Though they have wildly diverse business interests, the Koch brothers are more famous for how they spend their money than for how they make it. Koch Industries is active in asphalt products, medical hardware, construction materials, glass, fuel, cattle and fabrics used to make everything “from rugged work clothes to sexy underthings,” according to the Koch Industries website. But the breadth of the political funding they coordinate may be even greater.
Elements of the Kochs’ pro-market anti-interventionist philosophy have been thrust to the forefront of politics in recent years thanks in part to their influence. Although their political operation is sometimes portrayed as a monolithic force, tipping the scales of public opinion toward economic libertarianism and directly bankrolling their candidates of choice, a closer look reveals a more complex operation. Thanks to campaign finance laws limiting political spending, the Kochs have to find creative ways to leverage their influence effectively.
The result of these maneuverings is the “Koch network,” a web of PACs, think tanks, nonprofits and LLCs likened to an octopus by Jane Mayer, the journalist who wrote the book on the Kochs. The names of some organizations in the network, like Americans for Prosperity or Freedom Partners(which exists in several incarnations, including Freedom Partners Action Fund, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, Freedom Partners Institute and Freedom Partners Shared Services) might seem familiar. Others, like American Encore or Concerned Women for America might not.
According to BBC, the Kochs’ total spending may hit $400 million this midterm cycle. Exactly how much of that will go to digital advertising is impossible to determine at this point, but using the tools Google, Facebook and Twitter introduced to increase digital ad transparency in the wake of 2016 election controversies gives a glimpse at which races and issues the network is currently interested in.
Based on its name alone, the Institute for Humane Studies is not a group most people would know to associate with the Koch-network or its libertarian political leanings. But the group built up by the brothers and chaired by Charles Koch paid $814,798 for “student marketing” in 2016. According to the group’s 2016 tax returns, which covers their fiscal year through August 31, 2017, the student marketing budget “introduces new audiences to the ideas of liberty through printed materials, emails, websites, direct mail, networking, and paid advertisements.”
As of October 5, the Institute for Humane Studies’ recent promoted tweets focus on city planning and zoning laws, especially in San Francisco. Promoted tweets are essentially paid-ads in the form of social media posts. Facebook has a similar promoted posts system.
One of the promoted tweets links to a video entitled “How Zoning Laws Are Holding Back America’s Cities.” In it, an economist Sandy Ikeda explains how zoning laws can drive up prices.
The video is hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies Youtube account which has additional videos in its feed entitled “Capitalism vs. Socialism Debate – Libertycon 2018” and “Your Next Government? From the Nation State to Stateless Nations.”
Meanwhile, Freedom Partners, a more visibly Koch-affiliated group, has been promoting anti-tariff tweets. One of their recent promoted tweets links to a page on the Freedom Partners website titled “Trade Builds America.” Another links to a Washington Post opinion piece that argues against tariffs imposed by the Trump administration. The piece’s author is Charles Koch.
“One might assume that, as the head of Koch Industries — a large company involved in many industries, including steel — I would applaud such import tariffs because they would be to our immediate and financial benefit,” Koch says in the piece. “But corporate leaders must reject this type of short-term thinking, and we have.”
Freedom Partners groups are also active on Google and Facebook. On Google, Freedom Partners Action Fund has bought 12 ads since the transparency tool launched. They have spent over $11,000 on advertising. Since July, their spending has increased steadily, and all ads that can be currently viewed in the transparency tool are for Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.). DeSantis received $15,000 in contributions from Koch Industries in 2016 and $5000 in 2018.
Meanwhile, on Facebook, Freedom Partners Shared Services ran more than 30 versions of an ad attacking Nevada gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak for taking campaign contributions. Freedom Partners Action Fund ran ads in support of Adam Laxalt, Sisolak’s opponent.
Freedom Partners also ran more than 90 promoted posts that were essentially open thank-you letters to politicians who had backed Koch-endorsed policies.
Political ads posted by a given organization can only be browsed via transparency tools if they were “promoted” as ads during or after May 2018 on Facebook and Google. The Facebook Ad Archive also kicks you off the tool if you view too many posts in a short period of time.
Still, the Facebook and Google transparency tools provide far more latitude than Twitter’s. Promoted ads on Twitter can only be viewed as far back as a week, so the Koch network’s digital ad-buys on Twitter from more than seven days ago are invisible. You can go back a little further with a paid subscription to AdEspresso University. That gets you access to a gallery with a handful of additional archived ads.
Using the AdEspresso tool, you can view a two-year-old promoted Facebook post from the Mercatus Center — of which Charles Koch is a board member and director according to the Center’s 2016 tax return — linking to an article that suggests Americans have “lost their mojo.” You can also see posts from American Energy Alliance, a Koch-funded group that according to 2015 tax documents paid i360 $116,215 for media services in 2015. i360 is a Koch-affiliated data company that builds profiles on potential voters by analyzing voting records alongside data from credit bureaus and social networks. American Energy Alliance posts support coal mining and write off subsidies for wind power as a sort of “Christmas gift” for special interests. American Energy Alliance has also provided grants to American Commitment and the 60 Plus Association, both of which are also Koch-associated.
The AdEspresso tool also reveals older promoted Facebook posts from Americans for Prosperity, the network’s flagship group. One post links to a Daily Caller article that credits fracking with reducing greenhouse emissions and another links to an Americans for Prosperity produced Ebook about the “10 biggest lies of socialism.”
Facebook’s official transparency tool retrieves over 2,000 promoted posts by Americans for Prosperity. That is not counting promoted posts by state-level versions of the group like Americans for Prosperity Utah, Americans for Prosperity Kansas, Americans for Prosperity Florida, et cet. A recent promoted post from Americans for Prosperity Illinois sounded the alarm about the Netflix tax.
According to Facebook’s transparency tool, between Aug. 31 and Sept. 16, Americans for Prosperity ran half a dozen ads against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and in favor of her opponent Leah Vukmir(R-Wis.). In that same period, they ran five ads against Sen. Claire McCaskill (R-Mo.). The McCaskill ads were only run in Missouri, but they all cost at least $5,000. Americans for Prosperity also spent at least $500 against Sen. Susan Collins in her home state of Maine from late June to mid-July. Facebook removed an anti-Collins post because it violated their policies, though it is not clear exactly how.
Americans for Prosperity started running 22 versions of a promoted post on August 25 that invite browsers to “swipe” to see the four “most common” beliefs of past justices of the Supreme Court. These beliefs include “not seek(ing) to subvert the proper rule of law with judicial activism” and “never compromis(ing) our congressional rule of law to be ‘politically correct.’”
Occasionally the Americans for Prosperity Facebook account promotes posts linking to episodes of “Torch Talk,” a sort of chat show in which Gabrielle Broad, the organization’s national press secretary, interviews conservative politicians. The show seems to exist mostly on social media. Episodes of Torch Talk are also posted on YouTube but they are buried in episodes of a show with the same name about glassworkers who make elaborate marijuana pipes.
Over on Twitter, Americans for Prosperity has promoted four tweets in the past week as of this writing. One reads “Stop Wasteful Spending! Fish on treadmills, Hamlet performed by dogs – taxpayers have paid for some crazy stuff! Hold Congress accountable!” It links to StopOverSpending.com, a website affiliated with Americans for Prosperity.
Americans for Prosperity has spent $830,100 advertising on Google platforms and purchased 287 ads since May of this year. Their top five most viewed ads, each of which received between 1 and 10 million views, cannot currently be viewed in the transparency tool. The top four cost at least $50,000 apiece.
“While we are able to review these ads for compliance with advertising policies, due to technical limitations, we are currently unable to display the content of the ad in the Transparency Report,” says a notice displayed beneath the invisible ads.
Americans for Prosperity’s spending on Google ads has steadily increased since mid-September.
All of this barely skims the surface of the Koch digital advertising operations. There are almost certainly other Koch network groups that have promoted posts or bought ads on social networks, and there are thousands more ads from Americans for Prosperity alone available to view through the transparency tools (which are publicly available through Facebook, Twitter and Google). On top of that, the tools are seriously limited, so most pre-2018 advertisements are a mystery.
Digital advertising is only one sliver of what the Koch network does to exert its influence in Washington and beyond. In 2016, Americans for Prosperity alone spent $50,000 in lobbying and spent over $13 million on independent expenditures against Democrats.
Therein lies the trouble with examining the network. Looking at just one piece does not give you the full picture, but trying to take it all in at once is overwhelming. The only way to understand the Koch network is to look at its pieces, to go arm-by-arm and work your way toward the center. Digital advertising is a great place to start, but to really get to know the network one has to follow the money.