Facebook has banned The Epoch Times, a conservative news outlet that spent more money on pro-Trump Facebook advertisements than any group other than the Trump campaign, from any future advertising on the platform.
The decision follows an NBC News report that The Epoch Times had shifted its spending on Facebook in the last month, seemingly in an effort to obfuscate its connection to some $2 million worth of ads that promoted the president and conspiracy theories about his political enemies.
"Over the past year we removed accounts associated with the Epoch Times for violating our ad policies, including trying to get around our review systems," a Facebook spokesperson said. "We acted on additional accounts today and they are no longer able to advertise with us."
Facebook's decision came as a result of a review prompted by questions from NBC News. The spokesperson explained that ads must include disclaimers that accurately represent the name of the ad's sponsors.
The Epoch Times' new method of pushing the pro-Trump conspiracy ads on Facebook, which appeared under page names such as "Honest Paper" and "Pure American Journalism," allowed the organization to hide its multimillion-dollar spending on dark-money ads, in effect bypassing Facebook's political advertising transparency rules. Facebook's ban will affect only The Epoch Times' ability to buy ads; the sock-puppet pages created to host the new policy-violating ads were still live at the time of publication.
A recent NBC News investigation revealed how The Epoch Times had evolved from a nonprofit newspaper that carried a Chinese-American religious movement's anti-communism message into a conservative online news behemoth that embraced President Donald Trump and conspiracy content.
The religious group that quietly operates the paper believes in a coming judgment day that will send communists to hell and says Trump is helping accelerate that timeline.
Since 2016, The Epoch Times' revenue more than doubled, and the reach of its online content rocketed past that of every other news organization, attracting billions of views across its many platforms. It also became a player on the conservative media stage, securing interviews with Trump Cabinet members, loyalists and family members, as well as members of Congress and Republican media stars.
Until mid-July, The Epoch Times had placed its ads through accounts that clearly labeled their affiliation to the wider organization. Through the umbrella account, Coverage of the Trump Presidency by The Epoch Times, the news organization spent $1.5 million on more than 11,000 Trump-friendly Facebook ads within the last year.
In May, after a popular newsletter from the progressive nonprofit ACRONYM highlighted The Epoch Times' major Facebook spending, journalist Judd Legum noted in his newsletter how many of the ads were in violation of Facebook's policies. NBC News reporters reached out to The Epoch Times in June, prompting a defensive open letter from the site's publisher.
By July, The Epoch Times' official accounts were no longer running any ads on Facebook, according to searches of Facebook's Ad Library, its transparency tool that is supposed to make it easy to find information behind ads "related to politics or issues of national importance."
The ads are still running, just not under the official accounts. By mid-July, Epoch Times ads had shifted to multiple pages with opaque names such as Honest Paper, Patriots of America, Pure American Journalism and Best News. Other Epoch Times ads were sponsored by a now-defunct page called The News Express.
The Epoch Times has spent more than $450,000 on thousands of ads from these five accounts in the last 30 days. It is unclear whether there are other accounts.
Multiple anonymous patrons now appear on the "paid for" section of each ad. Where Epoch Times ads used to be clearly marked as being paid for by The Epoch Times, ads now claim to have been paid for by groups such as "Chronicle Media" or "MarketFuel Subscription Services."
The new ads prompt potential customers to visit similarly generic websites, such as genuinenewspaper.com and truthandtradition.news, websites registered privately on July 24 and 25, respectively, according to a search on DomainTools, a domain-research company. Those sites both redirect to The Epoch Times' subscription page.
The Epoch Times' publisher, Stephen Gregory, did not respond to an emailed request for comment before the original publication of this article. Three days after publication, Gregory emailed a statement to NBC News which did not address its attempt to circumvent Facebook's review systems by running its ads through non-branded pages, the reason behind Facebook's ban, but which asserted the article "grossly misrepresents" the nature of the news organization's advertising.
The statement from Gregory read: "The Epoch Times advertisements are print-subscription advertisements describing our paper's reporting — a popular practice of many publishers — and every one of these ads was approved by Facebook before publishing."
The growth and legitimacy of The Epoch Times are due in large part to Facebook, where it placed $2 million in pro-Trump ads in the last year, more than any other organization outside Trump's re-election campaign and more than what most of the Democratic presidential candidates spent on their own campaigns in the same time.
Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist who advised The Epoch Times on how to break into the broader conservative movement, told NBC News that he arranged its introduction to CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, and arranged dozens of interviews with right-wing newsmakers.
Although he doesn't manage their social media strategy — Steinhauser said The Epoch Times handles that internally — he said creating multiple pages and accounts without clearly labeling their connection to the wider organization was a common practice used by public relations or political campaigns to bring in subscribers and donors.
UPDATE (Aug. 26, 2019, 1:20 p.m. ET): This article has been updated with a response from the publisher of the Epoch Times.