This article was co-published with Responsible Statecraft.
A former NBC executive who founded one of the earliest—and more successful—fake news websites quietly assumed a leadership role at The Epoch Times as the news outlet ramped up its pro-Trump messaging after the 2016 election.
Epoch’s influential role as a Trump-friendly media outlet coincided with access to Trump allies seeking friendly interviews, uncritical coverage of the administration’s policies, and a venue to advance the White House’s militant anti-Beijing and hyper-nationalist messages.
That change in direction—which included a flood of omnipresent YouTube ads costing at least $1 million, and a ban from Facebook for violating the platform’s rules about political advertising—appears to have occurred alongside the 2017 arrival of a new vice president at The Epoch Times, Chris Kitze, and huge jumps in the paper’s revenue from $3.8 million in 2016 to $8.1 million in 2017 and $12.4 million in 2018.
Kitze, who now manages a cryptocurrency hedge fund, was listed as a member of the six-person board of the The Epoch Times Association, the nonprofit that operates The Epoch Times, as a vice president in 2017 and 2018 tax documents. But Kitze’s ties to The Epoch Times go back much further than 2017 and point to a mutually beneficial relationship. Since 2010, Kitze’s company, BeforeItsNews.com, an early fake news site that promoted conspiracy theories about then-president Barack Obama and offered extensive coverage of Trump’s insurgent candidacy in 2016, promoted Falun Gong—a spiritual movement that is persecuted by the Chinese government and has the stated goal of destroying the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—and The Epoch Times; meanwhile, Falun Gong-linked media properties quietly promoted Kitze’s other business ventures, including Unseen, an encrypted messaging platform.
Chris Kitze’s career spans countless internet ventures and well-timed exits from companies across two tech bubbles. His LinkedIn profile shows an impressive career starting in 1991 with the founding of Acris Media, a company selling clipart on CD-ROMs, a stint as the VP of Marketing at the early search engine Lycos from 1995 to 1996 (“I led the Lycos marketing team through one of the first internet IPOs,” says Kitze on LinkedIn) and founding and serving as chairman of free-website company Xoom.com, leading to a merger with NBC Internet (NBCi).
Kitze served as CEO of NBCi, NBC’s initiative to create an NBC controlled internet portal and landing page, from 1999 to 2000. Kitze’s post-NBC activities include serving as CEO of Yaga, a filesharing network, serving as chairman of Wine.com before pivoting his attention to a number of blockchain- and cryptocurrency-related companies five years ago.
Kitze’s public resume contains at least two noticeable omissions: the 2008 formation of BeforeItsNews.com and Kitze’s appointment as a VP at The Epoch Times and membership on the paper’s board starting in 2017.
BeforeItsNews.com appears to have begun operations in early 2009, shortly after Obama’s inauguration and, at launch, directly attacked the news media’s treatment of Obama, referencing then-MSNBC-pundit Chris Matthew’s March 2008 comment about how “I felt this thrill going up my leg” when Obama spoke.
BeforeItsNews.com’s “about” page read:
Something strange happened during the 2008 U.S. election. The news media came down with a bad case of amnesia — they forgot exactly what it was they were supposed to be doing. Instead of asking critical questions of those running for office, they went out of their way to "get a tingle up their leg" for some candidates, or to ignore the constitutional requirements of the political office.
We wanted to present a point of view that didn't seem to exist in the mainstream media. One that is hopeful, yet realistic, based on the natural law of truth, compassion and tolerance.
What that meant in practice was the rapid production of enormous quantities of user contributed news articles, wide dissemination on social media, and no editorial oversight or fact-checking.
The website encourages anyone to contribute articles, advertising itself as a “news utility—an internet platform that enables the hosting and distribution of any kind of news, worldwide.
“It will get out through all the major search engines,” says the current “about” page.
Conspiracy theories about Obama’s birth certificate, UFOs, the New World Order, and imminent economic and societal collapse all made the front page of BeforeItsNews.com.
A 2017 Guardian article on Facebook’s failures to address the dissemination of fake news on its platform specifically mentioned Kitze and BeforeItsNews.com:
Chris Kitze, who runs BeforeItsNews.com, said that although he allows users to post any content without fact-checking, he hasn’t noticed Facebook tagging any of his site’s articles as fake news. That includes a recent piece debunked by Snopes claiming to include leaked photos showing how Obama practiced Islam in the White House.
“A lot of people think Obama is Muslim. That’s what it plays on. Is it real? I don’t know,” he said. “The fact is a lot of people thought it was real or it reflects their sentiment.”
Alongside publishing a steady flow of factually questionable content, Kitze, BeforeItsNews.com, and Epoch appear to have enjoyed a thriving relationship with over 20,000 Epoch Times articles appearing on the site between 2010 and 2012.
Kitze’s involvement with Falun Gong was detailed in an Epoch Times article published in June 2012, in which he described coming across Falun Gong practitioners in New York’s Times Square in 2005 and, remembering that encounter, educating himself in the movement and practicing its meditation techniques two years later.
The group’s persecution in China—the Chinese government banned Falun Gong and prohibits practice of the movement’s exercises in public and the dissemination of its written material—and freedom of participating in an activity defying the Chinese government clearly resonated with Kitze.
The Epoch Times explained that Kitze was drawn to Falun Gong’s openness and participants’ voluntary decision to practice and study the movement.
“Kitze said this may be why the Chinese communist regime was so afraid of Falun Gong that it launched a brutal campaign of hate and persecution against some 100 million practitioners, starting a decade ago in the country where the practice originated” said The Epoch Times. “Because it’s in your heart and mind—that’s something no government could ever control, that’s one reason why a totalitarian regime would oppose it,” Kitze told the paper.
Matthew Tullar, who served as director of circulation at The Epoch Times from 2012 to 2014 and director of sales and marketing from 2015 to 2016, recalled Kitze speaking to Epoch advertising salespeople at a 2012 San Francisco seminar.
“While I was already familiar with the fact that the Chinese Communist Party was officially persecuting Some [sic] 100 million Falun Gong practitioners in China and that the leftist media [...] was strangely ignoring this story, even to this day, that included over 75 Communist government hospitals busy murdering thousands of these people every year since the early two thousands, to harvest and sell their body parts to U.S. and other world customers,” wrote Tullar in an email.
“Mr. Kitze was the first business guy I had ever met that was dedicating a significant part of his business profits and effort to exposing these facts. He struck me as a kind and genuine person who cared about his fellow man,” said Tullar. “While my understanding of and experience with him was limited, I was nonetheless inspired by his effort and compassion. And his presentation turned out to be useful as well.”
The Epoch Times has always maintained a hawkish editorial tone towards China but that line took on a more overtly partisan and focused U.S. political message over the course of the Trump presidency, pushing a steady onslaught of articles and videos labeling the novel coronavirus “CCP Virus” and advancing a series of thinly reported or unsubstantiated theories about vast Chinese government cover-ups to hide the origins of COVID-19.
The paper’s editorial board even went so far as to claim, “If someone is unfortunately infected with the CCP virus, we suggest that he or she sincerely says ‘down with the CCP.’ Maybe a miracle will happen.”
“Staying away from the CCP and condemning the CCP can help any individual, organization, or country alleviate or even avoid attacks of the CCP virus,” the ed board added. “They may then embrace a wonderful future.”
Over the course of the Trump presidency, Epoch emerged as a prolific pro-Trump media outlet.
When Facebook banned the Epoch Media Group from buying ads in August 2019, it later said the news outlet spent over $9 million on ads, including approximately 11,000 pro-Trump Facebook advertisements, more than any other organization other than the Trump campaign.
Epoch denied the ads were purchased by The Epoch Times but Facebook said Epoch evaded the company’s transparency rules for political advertising and “repeatedly violated a number of our policies, including our policies against coordinated inauthentic behavior, spam and misrepresentation, to name just a few.”
Epoch’s pivot toward Trump appears to have coincided with the ramp up of BeforeItsNews.com’s drumbeat of pro-Trump articles, and Kitze’s conspiracy theories.
“[BeforeItsNews] was one of the first news websites to really cover Donald Trump and his candidacy in a serious manner and, you know, we took him seriously,” Kitze told a conspiracy oriented podcast, The Common Sense Show, in July 2016. “We didn’t think he was just some flash in the pan.”
In 2017, the alliance between Kitze and Epoch became official, when Kitze joined Epoch’s board as a vice president in 2017—an association that is listed nowhere on Epoch’s website, Kitze’s online social media profiles, or in a 2018 profile on him in the newspaper. His continued promotion of disproven or baseless conspiracy theories is seemingly in contradiction with Epoch’s “dedicat[ion] to truthful reporting.”
Meanwhile, Kitze kept elevating the strangest of right-wing conspiracy theories. In a 2018 appearance on the Common Sense Show, Kitze referenced the alleged “organ harvesting” of Falun Gong practitioners in China, explaining that he believed they were also being used for “satanic” ritual purposes “as we’ve just seen in the U.S. with all the Pizzagate things.”
Kitze’s reference to Pizzagate is particularly jarring as it came a year and a half after a man with an assault rifle was arrested outside a pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. attempting to investigate online conspiracy claims that a pedophile ring was operating in the restaurant’s basement with the help of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Kitze went on to echo a largely debunked assertion made by the Trump administration about child trafficking on the U.S.-Mexico border, saying:
All these kids coming across the border, these ones all the Democrats were up in arms about, you know, ‘how can you separate the families?’. Fifty-percent of them aren’t even with their family. They’re being trafficked and God knows where these poor kids are going to end up.
In 2019, Kitze appeared on the same show to discuss, among other topics, a conspiracy theory involving the Clintons selling “all of the U.S. secrets” to China. “The Clintons had asked for $1 trillion but [the Chinese] got a deal and only had to pay the Clintons $900 billion,” said Kitze, referencing reporting in The Epoch Times Chinese language edition.
Since forming BeforeItsNews, Kitze focused heavily on privacy-related products, including Unseen, a now shuttered secure messaging platform, and founding the cryptocurrency Flashcoin, both of which were featured in a glowing 2018 profile in The Epoch Times that made no reference to his role as an officer in the organization.
Kitze also serves as chairman of the Alphabit Fund, a Dubai and Cayman Islands based cryptocurrency fund aiming to raise $300 million that Reuters described in 2018 as “one of the world’s largest digital currency funds.”
Alphabit’s co-founder and managing director, Saeed Al Darmaki, worked for over eight years at Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, raising questions about whether Alphabit has state backing. Kitze did not respond to a request for comment about the investors in Alphabit, his responsibilities as a vice president at Epoch or his current relationship with BeforeItsNews.
Epoch, for its part, offered incomplete and contradictory answers about Kitze’s role at the news organization.
Dr. Dana Cheng, a spokesperson for The Epoch Times, responded to questions about Kitze’s involvement, saying, “Mr. Kitze had limited involvement with The Epoch Times more than 7 years ago,” adding, “There is no relationship between The Epoch Times and any of Mr. Kitze’s endeavors, including beforeitsnews."
Cheng appeared to contradict her statement about Kitze’s involvement with Epoch more than seven years ago when questioned about his appearance on tax filings in the 2017 and 2018 tax years. “Yes, he was a board member in 2017 and 2018, with minimal involvement,” said Cheng, adding, “He is not a board member nor a VP now.”