to employ reporters who speak English and Chinese in the many countries where it operates.
“Typically what happens is it’s funded principally by donations, in a Chinese dissident community, in a given local context,” said Stephen Noakes, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland who studies Chinese culture. “The people who staff the paper itself are normally also drawn from that context or are third-party acquaintances of the local Falun Gong community.“
Noakes said that Falun Gong has been “enormously adept” at using its various media platforms “to its advantage to call attention to its own plight as a major human rights issue the world needs to know about.”
“I think the local reporting is generally trustworthy. It does report what’s happening in, for example, in Vancouver, in Toronto or New York,” said Li.
But Li says its reporting on China is less reliable. The Epoch Times is “an anti-Chinese government media outlet, so you have to be careful that there could be some exaggerations.”
The head of a non-profit that studies misinformation and disinformation says The Epoch Times is using a well-known technique to sow doubt in people’s minds.
‘Kernel of truth’
“The most effective disinformation is that which has a kernel of truth to it, is that which kind of flies under the radar, doesn’t really break any guidelines,” said Claire Wardle of First Draft, which educates journalists and others about what misinformation is and how to spot it. “It’s much more hyper-partisan. It’s much more misleading than completely outright-false falsehoods.”
The Epoch Times has shared misinformation and conspiracy theories in the past, and was banned from advertising on Facebook for trying to bypass political spending rules — though it is not alone in accusing China of coronavirus coverup.
Wardle says people who read the special edition of The Epoch Times may not be completely convinced about its findings, but will have been left with questions about about what their governments are telling them.
“That is a technique of disinformation actors who want people to question as much as possible authoritative sources,” she said. “Ultimately, you’re no longer going to your trusted news site or the WHO or your government even for information. You’re left thinking, ‘I can’t trust anybody.'”
Carrier objects to delivering the paper
It was an article about a possible bioweapons link to coronavirus that set off alarm bells for a Toronto mail carrier when he saw the special edition appear in his mail station on Friday.
CBC News is not naming the carrier because he is concerned he could lose his job with Canada Post.
“They’re saying the coronavirus is part of a bio-warfare agenda by the Chinese people. That’s over the line for me,” he said.
“I saw the headlines on the thing and my heart sank because I thought the world right now is full of fear and confusion and the last thing that people need is, is this kind of this kind of hatred.”
The carrier told CBC News that his supervisors decided that carriers wouldn’t have to deliver it, and that the station superintendent supported the decision. But then, according to the carrier, the superintendent was told Canada Post Communications had deemed the paper a political mailing and that carriers who didn’t deliver it would be disciplined.
“To be honest, it makes me feel like … humanity is facing an existential crisis. And I’m being forced to hand out weapons in a cage fight,” said the carrier.
Canada Post said in an email to CBC News, “We understand the reaction to this publication. However, as Canada’s postal system, we are legally required to deliver it. The content is the sole responsibility of the publisher.”
“Anyone concerned with its contents should contact the publisher, file a complaint against the publication through the appropriate institutions or place the item in the recycling box,” the email continued.