Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally at SNHU Arena in Manchester, NH, on Nov. 7, 2016, the night before election day.

Suzanne Kreiter | Boston Globe | Getty Images

By the numbers, there is no bigger advocate of President Donald Trump on Facebook than The Epoch Times.

The small New York-based nonprofit news outlet has spent more than $1.5 million on about 11,000 pro-Trump advertisements in the last six months, according to data from Facebook’s advertising archive — more than any organization outside of the Trump campaign itself, and more than most Democratic presidential candidates have spent on their own campaigns.

Those video ads — in which unidentified spokespeople thumb through a newspaper to praise Trump, peddle conspiracy theories about the “Deep State,” and criticize “fake news” media — strike a familiar tone in the online conservative news ecosystem. The Epoch Times looks like many of the conservative outlets that have gained followings in recent years.

But it isn’t.

Behind the scenes, the media outlet’s ownership and operation is closely tied to Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual community with the stated goal of taking down China’s government.

It’s that motivation that helped drive the organization toward Trump, according to interviews with former Epoch Times staffers, a move that has been both lucrative and beneficial for its message.

Former practitioners of Falun Gong told NBC News that believers think the world is headed toward a judgment day, where those labeled “communists” will be sent to a kind of hell, and those sympathetic to the spiritual community will be spared. Trump is viewed as a key ally in the anti-communist fight, former Epoch Times employees said.

In part because of that unusual background, The Epoch Times has had trouble finding a foothold in the broader conservative movement.

“It seems like an interloper — not well integrated socially within the movement network, and not terribly well-circulating among right-wingers,” said A.J. Bauer, a visiting professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, who is part of an ongoing study in which he and his colleagues interview conservative journalists.

“Even when discussing more fringe-y sites, conservative journalists tend to reference Gateway Pundit or Infowars,” Bauer said. “The Epoch Times doesn’t tend to come up.”

That seems to be changing.

Before 2016, The Epoch Times generally stayed out of U.S. politics, unless they dovetailed with Chinese interests. The publication’s recent ad strategy, coupled with a broader campaign to embrace social media and conservative U.S. politics — Trump in particular — has doubled The Epoch Times’ revenue, according to the organization’s tax filings, and pushed it to greater prominence in the broader conservative media world.

Started almost two decades ago as a free newspaper and website with a stated mission to “provide information to Chinese communities to help immigrants assimilate into American society,” The Epoch Times now wields one of the biggest social media followings of any news outlet.

In April, at the height of its ad spending, videos from the Epoch Media Group, which includes The Epoch Times and digital video outlet New Tang Dynasty, or NTD, combined for around 3 billion views on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, ranking 11th among all video creators across platforms and outranking every other traditional news publisher, according to data from the social media analytics company Tubular.

That engagement has made The Epoch Times a favorite of the Trump family and a key component of the president’s re-election campaign. The president’s Facebook page has posted Epoch Times content at least half a dozen times this year— with several articles written by members of the Trump campaign. Donald Trump Jr. has tweeted several of their stories, too.

In May, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, sat down for a 40-minute interview in Trump Tower with the paper’s senior editor. And for the first time, The Epoch Times was a main player at the conservative conference CPAC this year, where it secured interviewswith members of Congress, Trump Cabinet members and right-wing celebrities.

At the same time, its network of news sites and YouTube channels has made it a powerful conduit for the internet’s fringier conspiracy theories, including anti-vaccination propaganda and QAnon, to reach the mainstream.

Despite its growing reach and power, little is publicly known about the precise ownership, origins or influences of The Epoch Times.

The outlet’s opacity makes it difficult to determine an overall structure, but it is loosely organized into several regional tax-free nonprofits. The Epoch Times operates alongside the video production company, NTD, under the umbrella of The Epoch Media Group, a private news and entertainment company whose owner executives have declined to name, citing concerns of “pressure” that could follow.

The Epoch Media Group, along with Shen Yun, a dance troupe known for its ubiquitous advertising and unsettling performances, make up the outreach effort of Falun Gong, a relatively new spiritual practice that combines ancient Chinese meditative exercises, mysticism and often ultraconservative cultural worldviews. Falun Gong’s founder has referred to Epoch Media Group as “our media,” and the group’s practice heavily informs The Epoch Times’ coverage, according to former employees who spoke with NBC News.

Executives at The Epoch Times declined to be interviewed for this article, but the publisher, Stephen Gregory, wrote an editorial in response to a list of emailed questions from NBC News, calling it “highly inappropriate” and part of an effort to “discredit” the publication to ask about the company’s affiliation with Falun Gong and its stance on the Trump administration.

Interviews with former employees, public financial records and social media data illustrate how a secretive newspaper has been able to leverage the devoted followers of a reclusive spiritual leader, political vitriol, online conspiracy theories and the rise of Trump to become a digital media powerhouse that now attracts billions of views each month, all while publicly denying or downplaying its association with Falun Gong.

Behind the times

In 2009, the founder and leader of Falun Gong, Li Hongzhi, came to speak at The Epoch Times’ offices in Manhattan. Li came with a clear directive for the Falun Gong volunteers who comprised the company’s staff: “Become regular media.”

The publication had been founded nine years earlier in Georgia by John Tang, a Chinese American practitioner of Falun Gong and current president of New Tang Dynasty. But it was falling short of Li’s ambitions as stated to his followers: to expose the evil of the Chinese government and “save all sentient beings” in a forthcoming divine battle against communism.

Roughly translated by the group as “law wheel exercise,” Falun Gong was started by Li in 1992. The practice, which combines bits of Buddhism and Taoism, involves meditation and gentle exercises and espouses Li’s controversial teachings.

“Li Hongzhi simplified meditation and practices that traditionally have many steps and are very confusing,” said Ming Xia, a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York who has studied Falun Gong. “Basically it’s like fast food, a quickie.”

Li’s teachings quickly built a significant following — and ran into tension with China’s leaders, who viewed his popularity as a threat to the communist government’s hold on power.

In 1999, after thousands of Li’s followers gathered in front of President Jiang Zemin’s compound to quietly protest the arrest of several Falun Gong members, authorities in China banned Falun Gong, closing teaching centers and arresting Falun Gong organizers and practitioners who refused to give up the practice. Human rights groups have reported some adherents being tortured and killed while in custody.

The crackdown elicited condemnation from Western countries, and attracted a new pool of followers in the United States, for whom China and communism were common adversaries.

“The persecution itself elevated Li’s status and brought tremendous media attention,” Ming said.

It has also invited scrutiny of the spiritual leader’s more unconventional ideas. Among them, Li has railed against what he called the wickedness of homosexuality, feminism and popular music while holding that he is a god-like figure who can levitate and walk through walls.

Li has also taught that sickness is a symptom of evil that can only be truly cured with meditation and devotion, and that aliens from undiscovered dimensions have invaded the minds and bodies of humans, bringing corruption and inventions such as computers and airplanes. The Chinese government has used these controversial teachings to label Falun Gong a cult. Falun Gong has denied the government’s characterization.

The Epoch Times provided Li with an English-language way to push back against China — a position that would eventually dovetail with Trump’s election.

In 2005, The Epoch Times released its greatest salvo, publishing the ”Nine Commentaries, ” a widely distributed book-length series of anonymous editorials that it claimed exposed the Chinese Communist Party’s “massive crimes” and “attempts to eradicate all traditional morality and religious belief.”

The next year, an Epoch Times reporter was removed from a White House event for Chinese President Hu Jintao after interrupting the ceremony by shouting for several minutes that then-President George W. Bush must stop the leader from “persecuting Falun Gong.”

But despite its small army of devoted volunteers, The Epoch Times was still operating as a fledgling startup.

Ben Hurley is a former Falun Gong practitioner who helped create Australia’s English version of The Epoch Times out of a living room in Sydney in 2005. He has written about his experience with the paper and described the early years as “a giant PR campaign” to evangelize about Falun Gong’s belief in an upcoming apocalypse in which those who think badly of the practice, or well of the Chinese Communist Party, will be destroyed.

Hurley, who wrote for The Epoch Times until he left in 2013, said he saw practitioners in leadership positions begin drawing harder and harder lines about acceptable political positions.

“Their views were always anti-abortion and homophobic, but there was more room for disagreements in the early days,” he said.

Hurley said Falun Gong practitioners saw communism everywhere: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, movie star Jackie Chan and former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan were all considered to have sold themselves out to the Chinese government, Hurley said.

This kind of coverage foreshadowed the news organization’s embrace of conspiracy theories like QAnon, the overarching theory that there is an evil cabal of “deep state” operators and child predators out to take down the president.

“It is so rabidly pro-Trump,” Hurley said, referring to The Epoch Times. Devout practitioners of Falun Gong “believe that Trump was sent by heaven to destroy the Communist Party.”

A representative for Li declined an interview request. Li lives among hundreds of his followers near Dragon Springs, a 400-acre compound in upstate New York that houses temples, private schools and quarters where performers for the organization’s dance troupe, Shen Yun, live and rehearse, according to four former compound residents and former Falun Gong practitioners who spoke to NBC News.

They said that life in Dragon Springs is tightly controlled by Li, that internet access is restricted, the use of medicines is discouraged, and arranged relationships are common. Two former residents on visas said they were offered to be set up with U.S. residents at the compound.

Tiger Huang, a former Dragon Springs resident who was on a U.S. student visa from Taiwan, said she was set up on three dates on the compound, and she believed her ability to stay in the U.S. was tied to the arrangement.

“The purpose of setting up the dates was obvious,” Huang said. Her now-husband, a former Dragon Springs resident, confirmed the account.

Huang said she was told by Dragon Springs officials her visa had expired and was told to go back to Taiwan after months of dating a nonpractitioner in the compound. She later learned that her visa had not expired when she was told to leave the country.

Campaign season

By 2016, The Epoch Times Group appeared to have heeded the call from Li to run its operation more like a typical news organization, starting with The Epoch Times’ website. In March, the company placed job ads on the site Indeed.com and assembled a team of seven young reporters otherwise unconnected to Falun Gong. The average salary for the new recruits was $35,000 a year, paid monthly, according to former employees.

Things seemed “strange,” even from the first day, according to five former reporters who spoke with NBC News — four of whom asked for anonymity over concerns that speaking negatively about their experience would affect their relationship with current and future employers.

As part of their orientation, the new reporters watched a video that laid out the Chinese persecution of Falun Gong followers. The publisher, Stephen Gregory, also spoke to the reporters about his vision for the new digital initiative. The former employees said Gregory’s talk framed The Epoch Times as an answer to the liberal mainstream media.

Their content was to be critical of communist China, clear-eyed about the threat of Islamic terrorism, focused on illegal immigration and at all times rooted in “traditional” values, they said. This meant no content about drugs, gay people or popular music.

The reporters said they worked from desks arranged in a U-shape in a single-room office that was separated by a locked door from the other staff members who worked on the paper, dozens of Falun Gong volunteers and interns. The new recruits wrote up to five news stories a day in an effort to meet a quota of 100,000 page views, and submitted their work to a handful of editors — a team of two Falun Gong-practicing married couples.

“Slave labor may not be the right word, but that’s a lot of articles to write in one day,” one former employee said.

It wasn’t just the amount of writing but also the conservative editorial restrictions that began to concern some of the employees.

“It’s like we were supposed to be fighting so-called liberal propaganda by making our own,” said Steve Klett, who covered the Trump campaign for The Epoch Times as his first job in journalism. Klett likened The Epoch Times to a Russian troll farm and said his articles were edited to remove outside criticism of Trump.

“The worst was the Pulse shooting,” Klett said, referring to the 2016 mass shooting in which 50 people including the gunman were killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. “We weren’t allowed to cover stories involving homosexuality, but that bumps up against them wanting to cover Islamic terrorism. So I wrote four articles without using the word gay.”

Klett said that the publication also began to skew in favor of Trump, who had targeted China on the campaign trail with talk of a trade war.

“I knew I had to forget about all the worst parts of Trump,” Klett said.

Klett, however, would not end up having to cover the Trump administration. Eight days before the election, the team was called together and fired as a group.

“I guess the experiment was over,” a former employee said.

The content

The Epoch Times, digital production company NTD and the heavily advertised dance troupe Shen Yun make up the nonprofit network that Li calls “our media.” Financial documents paint a complicated picture of more than a dozen technically separate organizations that appear to share missions, money and executives. Though the source of their revenue is unclear, the most recent financial records from each organization paint a picture of an overall business thriving in the Trump era.

The Epoch Times brought in $8.1 million in revenue in 2017 — double what it had the previous year — and reported spending $7.2 million on “printing newspaper and creating web and media programs.” Most of its revenue comes from advertising and “web and media income,” according to the group’s annual tax filings, while individual donations and subscriptions to the paper make up less than 10 percent of its revenue.

New Tang Dynasty’s 2017 revenue, according to IRS records, was $18 million, a 150 percent increase over the year before. It spent $16.2 million.

That exponential growth came around the same time The Epoch Times expanded its online presence and increased its ad spending, honing its message on two basic themes: enthusiastic support for Trump’s agenda, and the exposure of what the publication claims is a labyrinthian, global conspiracy led by Clinton and former President Barack Obama to tear down Trump. One such conspiracy theory, loosely called “Spygate,” has become a common talking point for Fox News host Sean Hannity and conservative news websites like Breitbart.

The paper’s “Spygate Special Coverage” section, which frequently sits atop its website, theorizes about a grand, yearslong plot in which former Obama and Clinton staffers, a handful of magazines and newspapers, private investigators and government bureaucrats plan to take down the Trump presidency.

In his published response, publisher Gregory said the media outlet’s ads “have no political agenda.”

While The Epoch Times usually straddles the line between an ultraconservative news outlet and a conspiracy warehouse, some popular online shows created by Epoch Times employees and produced by NTD cross the line completely, and spread far and wide.

One such show is “Edge of Wonder,” a verified YouTube channel that releases new NTD-produced videos twice every week and now has more than 33 million views. In addition to claims that alien abductions are real and the drug epidemic was engineered by the “deep state,” the channel pushes the QAnon conspiracy theory, which falsely posits that the same “Spygate” cabal is a front for a global pedophile ring being taken down by Trump.

One QAnon video, titled “#QANON – 7 facts the MEDIA (MSM) Won’t Admit” has almost 1 million views on YouTube. Other videos in the channel’s QAnon playlist, which include videos about 9/11 conspiracy theories and one titled “13 BLOODLINES & their Diabolical End Game,” gained hundreds of thousands of views each.

Travis View, a researcher and podcaster who studies the QAnon movement, said The Epoch Times has sanitized the conspiracy theory by pushing Spygate, which drops the wildest and more prurient details of QAnon while retaining its conspiratorial elements.

“QAnon is highly stigmatized among people trying to push the Spygate message. They know how toxic QAnon is,” View said. “Spygate leaves out the spiritual elements, the child sex trafficking, but it’s certainly integral to the QAnon narrative.”

Gregory denied any connection with “Edge of Wonder,” writing in a statement that his organization was “aware of the entertainment show,” but “is in no way connected with it.”

But The Epoch Times has itself published several credulous reportson QAnon and for years, the webseries hosts Rob Counts and Benjamin Chasteen were employed as the company’s creative director and chief photo editor, respectively. In August 2018, six months after the creation of “Edge of Wonder,” Counts tweeted that he still worked for Epoch Times. Counts and Chasteen did not respond to an email seeking clarification on their roles.

Meanwhile The Epoch Times has promoted “Edge of Wonder” content in dozens of Facebook posts, still visible on its official Facebook page. That page is currently topped with a pinned ad for its Trump coverage that reads, “Where can you get real news that doesn’t push any hidden agendas?”

Founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg leaves after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on May 10, 2019.

Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Facebook is giving users more information about the outside apps and websites that send information about their activity back to Facebook — and a way to disconnect that kind of information from their account. If users decide to clear that off-Facebook activity, Facebook won’t able to use it to target ads at them.

The feature comes as Facebook continues to grapple with its privacy practices and lawmakers’ scrutiny over how it uses personal data to display ads. But it will probably won’t have much effect on Facebook’s business, as it requires users to turn the feature on.

In a blog post, Facebook explains how the feature works: Today, if a user browses a clothing site and looks at a certain pair of shoes, that clothing site may then want to show follow-up ads to close the deal. The site can share information about that person’s interests with Facebook, which can later show ads for the same shoes to them.

But if the user clears their off-Facebook activity, Facebook would never know about their earlier activity on the clothing site.

“We won’t know which websites you visited or what you did there, and we won’t use any of the data you disconnect to target ads to you on Facebook, Instagram or Messenger,” the post says. “We expect this could have some impact on our business, but we believe giving people control over their data is more important.”

This is likely a move to stay ahead of regulators in the U.S. and abroad that are cracking down on Facebook’s ad targeting practices, eMarketer analyst Jasmine Enberg said in an emailed statement. But it won’t hurt Facebook’s business unless people actually take the time to opt out.

“The impact of the ‘Off-Facebook Activity’ tool on Facebook’s ad business depends on consumer adoption,” she said. “It takes a proactive step for consumers to go into their Facebook settings and turn on the feature. As we’ve seen in the past, there is a disconnect between people who say they care about privacy and those who actually do something about it. If not enough people use the tool, it’s unlikely that it will have a material impact on Facebook’s bottom line.”

The company is “gradually” making the feature available to people in Ireland, South Korea and Spain and said it will continue rolling it out everywhere else in the coming months.

Jeff Williams introduces the new Apple Watch capable of taking an FDA-approved electrocardiogram at the company’s annual product launch, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, in Cupertino, Calif.

Karl Mondon | Digital First Media | Getty Images

Apple’s health team has seen a slew of departures in the past year after a series of leadership changes and internal disagreements about direction.

Tension has been increasing in the health care team in recent months, according to eight people familiar with the situation, although that undercurrent started several years ago. Some employees have become disillusioned with the group’s culture, where some have thrived while others feel sidelined and unable to move their ideas forward. Four of the eight noted that some employees hoped to tackle bigger challenges with the health care system, such as medical devices, telemedicine and health payments. Instead the focus has been on features geared to a broad population of healthy users.

These people requested to remain unnamed as they were not authorized to speak about Apple’s health efforts or its departures. They noted that health does still remain a strategic priority for Apple.

Apple has been vocal about its commitment to health. It has been a key driver for Apple Watch sales, which have helped turn Apple’s wearables segment into its growth engine as iPhone sales slow. CEO Tim Cook has made to say that health at Apple will be the company’s “greatest contribution to mankind.”

It’s not clear the attrition rate within the health team is higher than at other groups within Apple. But the departures and the internal tension over the group’s vision show how tech companies could stumble in the notoriously complex $3.5 trillion health care sector. Ambitious employees in the field are anxious to tackle the biggest problems in the health care system. But that does not always fit in with the more incremental and measured product approach of large tech companies. In addition, health care is notoriously complex and slow compared with other areas of technology.

Among the most recent departures: Christine Eun, who worked at Apple for almost eight years and has a background in marketing and left this month, according to two people; Brian Ellis, who left the the team overseeing AC Wellness, a subsidiary that operates health clinics for Apple employees, and went back to Apple Music in June; and Matt Krey, who left Apple in May and is taking time to focus on his family, according to LinkedIn. Other recent departures that were previously reported include Warris Bokhari, who went to Anthem this summer, and researcher Andrew Trister, who got scooped up by the Gates Foundation earlier this month.

Apple declined to comment for this story.

How leadership is structured

The Health team reports to Jeff Williams, the company’s COO, who has a personal passion for the medical sector. Two people said that Williams pushed the Watch team to explore sensors and algorithms in health care in 2016, after it became clear that fashion wasn’t moving the needle for users.

This year, an employee morale survey in the Health team showed signs of discontent, two people said. After the survey, Williams personally spoke with several employees to figure out the source of problem, and expressed he remains deeply committed to the health group. As the COO, however, he has many other duties, including overseeing Apple’s operations and supply chain.

The health group’s leadership includes Kevin Lynch, who oversees software projects, including the group of doctors and engineers working on health records; Eugene Kim, who leads watch hardware; and Sumbul Desai, who oversees the clinical team that runs AC Wellness health clinics, the electrocardiogram app and the Apple Heart Study, and health strategy. There’s also a separate business development group under former health consultant Myoung Cha that works with health insurance customers, such as Aetna, as well as pharma companies like Eli Lilly and Johnson & Johnson.

Desai, Lynch and Kim all report to Williams. Cha has a different chain of command and reports to Douglas Beck, a vice president of Americans and Northeast Asia. These four leaders manage hundreds of people working within Apple Health, which has aggressively been hiring and expanding in recent years.

At present, there’s no single senior vice president dedicated to health.

Most of the Apple Health employees who left the company worked in Desai’s group, or left shortly after she was recruited from Stanford University in the summer of 2017, where she was running many of its digital health efforts.

Desai is a doctor by training, and was brought on to run clinical efforts, including Apple’s health clinics, in the summer of 2017. She then expanded her scope to other areas, including the Apple Heart Study and the electrocardiogram app and sensor, one of the people said. (Now, former hospital COO M. Osman Akhtar is running day to day operations for the clinics, two people said.)

Differences over direction

One of the key issues is long-term vision inside Apple’s health-care team. Four people told CNBC that some employees feel the company could be taking on more ambitious projects and doing more in health. However its products and services are mostly confined to wellness and prevention. The people noted these differences of opinion have flared up between the different groups.

Wellness involves helping those who are generally healthy with areas like exercise, meditation and sleep, while medical applications target patients with specific diseases. Wellness is less risky and less regulated than diagnosing and treating disease, but it’s not where most of the cost is in the health care system. Almost 90 percent of U.S. health care expenditures are for people with chronic diseases, according to the CDC.

One faction wanted to introduce a telemedicine service and move into health payments to simplify insurance billing, but were not successful in driving these initiatives ahead.

Others wanted to do more with Beddit, a sleep sensor that a team at Apple spent months vetting before it was acquired in mid-2017.

There are also disagreements over the AC Wellness health clinics and whether they should expand into medical software and eventually produce products for clinicians, or remain focused on Apple employees. A small product team led by Apple veteran Jason Fass left AC Wellness in 2017. (AC Wellness is a wholly owned subsidiary of Apple, but Apple employees work there and it advertises jobs on Apple’s web site.)

There was also tension about how much the Health team should borrow from the Apple playbook.

When the company announced its electrocardiogram for the Apple Watch in the fall of 2018, some doctors and others in the medical industry outside of Apple reacted negatively to the news. This frustrated some people internally who had argued for a small and focused product launch, which involved the medical community getting to weigh in and ask questions to reduce any potential pushback. The company compromised by secretly convening groups of medical experts, including cardiologists, at its headquarters every six months or so, and by introducing content developed with the support of doctors at Apple specifically for doctors.

Moreover, two of the people said there were also disagreements about how much the company should be transparent about its work to the medical industry. Apple has previously remained highly secretive about its projects. Yet that level of secrecy is more challenging to maintain in health care because the industry typically runs on published research, clinical studies, and keeping an open dialog with stakeholders in the industry.

Other high-level departures from the group over the past few years are Robin Goldstein, who was at Apple for more than two decades and most recently worked on the regulatory side of health before leaving in late 2017; Anil Sethi, a former Apple Health director who left to form a health-tech start-up in late 2017; Stephen Friend, a top Apple researcher who departed at the end of 2017; Charles Schlaff, who worked on Apple Watch before moving over to special projects and left in November of 2018, according to LinkedIn; Craig Mermel, who was in engineering at Apple Health and left to join Google Brain this February; and Yoky Matsouka, who was brought in to lead health but left after less than a year in 2016 and is now a vice president at Google.

WATCH: Jony Ive had been checked out since he created the Apple Watch, says CNBC’s Steve Kovach

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify following a break during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

Facebook released an interim report Tuesday analyzing claims of anti-conservative bias on the platform. The report, by Senator Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and a team at law firm Covington & Burling, found the leading social media platform has a ways to go to earn back conservative users’ trust.

As a result of the review, Facebook said it would commit to taking steps to be more transparent about how it ranks News Feed content and enforces community standards. The company has adjusted its “sensational” advertising policy to pull back restrictions on pro-life ads showing medical tubes connected to human bodies, according to the interim report.

“Facebook has recognized the importance of our assessment and has taken some steps to address the concerns we uncovered. But there is still significant work to be done to satisfy the concerns we heard from conservatives,” the report said.

Kyl and the team interviewed more than 130 conservative groups, individuals and lawmakers who “use, study, or have the potential to regulate Facebook,” according to the report. The review revealed several categories in which conservatives have expressed concerns about bias, including Facebook’s advertising policies and enforcement and its content distribution and algorithms.

Conservatives interviewed told the team they feared algorithms that prioritize user content do so “in ways that suppress their viewpoints.” Several pointed to Facebook’s algorithm change in 2018 that favored content from users’ friends and families, arguing it also disproportionately limited the reach of conservative news content. Interviewees from mid-sized grassroots organizations told the team that Facebook’s appeals process for content moderation decisions were too opaque.

Interviewees also raised concerns about Facebook having a hate speech policy, saying the notion is highly subjective. Many also said Facebook relies too heavily on “left-leaning organizations to identify hate groups.”

Many conservatives interviewed ultimately said the problems they see on Facebook likely stem from employees biased against their viewpoints.

While Kyl’s team began interviewing conservatives in May 2018, the results come as allegations of conservative bias against the company have continued to bubble up. Executives from Facebook and other tech platforms including Google and Twitter have had to face lawmakers in recent months to defend their content moderation and distribution practices. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has even introduced legislation tying legal protections for tech companies to voluntary audits that would assess whether their platforms’ algorithms and content removal practices are “politically neutral.”

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WATCH: Why Facebook’s business model is only now coming under fire

The Facebook logo is displayed during the F8 Facebook Developers conference on April 30, 2019 in San Jose, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Facebook on Tuesday confirmed it’s hiring a team of veteran journalists to help curate news stories in its soon-to-launch news tab.

The company confirmed the plans after The New York Times on Tuesday reported that Facebook is bringing human curators on board, instead of just relying on algorithms to determine what news stories its users see.

A small team of editors will be charged with selecting the most relevant, national news stories of the day. The content will appear in the top news section of the news tab, a new feature that’s pegged to launch this fall.

The team will curate breaking news and top stories, but won’t be responsible for other editorial duties, such as editing headlines, stories, or writing content, the company said.

Other content in the news tab will primarily appear via algorithmic selection. Facebook said it will look to user controls, what pages users follow, publishers they subscribe to and the news they interact with as signals for what kinds of personalized news will populate the news tab.

“Our goal with the News Tab is to provide a personalized, highly relevant experience for people,” Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, said in a statement. “The majority of stories people will see will appear in the tab via algorithmic selection.”

“To start, for the Top News section of the tab we’re pulling together a small team of journalists to ensure we’re highlighting the right stories,” she said.

The social media giant has approached several news outlets, including the Washington Post and Bloomberg, to discuss paying them as much as $3 million per year to license content, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Facebook emphasized that the news tab is not a reincarnation of the company’s now-defunct trending topics news section, which ranked news topics and links based on popularity.

The feature attracted scrutiny after controversial links and false headlines made their way onto the section. In 2016, a Gizmodo article alleged some independent contractors hired to moderate the section frequently suppressed conservative stories and stories about Facebook itself.

The news tab marks Facebook’s latest effort to tackle news curation and combat the spread of misinformation on its site. The company has been under pressure to curb false news on the platform since the 2016 presidential election, during which foreign actors used the site to sow division around social issues.

Facebook isn’t the only tech company that is increasingly relying on professionals to curate what news its users see. Apple assembled a team of former journalists to help select some of the stories that appear in Apple News, while LinkedIn has also hired editors to curate content on the site.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc. attends the Viva Tech start-up and technology gathering at Parc des Expositions Porte de Versailles on May 24, 2018 in Paris, France.

Christophe Morin/IP3 | Getty Images News | Getty Images

A state-led antitrust probe of Big Tech firms could come as soon as next month, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing sources familiar with the situation.

The investigation would put additional pressure on large technology companies that are already facing scrutiny on the federal level. The U.S. Department of Justice announced plans in July to open its own broad antitrust review of Big Tech, though it did not name the companies on which it would focus. The state-led effort could “dovetail” with that of the Justice Department, according to the Journal.

The DOJ did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment. Justice Department antitrust chief Makan Delrahim said in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday that there has been communication between the department and “a couple of dozen states.”

News of the DOJ’s investigation came shortly after reports that the agency had divided oversight of four of the country’s largest tech firms with the Federal Trade Commission. Those companies reportedly included Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon.

Amazon declined to comment. Google referred to economic policy director Adam Cohen’s testimony to Congress last month. “We have helped reduce prices and expand choice for consumers and merchants in the U.S. and around the world,” Cohen said then. “We have created new competition in many sectors, and new competitive pressures often lead to concerns from rivals. We have consistently shown how our business is designed and operated to benefit our customers.”

Representatives from Facebook and Apple did not immediately return a request for comment.

Now, state attorneys general could target an unspecified group of large tech companies with civil investigative demands, similar to subpoenas, according to the Journal.

States had already begun to take matters into their own hands by calling for tougher oversight and enforcement by the DOJ and FTC. In June, attorneys general from 39 states along with the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico signed a letter to the FTC urging the agency to consider a broad range of factors in determining consumer harm.

In July, AGs from eight states, including New York, Texas, Arizona and Louisiana, met with U.S. Attorney General William Barr to discuss their antitrust concerns about Big Tech, according to Politico. It’s unclear how many states will participate with the joint probe, but one person familiar with the effort told the Journal as many as 20 state attorneys general could join.

Even as some probes begin to reach their conclusions, it’s clear lawmakers and government officials are not ready to stop scrutinizing the rise to power of large technology companies. Last month, on the day that the FTC announced its record $5 billion settlement with Facebook over the company’s privacy policies, Facebook disclosed the agency had launched a new antitrust investigation into its business.

Several lawmakers and regulators, including two of the FTC’s dissenting commissioners, criticized the Facebook ruling as weak. Given that the $5 billion fine represented about 9% of Facebook’s 2018 revenue, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., chairman of the House antitrust subcommittee, called the settlement “a slap on the wrist.”

State attorneys general have played an important role in past antitrust rulings, including the case against Microsoft, which was brought by a coalition of states alongside the Justice Department. The case, which was focused on a single company rather than a broad group, resulted in some concessions from Microsoft to make its software more open to third-party developers.

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Apple card transaction

Apple

The Apple Card is now available to all U.S. customers, the company said Tuesday.

Apple announced the full launch of its new iPhone-integrated credit card, a joint venture with Goldman Sachs, on its website Tuesday. Previously, a limited number of customers were invited to apply for the card early.

IPhone users can now apply for the card through the Wallet app “in minutes” and “start using it right away with Apple Pay in stores, in apps and on websites” if they are approved, according to the blog post. The card carries no fees, but customers who don’t pay their balance in full are subject to a 12.99% to 23.99% variable APR based on creditworthiness.

The company also announced it was extending the card’s 3% “Daily Cash” policy to more merchants and apps, including Uber and Uber Eats. The rewards program gives back a percentage of every purchase as cash on customers’ Apple Card “each day.”

In early August, Apple invited its first customers to apply for the Apple Card.

CNBC previously reported Apple wanted Goldman Sachs to approve as many of its 100 million-plus U.S. iPhone users as possible for the card, within the bounds of regulation and responsible lending. The bank has been accepting some applications from users with less-than-stellar credit scores.

The card does include financial wellness tools like a “payment nudge” that shows how much interest a user would be charged for a given payment amount. The card also displays detailed spending information in real-time, letting users track weekly or monthly spending, categorized by color.

Apple, which is counting on recurring fees to boost revenue as iPhone sales slow, has been making a broader push to expand its services business via its 1.4 billion active devices. Apple reported $11.46 billion in services revenue for the third quarter.

Starship Technologies’ delivery robots are rolling out to college campuses including Purdue University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Starship Technologies

Self-driving robots from Starship Technologies can now deliver Starbucks, Blaze pizzas, sushi rolls, and almost anything but alcohol to students on college campuses in the U.S. via partnerships with food service companies including Sodexo and Compass Group.

University of Pittsburgh and Purdue University are the latest to get the robots, and Indiana University will see them on campus in September, following in the footsteps of George Mason University and Northern Arizona University. Students use the Starship app to order at all hours of the day and night, and can pay with their meal card if they’re buying items covered through their plan. They typically pay a delivery fee of $1 to $2, and get their delivery within a half-hour of placing the order.

Fleets of the robots should be on 100 U.S. campuses within the next two years, according to Starship CEO Lex Bayer. To support that expansion, the company raised $40 million in fresh venture funding, bringing its total capital raised to $85 million.

Bayer told CNBC that the robots, which he refers to as autonomous vehicles, are ideally suited to make deliveries on sidewalks and narrow campus streets where cars aren’t permitted or can’t fit. The delivery service can also give local stores and restaurants a shot in the arm to fight against online sellers.

“Why buy a wrench online from an e-commerce site that will get there two days later when you can buy it from a local hardware store and have it in half an hour?” Bayer asks.

Unlike delivery drones, and self-driving cars, states have been quick to sort out regulations allowing the pervasive use of autonomous delivery robots. That’s because they are comparatively lighter and slower and therefore less likely to hurt people or damage property.

Nine states already allow the use of these robots, giving Starship access to reach at least 100 million people, the CEO said. For now, the company delivers mostly groceries, hot meals, and retail packages to its customers on college campuses, corporate campuses and other communities.

The company recently notched its 100,000th delivery and has dropped off at least 6,000 pizzas, 9,000 sushi rolls, 5,000 bananas and hundreds of thousands of diapers to customers, Bayer said.

Starship aims to someday deliver pharmaceuticals. But for now, its most important delivery was a bill that the company rolled out to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to sign into law in April. Of course, the bill enabled delivery robots to operate commercially in the Evergreen State.

Competitors to Starship range from traditional food delivery businesses to Uber Eats and Amazon‘s Scout delivery robots.

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Customers leave a Kohl’s store on November 12, 2015 in San Rafael, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Kohl’s said Tuesday that a strong start to the back-to-school season and new partnership with Amazon helped the retailer beat Wall Street earnings expectations during the second quarter.

The company’s shares jumped by about 5% in premarket trading, despite missing sales estimates.

Here’s how the company did, compared with what Wall Street was expecting, according to Refinitiv consensus estimates:

  • Adjusted earnings per share: $1.55, vs. $1.53 estimated
  • Net sales: $4.17 billion, vs. $4.2 billion estimated
  • Same store sales: down 2.9%, vs. down 2.5% estimated

“We are pleased to report that our business strengthened as we progressed through the second quarter,” said Kohl’s CEO Michelle Gass said in a release announcing fiscal second-quarter earnings. “Comparable sales were better than the first quarter and improved during the period, turning positive during the last six weeks of the second quarter with 1% growth.”

Net income for the quarter ended Aug. 4 slid more than 17% to $241 million, or $1.51 per share, down from $292 million, or $1.76 a share, a year ago. Net sales fell to $4.17 billion compared to $4.3 billion a year ago. Sales at the company’s stores open more than a year fell 2.9%, wider than Wall Street’s estimates of a 2.5% decrease.

In April, Kohl’s announced it would begin accepting Amazon returns at all of its stores, growing its partnership with the e-commerce giant in an attempt to increase foot traffic at its stores. The companies’ relationship began in the spring of 2017, when Kohl’s began selling Amazon gadgets like the Fire TV and Echo Dot at its stores.

“We are confident that our upcoming brand launches, program expansions, and increased traffic from the Amazon returns program will incrementally contribute to our performance during the balance of the year and beyond,” Gass said.

More recently, the company also announced a deal with Fanatics to sell items such as licensed NFL jerseys and NBA T-shirts online. The partnership made Fanatics the exclusive distributor of all licensed sports apparel and accessories for Kohl’s. The initiative is part of a larger push into sports apparel by the retailer. It has also started lease out its own excess real estate to gym operator Planet Fitness, which will open locations next door to Kohl’s.

The company’s stock has tumbled more than 27% since January, bringing its market value to around $7.8 billion.

Correction: This story was corrected to reflect that Kohl’s net sales, not total revenue, missed Wall Street estimates.

Marvel Spider-Man signage is seen at the Sony Corp. PlayStation booth during the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, June 12, 2018.

Troy Harvey | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Sony’s gaming division announced late Monday that it will buy U.S. video game developer Insomniac Games.

The acquisition follows a more than 20-year relationship between the two companies on a host of popular games exclusive to Sony’s PlayStation console, including “Spider-Man,” “Rachet & Clank” and “Resistance.”

Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) said the company would be run by current management and SIE’s video game development arm in San Mateo, California, once the deal closes. Financial terms were not disclosed.

“We have enjoyed a strong collaborative partnership with the studio for many years, and are thrilled to officially welcome them to the Worldwide Studios family,” Shawn Layden, chairman of SIE Worldwide Studios (WWS), said in a statement Monday.

“The addition of Insomniac Games to SIE WWS reiterates our commitment to developing world class gaming experiences that can only be found on the PlayStation platform.”

The deal could be an important one for Sony, as the gaming giant looks to build on its success with exclusive titles to rival Microsoft’s Xbox console, and as the PlayStation 4 approaches the end of its life cycle.

Many are speculating about what Sony will bring to the table with its next-generation console. Mark Cerny, the lead developer for the PS4, has said the next PlayStation won’t arrive in stores this year, but gamers can expect it to come with much better graphics and sound.

Microsoft revealed its next-generation console, “Project Scarlett,” at the E3 gaming conference earlier this year. That device will show up to 120 frames per second — which is twice the average TV — and include a solid-state drive to improve performance.

It also arrives as players in the gaming space enter a new battle: cloud gaming. Both Google and Microsoft have made public their plans to launch game streaming platforms, with Google having announced Stadia back in March and Microsoft unveiling Project xCloud at E3.

Sony has its own game subscription service, PlayStation Now, and it announced a partnership with Microsoft earlier this year that would see the two work together on game and content streaming.