As former President Donald Trump’s supporters have flocked to alternative social media networks, many are turning to SafeChat, a fast-growing platform known for its tolerance of high-octane MAGA content.
In the nine weeks since the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot, SafeChat’s app has been downloaded more times than in all of 2020, quickly becoming a hotbed of conspiracy theories and disinformation that paints President Joe Biden’s new administration in the worst possible light.
But the once-obscure social network, which touts its security protections and respect for free speech, is not just MAGA-friendly. It’s also a conduit that enables fringe groups attacking the Chinese Communist Party to speak directly to — and influence — Trump supporters, creating a “Star Wars” barlike atmosphere where AR-15 enthusiasts and a growing number of white nationalists can mingle with Chinese dissidents.
According to a review of corporate records and online activity by POLITICO, SafeChat has close links to The Epoch Times, an English-language media outlet affiliated with Falun Gong, the Chinese spiritual movement known for its antagonism toward the Chinese Communist Party and described by critics as a “cult.”
The Epoch Times saw its online readership grow fivefold, to 51 million monthly visitors to its website, during Trump’s time in the White House.
It’s part of a growing network of Falun Gong-affiliated media outlets that is creating its own far-right social media pipeline — one that amplifies MAGA themes while promoting the agenda of groups dedicated to the ouster of the Chinese Communist Party.
Founded in the early 1990s, the Falun Gong movement was banned by Beijing less than a decade later. It continues to criticize the Chinese government for religious persecution and unlawful restrictions on its supporters’ human rights. When Trump won the 2016 election, it latched on to his anti-Beijing message to promote far-right conspiracy theories and increasingly partisan attacks on anyone opposing the MAGA movement.
By acting as an online conveyor belt of anti-Biden and pro-Trump disinformation, the network of Falun Gong-linked sites is playing a role in shaping the next generation of the MAGA narrative against the former president’s enemies, particularly on the issue of China.
“There’s a concerted effort by anti-Chinese Communist Party voices to move right-wing voters and QAnon followers against China,” said Elise Thomas, an open-source analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks online extremism.
“The fact that people associated with the Falun Gong are trying to use SafeChat to tap into the MAGA-sphere is definitely concerning,” said Thomas, who has charted the rise of Falun Gong-related digital activity.
SafeChat had been bubbling along in online obscurity for much of 2020. But after the November election, the platform began to gain traction with Falun Gong social media influencers who promoted it hard to their followers as an alternative to mainstream social media networks — popularity that picked up exponentially after the Capitol Hill riot.
“Many people say SafeChat is very good. I quickly got over 4K followers there,” Jennifer Zeng, a former Epoch Times journalist, told her more than 150,000 Twitter followers on Jan. 22.
The app also began to attract notice as Trump’s most ardent supporters began turning away from mainstream social media. Online users in pro-Trump Facebook groups, for instance, urged their followers to ditch the Big Tech behemoth for the upstart platform. SafeChat emerged as a welcome alternative that offered up a steady stream of conservative content featuring accusations of voter fraud, support for Trump during his recent impeachment trial and harsh criticism of the new administration.
Last month, its website received almost 900,000 visitors — a fourfold increase compared with December, according to SimilarWeb, a web traffic analytics firm. By comparison, the website for Parler, one of the most popular MAGA platforms, was getting roughly 10 million monthly visitors before it was shut down in February.
Until the January riots at Capitol Hill, the majority of the platform’s visitors came from Vietnam and Hong Kong, countries long associated with the Falun Gong movement. But now, the United States represents more than a fifth of SafeChat’s online activity — a triple-digit monthly growth spike — exceeded only by traffic originating from Vietnam, based on SimilarWeb data.
SafeChat does not publicly acknowledge any connections to the Epoch Times or Falun Gong on its app and declined to comment on a series of questions from POLITICO about its ties to them.
“SafeChat is a neutral and safe platform for people to get information so that they can make their own decisions,” the company said in a statement.
The Epoch Times also told POLITICO it had no association with the SafeChat platform, nor any involvement in how its content was promoted on the platform.
But SafeChat was originally rebranded from an older social media platform, known as DV Chat, by Trung Vu, a former chief executive at The Epoch Times’ Vietnam, which was also registered at the same California address, according to a review of the state’s corporate records. Vu registered the company, but the ownership of SafeChat is unclear.
In January 2020, DV Chat changed the company’s name to SafeChat and named a new chief executive, Matthew Tullar. Like Vu, Tullar had worked for The Epoch Times over a four-year period through 2016, based on his LinkedIn profile. Tullar later served as marketing director for another Falun Gong-affiliated media outlet, The BL, for whom he hosted an online talk show that put out a steady stream of pro-Trump opinions.
Several high-profile personalities on the SafeChat platform also previously worked for The Epoch Times, which is one of the biggest and most strident pro-Trump outlets in far-right media.
Seth Holehouse, who spent seven years at The Epoch Times before leaving in late 2015, has amassed more than 18,000 followers on his SafeChat channel.
Late last year, he gained online stardom after Trump tweeted videos in which Holehouse alleged widespread voter fraud. He has used his newfound fame to pump out videos from his SafeChat account accusing Biden of being in Beijing’s pocket and promoting Trump’s exoneration at his second impeachment trial.
In a video published on Jan. 12, Holehouse told his followers on YouTube to download SafeChat. He touted its “military-grade encryption” technology, commitment to pro-MAGA free speech and independent servers that would prevent it from being removed from Google and Apple’s app stores.
“SafeChat is a much more robust app. It’s almost as if you were to think of combining Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and a little bit of YouTube,” he said in the video.
When reached for comment, Holehouse did not answer questions about his involvement or ties to The Epoch Times.
The fledgling network is not alone in wooing conservative voters. Other online social media networks and encrypted message boards — most notably Parler, the pro-Trump platform that was shut down soon after the Capitol Hill riot — have quickly gained hundreds of thousands of new users in search of a new online home amid recriminations that Facebook, Google and Twitter censor right-wing voices.
Yet few of the platforms have the financial muscle and wide reach of The Epoch Times. Riding the MAGA wave during the Trump era, the organization captured a massive social media following and gained entry into mainstream conservative political circles.
“It makes perfect sense for a high demand group in bed with big data to build a content pipeline,” added Sarah Hightower, an independent researcher focusing on Asian cults, upon reviewing SafeChat’s content. “Even on the business end, groups like Falun Gong are still incredibly controlling.”
SafeChat’s growing popularity within the MAGA ecosystem is rooted in the perception that it is a safe space for the former president’s supporters.
To entice new users to SafeChat’s still-nascent platform — its monthly app downloads still number fewer than 70,000, according to AppFigures, a company that tracks such metrics — the social network has trumpeted its security bonafides, promoting its encryption technology to MAGA supporters to keep their online discussions private.
Such data collection — particularly information taken from individual messages — would not be possible if the platform had wide-ranging so-called end-to-end encryption, according to Bruce Schneier, a cybersecurity expert at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“On pretty much everything on this site, they can read what you’re writing,” he said. “The word encryption is not some legally binding term.”
SafeChat declined to answer questions about its encryption technology.
The social network has also created unofficial pages on its network for other pro-Trump conservative outlets — like Breitbart News, Newsmax and One America News Network — that advance the impression that it’s a MAGA safe space.
The dedicated SafeChat channels pump out daily content from those outlets, though making it clear they are not officially connected to them.
It is unclear why SafeChat is building these landing pages for right-wing outlets, while not including similar pages for mainstream news organizations. Disinformation experts, some of whom have an expertise in social media, suggested it could be either to portray the chat app as larger than it currently is, or to woo other right-wing media outlets into establishing an official presence on the platform.
“It could be strategic or opportunistic,” said Thomas, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue analyst, referring to the possible motivation.
That courtship might be working. The Gateway Pundit, the conservative site known for spreading hoaxes, took over its own unofficial channel on Feb. 1, quickly amassing thousands of followers and in turn promoting the network to its wider audience.
The Gateway Pundit did not respond to a request for comment.
In the waning months of the Trump administration, The Epoch Times and other Falun Gong-outlets tried to build credibility with the mainstream conservative movement, through its support for Trump and its focus on a common enemy: the Chinese Communist Party.
That includes promoting similarly baseless claims as other MAGA outlets, like accusations that Barack Obama’s administration spied on Trump’s 2016 election campaign, as well as cheerleading the former president’s staunch anti-Beijing stance.
“If the D.C. establishment and Democratic campaigns apparatus doesn’t really think about this and internalize what this means, they’re going to be blind-sided by this boomerang of misinformation in the next election cycle,” said Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters for America, a left-leaning watchdog group that has tracked the growth of The Epoch Times.
“It shouldn’t be merely dismissed as the fringe and irrelevant,” he added, in reference to SafeChat. “Time and again, too many have been too slow to acknowledge the early warnings and implement strategies to stay ahead of emerging threats. SafeChat is yet another canary in the coal mine setting off those early alarm bells.”
Despite its fast growth, it’s still unclear whether SafeChat will be able to break out of the pack of similar pro-Trump social networks that have gained traction in recent weeks.
Reviews on both Apple and Google’s app stores for the platform specifically cite it as a viable alternative to Parler and Gab.com, a site primarily known for hosting white supremacists and other racist material.
“[So] many coming online from Facebook, GAB is down more than it is online, hope that changes soon,” one reviewer noted on the Apple App Store on Jan. 18. “SafeChat works flawlessly and love how it is set up and the secure chat is much needed in this time of the Marxist takeover of America.”
A recent review of best-performing SafeChat posts highlighted how the platform is succeeding in delivering the red meat that MAGA followers hunger for: video clips of Trump talking to Newsmax, former football star Herschel Walker dismissing efforts at financial reparations for African Americans, and claims that Biden was about to overturn the Second Amendment.
An online discussion, posted on Feb. 14, about how Trump supporters were showering the former president with praise, garnered more than a thousand combined likes, shares and comments. Others promoted disinformation that Hillary Clinton and Vice President Kamala Harris could face impeachment; another claimed that the Capitol Hill riots were a hoax.
Yet in recent weeks, downloads for SafeChat’s app have slowed from skyrocketing growth last month, based on AppFigure’s data.
Other alternatives like TheDonald.win, an online message board where far-right rioters planned some of their attacks during the Jan. 6 riots, have descended into internal bickering as MAGA groups splinter over how best to take the movement forward.
So far, SafeChat appears to be avoiding that. But on its darker edges, overt threats of violence are not uncommon. An Epoch Times story — posted on the outlet’s unofficial SafeChat channel with almost 15,000 followers — about how Republicans who had voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial were facing a conservative backlash, generated hundreds of comments.
Most were likes and shares, but there were also calls to attack these lawmakers.
“Dirty rotten bastards,” said an online commentator when discussing The Epoch Times story. “Hang ‘em high for betrayal and sedition.”