An investigation by Raquel Miguel.
- Tierrapura.org appeared in Argentina at the end of March 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming to gather a “group of concerned citizens” that provides “really important information” that was “being hidden (…) due to the manipulation of the communist regime in China”, as stated in its website. Rapidly, Tierra Pura was flagged by several fact-checkers for spreading health disinformation in Spanish.
- In this report, the EU DisinfoLab exposes how the website “tierrapura.org” is in fact a partisan outlet with links to the Falun Gong, a religious group that is persecuted by the Chinese Government and is antagonistic to China’s Communist Party.
- Tierra Pura is regularly disseminating content in Spanish and Portuguese languages from media outlets connected to the Epoch Media Group, a well-known actor in the disinformation field, as well as other institutions and outlets linked to the Falun Gong ecosystem and other alternative media with dubious credibility.
- Tierra Pura is an example of how the global COVID-19 pandemic has been used by some actors to create new international vectors to push specific narratives and disinformation. The global dimension of the pandemic is also an opportunity for mis- and disinformation to cross physical and cultural borders and reach broader audiences, using translation as a tool and as a weapon.
- Tierra Pura is an example of how disinformation generated in one country can easily reach other countries through a common language: Tierra Pura originates from Argentina, but its content is disseminated in other American countries sharing the same language and even in other continents, reaching audiences located in Spain. This situation makes it harder to hold accountable the people who spread harmful content as they can live thousands of kilometres away from the countries where their messages have an actual impact.
- The fact that Tierra Pura has started spreading QAnon conspiracy theories shows how COVID-19 related disinformation websites can be used for other purposes to reach some long-term objectives.
- The .org extension is commonly associated with non-profit organisations and NGOs. The extension was originally intended for non-profit entities, but nowadays there are few restrictions for registration. Anyone can benefit from the positive image that a .org extension projects, one of a trustworthy public organisation. However, due to its lack of scrutiny, the extension has become just “a marketing tool that relies on a widespread but false association with credibility (…) and that leads people to make errors about whom and what to trust”, according to Stanford Prof. Sam Wineburg in a New York Times column.
- The case of Tierra Pura illustrates the ongoing global information wars. While there are multiple signs suggesting an increase of the Chinese government’s information operations targeting Spanish-speaking countries, some of its opponents can be active in the same areas, using sometimes controversial strategies and disinformation.
Note: This blog post is only a summary of our findings. Our full report about this OSINT investigation is available here.
We strongly encourage everyone to read our disclaimer.
A strong start: promising a political cure for COVID-19
“If you say no to China, you get cured of coronavirus”. This audacious promise attracted the attention of EU DisinfoLab while monitoring and researching mis- and disinformation circulating in Spain in April 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic. This article published on 28 April 2020 in a website called tierrapura.org promised a COVID-19 cure for those who distance themselves from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This “cure” was allegedly confirmed by human evidence: three politicians of the Spanish ultra-right-wing party VOX cured “surprisingly” after condemning the CCP, according to the publication.
Figure 1: “Rejecting and condemning the CCP is an effective cure for the virus” (In the article: “Hay una cura para el virus del Partido Comunista Chino: decir no al PCCh”, by www.tierrapura.org)
Scrolling through the website tierrapura.org, we also found that the first article made a similar claim: the religious faith and the “straight path” – ie, moving away from the CCP – could guarantee readers health protection against the COVID-19 virus.
Who is behind this website that promised both a political and a religious cure against the new virus? Among others, the name Tierra Pura refers to a Buddhist school with a strong following in East Asia. But the outlet remains completely opaque about its founders and donors. According to its own vague description, Tierra Pura gathers “a group of concerned citizens, from different countries and nationalities, members of society and from different professions, including journalists, economists, designers, teachers, translators, etc.”
Moreover, the website claimed to count on independent investigative reporters to meet their goal: to reveal “important information” about the virus, that must be dubbed the “Chinese Communist Party Virus”, that were hidden “due to the manipulation of the Chinese Communist Party regime”.
The beginning: health disinformation & attacks against the Chinese Communist Party
But far from exposing only facts, TierraPura.org regularly recirculated debunked health mis- and disinformation about the pandemic. As a consequence, the website began appearing in articles from international fact-checkers. Disinformation items spread by Tierra Pura include:
- Unproven facts about the origin of the virus, claiming that “the ‘CCP virus’ was genetically designed in a lab”. If some arguments used by Tierra Pura to criticise the Chinese handling of the COVID-19 pandemic might have part of legitimacy, this unproven claim about the “man-made origin of COVID-19” has been debunked by multiple factcheckers.
- Disinformation items targeting the use of masks, attacking lockdown measures or downplaying the seriousness of the virus.
- Use of the word “plandemic” as a reference to the famous COVID-19 conspiracy video of the doctor Judy Mikovits, whose content has been debunked by multiple fact-checkers and institutions.
- Tierra Pura also entered the anti-vaccine business, reproducing for example positions from the anti-vaccine figure Robert Kennedy Jr to scare people about COVID-19 vaccine. Many of these narratives have been debunked by journalists and factcheckers.
- Conspiracy theories attacking Bill Gates, claiming he has a secret agenda to control the world or is part of plots linked to COVID-19 vaccines.
Figure 2 Tierrapura.org: “WHAT IS BILL GATES HIDING? The real intentions”
Figure 3: Tierrapura.org: “Kennedy Jr. warns parents about the danger of using untested COVID-19 vaccines in children”
Diversification of the disinformation: moving towards QAnon conspiracy theories and disinformation about the US elections
But if Tierra Pura’s initial intention was to inform about the pandemic, the website explains clearly in its “About Us” its intention to cover a wider of topics: “We hope in the future when the pandemic is over, to add content about traditional, cultural and general interest values for all humanity”. And they did. Since their establishment in March 2020, narratives and topics covered by the media outlet have also evolved. Recently, Tierra Pura has become a mouthpiece for:
- QAnon conspiracy theories. Tierra Pura created a section on its website dedicated entirely to “The revelations of Q: the 16-year plan to destroy America”, In a series of three articles, one of the main authors of Tierra Pura, Liwei Fu, explores and supports many of the theories connected to the conspiracy movement.
- Disinformation connected to the US elections. It included for example false allegations of former President Barack Obama, President Biden and former CIA director Gina Haspel being arrested for spying and voter fraud. On January 1st, Tierra Pura predicted in an article that former President Donald Trump would be inaugurated for a second mandate. Without surprise, Tierra Pura also spread disinformation about the recent assault on the Capitol in Washington, launching for example unproven accusations about an involvement of Antifa activists in the attack.
Disinformation reaching Spain from Tierra Pura comes in reality from abroad
Although Tierra Pura began spreading disinformation since its creation in March 2020, it was only on 19 June 2020 that one article from the website was directly flagged by Spanish fact-checker Maldita.es as a source of disinformation.
While we discovered Tierra Pura during our monitoring of disinformation in Spain, we quickly suspected that the alternative media outlet is not managed from this country. Around the time of its creation in March 2020, the website was hosted on an IP address that Tierra Pura shared exclusively with Argentinian websites and the current MX record data points to links with an Argentinian provider. Moreover, according to Facebook transparency data, Tierra Pura’s Facebook page is managed by two users based in Argentina and Venezuela, confirming the connection with some Latin American countries.
This means that the common language, Spanish, which allows seamless communication between Spain and Latin America, also facilitates the spread of a borderless type of disinformation and makes it more difficult to hold accountable the purveyors of the disinformation[TG1] who can manage their websites from outside the European Union.
A bigger ecosystem: Falun Gong and The Epoch Times
As previously mentioned in this blog post, Tierra Pura claims to be “a group of concerned citizens, from different countries and nationalities, members of society and from different professions, including journalists, economists, designers, teachers, translators, etc.”
Thanks to several videos, media interviews and social media posts, we identified that the most visible face of Tierra Pura is Liwei Fu. She’s the president of Falun Gong Foundation in Argentina, confirming the link with the South American country. According to information available online, we also found that Liwei Fu ran La Gran Época the Spanish-language version of The Epoch Times until at least 2017. Her daughter Meilin Klemann also worked for The Epoch Times in Germany and is now involved in the Tierra Pura project, as stated in her Twitter profile biography: “Spreading the truth in tierrapura.org”. Both Liwei Fu and her daughter are also openly Falun Dafa practitioners.
Going further, we discovered that the hosts of two online events organized by Tierra Pura are also working respectively for BLes Mundo and NDT español, two media outlets connected to the Epoch Times, according to their social media accounts. We also found that the names of three regular contributors of the “collaborators” section of Tierra Pura match with the names of three prolific journalists for BLes Mundo website.
The connection between the Epoch Times and Tierra Pura is not only a matter of people. The Argentinian-based website regularly reproduces content from media outlets controlled by the gigantic New York-based media group. Created in 2000, the Epoch Times has been flagged as a disinformation outlet and investigated by multiple organizations such as BuzzFeed News, NBC News or the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) . Facebook announced that the Epoch Times would be banned from buying ads on that social media network in the summer of 2019.
Tierra Pura often translates and republishes content from media or institutions linked to the Falun Gong ecosystem, such as the China Watch Institute (which is a Spanish-based organisation with ties to the Falun Dafa according to our investigation); Minghui.org (a website that monitors the persecution of Falun Gong in China, according to a description made by an Epoch Times article) or Hablemos de China (a Spanish YouTube channel which focuses on denouncing Spain’s relations with China).
Feeding an alternative echo chamber
Tierra Pura often recirculates content from international media outlets such as Breitbart.com, The Gateway Pundit, Neonnettle.com orNatural News, that have been identified by fact-checkers and other research organisations as conspiratorial or alternative websites. The website also republishes articles from partisan outlets in Spanish language such us Panam Post. AltMedia.com.ar orEl diestro.es.
At the same time, Tierra Pura is cited as a source in conservative Argentinian media, contributing to building an ecosystem of continuous mentions and mutual republications among those media.
Conclusions and advocacy
- Being born at the peak of the COVID-19 infodemic, Tierra Pura is a good example of the current global conflictual information landscape, with old foes continuing their information wars on a new battlefield.
- The case of Tierra Pura illustrates how, in response to disinformation from authoritarian regimes, there is a temptation from some actors to respond with their own disinformation. This escalation is dangerous as it jeopardises facts, weakens journalism and undermines civil society. Moreover, it contributes to a less authentic online conversation.
- As we already demonstrated in previous investigations, the regular use of “alternative media” is often a way for disinformation actors to seek legitimacy (they claim to represent “real journalism” fighting “censorship”) without transparency (no clear mention of editorial team or legal information). In an environment saturated by partisan information, it becomes a challenge for good journalism to be heard.
- Our investigation also shows once again how domain extensions can be misused by disinformation actors to gain false credibility. The .org example of Tierra Pura could mislead online readers, who might think they deal with a non-profit organisation instead an online disinformation outlet.
- Finally, Tierra Pura’s case raises the question of cross-continent disinformation. Can the Argentinian website Tierra Pura be considered as an attempt of foreign influence as some of its messages were spread in Spain and interfered with Spanish politics? Who should be held accountable for this disinformation campaign? How could EU member states defend themselves against significant disinformation campaigns that sometimes originate from global non-state actors?
Keeping the record straight.
We never know when we start an investigation who is behind the disinformation network we investigate. This investigation was no exception and began with a very simple question: Who are the people managing a new Spanish-speaking website called Tierra Pura, which focuses openly on spreading polarising narratives and debunked conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic?
Rapidly, it appeared that Tierra Pura and the network operating it are connected to the Epoch Times, a well-known actor in the disinformation field (In December 2019, Facebook took down a vast network of accounts/pages/groups that they attributed to the Epoch Times). As it has been already shown by other organisations, the Epoch Times has ties with the Falun Gong (also named Falun Dafa), a group known to be a victim of oppression, persecution and ill treatments by the Chinese regime.
On the opposite side of this information war, there is the Chinese regime, which is also known for its lack of transparency and extensive propaganda activities. Moreover, the Chinese Communist Party’s own effort to shape narratives and control information about the COVID-19 pandemic has been documented by multiple studies or reports.
We are well aware – as it is the case for every investigation – that our work will be used and recuperated by those who have an interest in seeing it published. For example, there are good odds that the Chinese Communist Party might try to use our report to dodge legitimate questions about its management of the COVID-19 pandemic or to justify some forms of repression against specific groups. If the Chinese regime were to endorse or support this report in any way, we also know that the Epoch Times and its supporters would likely not miss the opportunity to attack our investigation and claim that this is all part of a planned smear campaign against them.
The reality is that our report covers only specific activities around a disinformation website and should not be used to draw definitive conclusions or to shut down legitimate debates on much larger issues.
As we also often like to remind everyone, there is no such thing as good disinformation. We can only hope that this disclaimer will not be obfuscated by the people trying to use these findings to advance their own interests, whatever they may be.