Photo: Czarek Sokolowski (AP)

Facebook banned the second-largest supplier of pro-Trump ads on its platform, the Epoch Times, after the group tried to sneak thousands of ads past its review system, according to an NBC report Thursday.

The conservative and vehemently anti-communist publication has purportedly spent more than $1.5 million on Facebook advertising supporting President Donald Trump in the last six months, making it the largest such contributor other than the Trump campaign itself. Bizarrely enough, an NBC investigation linked the Epoch Times’ administration to a Chinese religious group, Falun Gong, that “believes in an upcoming judgment day that will send communists to hell, and says that Trump is helping accelerate that timeline” (the publication’s editor-in-chief Jasper Fakker told Gizmodo via email that the Epoch Times does not share this belief).

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Yes, I wish I was making this up. And yes, the publication has confirmed this, according to Business Insider (a confirmation that Fakker denied to Gizmodo). Fakker purportedly clarified in an email to Business Insider that the Epoch is not owned by any of Falun Gong’s ranks.

Many of the Epoch Times’ videos ads push similarly bizarre conservative conspiracy theories and feature unidentified spokespeople praising Trump, according to Business Insider’s report. Despite this, the Epoch Times purportedly told Business Insider these ads were non-partisan plugs for the publication’s print version.

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NBC investigated the group’s spending on the platform through Facebook’s advertising archives, and reported that the Epoch Times’ shifted its funding in July after several journalists began looking into whether these ads violated Facebook’s policies. After Facebook blocked the ability of the Epoch Times to advertise on its platform, the publication began posting these ads to accounts with generic names like Honest Paper, Patriots of America, and Best News.

While Epoch Times cited itself in the “paid for” section of video ads on its previous accounts, identical ads on these new pages were attributed to companies with even more generic names. Many also included links to Epoch Times’ subscription page disguised as links to other websites. According to Facebook’s ad policies, an ad must include a disclaimer detailing who sponsored it and landing pages have to match whatever’s promoted in the ad’s text.

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After a review prompted by NBC, Facebook booted these accounts and banned Epoch Times from advertising on the platform in the future. A Facebook spokesperson provided the following statement to media outlets:

“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. We acted on additional accounts today and they are no longer able to advertise with us.”

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So in summary, Facebook purportedly had to kick ads from one of the biggest pro-Trump advertisers, an anti-communist newspaper linked to a doomsday cult, off its platform after they tried to sneak past its policies. What even is 2019 anymore.

Updated: 8/23/19 5:24 p.m. ET: The Epoch Times referred Gizmodo to the following statement posted on the publication’s website. In it, the group confirms Facebook instituted a ban though it reiterates that these ads are for its print edition. It reads in part:

NBC’s representation of our print-subscription advertisements is blatantly incorrect. None of our advertising was done to “obfuscate” the connection to The Epoch Times; all the advertising was clearly for Epoch Times print subscriptions.

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You can check out the whole statement here.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the Epoch Times as “one of Trump’s advertisers.” The Epoch Times ads in question were for the publication’s print edition, according to its editor-in-chief. We regret the error. We additionally clarified the reason for the Epoch Times using alternative pages to post ads.

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[NBC]