A special eight-page edition of The Epoch Times was delivered to some households across Canada. Some Canadians who received it were put off by the newspaper's content, which one recipient described as 'racist and inflammatory.'
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.
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."
A copy of The Epoch Times was delivered to Lisa Armstrong in Kelowna, B.C., though she is not a subscriber. (Submitted by Lisa Armstrong)
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."
"This is a standard way of raising brand awareness and recruiting new subscribers."
Social media giants struggle to crack down on COVID-19 misinformation
Gu disagrees that the paper will fuel racism against people of Chinese background.
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.
This article, which asked if SARS-CoV-2 was originally a bioweapon, was of great concern to a Kelowna woman who received the paper as well as a Canada Post mail carrier. (Submitted by Carol Harman)
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.
Xiaoping Li, a professor at Okanagan College who studies media outlets that serve the Chinese-Canadian diaspora.
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."
"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 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.
Bundles of Epoch Times await delivery in a Toronto-area Canada Post station. The special edition of the paper has concerned some Canadians speaking out about content they view as racist and hateful. (Submitted by a Canada Post mail carrier)
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."