By SIMON D. SCHUSTER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (May 15, 2020) — Last month, Operation Gridlock sent shockwaves across the U.S., marking the first significant protest of a state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though it was the brainchild of two Michigan-based conservative groups, the protest itself felt like a grassroots event, not unlike the Tea Party protests that swept the country in 2010.
Now some of the same organizations that capitalized on the anger and resentment of the Tea Party are seizing upon this moment. An array of out-of-state nonprofits funded by some of the same organizations are creating an ecosystem of alternative media online, delivering conservative content to Michiganders in the form of political reporting, grassroots organizing, advocacy and even satire.
After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the stay-at-home order April 9, blowback from Republicans in the legislature soon followed. Amid the growing anger on Facebook, a page called Mighty Michigan quickly crafted its own response.
For a week afterward, the page spent thousands of dollars on advertisements urging Michiganders to sign a petition against the order’s ban on motor boating and travel between residences. The ads appeared on Facebook news feeds in Michigan between 510,000 and 615,000 times, according to the site’s estimates.
Created just seven months ago in September 2019, Mighty Michigan has spent more than $165,000 advertising in Michigan through the social media platform, amassing more than 26,000 followers. At times during the presidential primary season it was one of the top ten advertisers in the state. Nearly all of their content is directed at Whitmer and the legislature. The only other page Mighty Michigan has “liked” is the Michigan Conservative Coalition, the gridlock protest’s original organizer.
Mighty Michigan’s website is a mix of pro-small government blog entries, petitions and a promise: “Special interests have controlled Michigan for too long. We’re working to change that.”
The Michigan Campaign Finance Network found through an examination of IRS filings these organizations have exchanged millions of dollars and have shared staff, leadership, donors and contractors. John Tillman, an influential conservative activist in Illinois politics, is a founder or chair of three nonprofits MCFN found to be producing Michigan-specific content. He was adamant Mighty Michigan is “completely independent” from the other organizations.
“Various organizations may share vendors, but that is no different than people sharing office space at WeWork and using common vendors there,” he wrote. “It is important that you get this factually correct and not imply some sort of operational connection that does not exist.”
Mighty Michigan also runs a private Facebook group with more than 4,200 members, but the aims of the American Culture Project (ACP), the new nonprofit running the page, seem to extend beyond giving a voice to everyday people.
Their approach may typify a new kind of political advocacy optimized for marketing in the social media era. Where political commercials interrupt television programming, online political nonprofits can become the programming, creating an ecosystem of digital content tailored to their messages, meant to target voters and engage them around their priorities — all while keeping their funding secret and operating outside the purview of Michigan’s campaign finance laws.
Edward Walker, a political scientist at the University of California Los Angeles, has researched how corporations and political consultants use new technologies for grassroots mobilization. Despite a long history of activists coordinating messages between states to influence policy, he said this combined variety of approaches may be “new in every sense.”
“When I talk to the policy professionals who do this kind of work, the language that they often use is ‘surround sound,’” Walker told MCFN. “You have some policymakers that you want to influence, you want to have them hearing this from every angle, or every direction of their interaction … if you can create a lot of different avenues of influence that's generally going to be something that will work to your advantage.”
Special Interest-Funded News, Rebranded
The roots of this strategy stretch back more than 10 years. In 2009 a conservative think tank, the State Policy Network, partnered with a new nonprofit called The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity to create a series of online publications called Watchdog. They had bureaus in more than a dozen state capitals, including Michigan’s.
“Many of the reports drew on research from the State Policy Network and promoted the legislative priorities of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council),” Jane Mayer of The New Yorker wrote in her 2016 book “Dark Money.” In 2011, 95% of the Franklin Center’s funding came from DonorTrust, which was heavily funded by billionaires Charles and David Koch along with the Devos family, which has long had significant influence in Michigan politics. They contributed a combined $2.5 million between 2009 and 2010, according to liberal opposition research super PAC American Bridge.
In May 2019, according to Facebook’s records, Watchdog’s main page adopted a new moniker, The Center Square, and four days later merged with 17 other state-specific Watchdog pages, combining their digital following. The Franklin Center had been renamed The Franklin News Foundation (FNF).
The Center Square, it seems, has become the new face of these efforts. It now covers 25 states along with national stories. Its articles can be republished free-of-charge and have been picked up by local outlets like the Detroit Metro Times. According to the nonprofit’s most recent filing with the IRS, it spent nearly $5 million in 2018 on “professional journalism.”
FNF is not alone in this approach. Advocacy groups across the political spectrum have waded into state political reporting in recent years. The ‘Gander, whose parent organization is owned by the progressive nonprofit ACRONYM, has spent about $66,000 on Facebook advertising since its creation in September 2019, but has a smaller following and footprint. Like Michigan Advance, which is funded in part by the opaque Hopewell Fund, the publications are open about their progressive viewpoints. Tillman, in an interview with MCFN, set The Center Square apart from those other projects.
“The way I would characterize The Center Square is a straight down the middle, traditional news provider that tries to make sure the taxpayer’s voice is heard in every story — mind you that taxpayers come from both parties and independents — and it does not have an ideological bent at all,” he said.
There also is no connection between Mighty Michigan and The Center Square, at least not formally. John Sellek, a consultant with a long history in Michigan Republican politics, is the spokesperson for the page. He said the group is focused on specific issues, not an overarching ideology.
“The goal is to provide information but to try to encourage discussion on issues and so sometimes, we post stories from you know, (The) Detroit Free Press, Detroit News and MLive, even publishing a story by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network,” Sellek said in an interview. “Overall, if you look through the vast majority of stories, they are posted from mainstream Michigan sources.”
While a majority of Mighty Michigan’s posts are from other outlets, from the beginning of the year through April 20, no website including mightymichigan.com was posted more than The Center Square.
The outlet’s coverage also continues to coincide with ALEC’s issues of choice. A conservative organization with storied influence in state legislatures, ALEC is best known for drafting model legislation, templates for bills state legislators can adopt and introduce as their own. A representative for Koch industries sat on ALEC boards for more than 2 decades, alongside a smorgasbord of other special interests.
Chaz Cirame, who is listed as a board member on Mighty Michigan sponsor American Culture Project’s (then named Americans For Government Accountability) most recent filing with the Internal Revenue Service, previously worked for ALEC leading public affairs. A biography at his new firm describes him as “one of the nation’s foremost experts regarding how NGO’s [sic] and influencers affect public policy.” Cirame told MCFN he left the board last year and declined to be interviewed.
In the last year, ALEC released five model bills aimed at either reducing or eliminating state requirements that workers and businesses become licensed in certain industries. Michigan, along with many other states, requires licenses for a long list of businesses from barbers to canoe rentals, ostensibly to ensure they’re competent in terms of education, safety or sanitation. SB 40, introduced by state Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton) in 2019 contains much of the same language as ALEC’s Occupational Licensing Review Act. On ALEC’s website the bill was posted publicly as a draft on Feb. 1. Theis introduced her bill on Feb. 4.
It was the first of several efforts to deregulate occupational licensing in Michigan, some of which had universal support and became law. And as various bills were introduced throughout the United States, MCFN found The Center Square covered the legislation in Michigan (twice), Florida, Tennessee, Ohio, Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, Nevada, Virginia, Wisconsin and Illinois.
After reviewing this information, Walker said it “sounds a whole lot like ALEC and the State Policy Network.” FNF is listed as an associate organization on the network’s website and contributor to Mighty Michigan’s blog is a senior fellow at the network.
Aimee Rinehart, deputy director of First Draft, a nonprofit that monitors how information is spread through social media, told MCFN in an interview that in the past five years, right-wing activists have better learned to harness social media than their counterparts on the left.
“I think that they are probably identifying very closely with their readers who don't necessarily care about bylines and editorial integrity. They just want stuff on their newsfeed that aligns with their point of view,” Rinehart said. “I think it could be the right is more attuned to who they serve and isn’t afraid to hide it.”
The Center Square’s largest presence is in Illinois. There it absorbed a previously unrelated publication, Illinois News Network, which had until then been a product of Illinois Policy Institute, led by John Tillman.
A Tangled Web
Tillman is the longest thread connecting these organizations.
He chairs the board of the American Culture Project, which funds Mighty Michigan, and also is chairman of Franklin News Foundation which funds The Center Square. Along with the Illinois Policy Institute, Liberty Justice Center and others. (Report continues below.)
A Michigan native, Tillman got his start in marketing managing call centers. He became leader of the institute in 2007 after pitching a vision for what he called, in a 2019 podcast interview, “a marketing-centric approach to advancing human freedom in the public policy arena.”
“So I wrote a business plan, because I’m an entrepreneur, to build out a variety of entities including the Illinois Policy Institute as a think tank, a litigation center, some data capabilities, some advocacy capability,” Tillman said on the podcast 7 Figure Fundraising.
Tillman said that while he is still CEO of IPI, he is merely a volunteer or board member for the other organizations. On the podcast he provided a different impression.
“The original idea was that I was going to be the grandmaster overseeing all these entities and I came to realize very quickly … if you really want to get something off the ground you have got to go in and take the reins yourself and ride the horse to the finish line," he said on the podcast
The funding behind these nonprofits is mostly unknown, and as Tillman appeared on their boards and later began to chair them, some began to share the same Chicago address, phone number and board members. After Tillman and his associates appeared to replace the entire Franklin News Foundation board between 2017 and 2018, according to IRS filings, it also lost its Alexandria, Virg address.
Tillman explained in an interview with MCFN, “we just funnel things through (a single address) for administrative purposes.”
“We have a lot of people that work in our Chicago office, and some of those people support other organizations that don't actually work for the Illinois Policy Institute or split their time with other organizations,” he said. “It's a perfectly normal arrangement.”
He also chairs Think Freely Media, which in the last year has embarked on a new media project, though not explicitly. Their website lists a “satirical news website” among its projects but does not name it. The nonprofit’s most recent filing with the IRS discloses that it paid an independent contractor, Iron Light Inc., more than $100,000 for marketing in 2018.
Iron Light, as of 2018, is owned by the nonprofit Government Accountability Alliance, which is itself controlled by the Illinois Policy Institute. The marketing agency’s leadership also works or worked for IPI. Iron Light won a Vega Digital Award in 2019 for the creation of Velvet Hamster, a satirical news website. Less than a year old, it has amassed more than 335,000 likes on Facebook and produced a considerable volume of content.
The Onion, perhaps the internet’s most prominent source of satire, can often be left-leaning in its jokes, and when Velvet Hamster touches political humor it regularly provides a counterpoint. Despite its national focus, two posts in the last year have focused on Whitmer, one a day before the Operation Gridlock protest, joking, “Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s restrictive stay-at-home order is getting even more restrictive, as she announced Tuesday that the floor outside everyone’s home in the Wolverine State is actually lava.”
Another, during the road funding debate in 2019, quipped in its headline, “Michigan Gov. promises tax hikes will only affect wealthy, middle class, poor.” Both were advertised exclusively in Michigan, reaching up to 75,000 people. Mighty Michigan also spent much of 2019 railing against the road plan, sardonically deeming it a “pain in the gas,” the same catchphrase utilized by Illinois Policy Institute; the two share the same editorial cartoonist.
When asked about Velvet Hamster, Tillman laughed and confirmed the ownership. He argued it too had no political aspirations.
“I think Velvet hamster is very hard to pin down,” Tillman said. “If you're trying to figure out Velvet Hamster through a political lens, I think that's a mistake; that's not its purpose. Its purpose is to be funny and attract millennials and do cultural commentary.”
Much of Velvet Hamster’s state-level political humor has focused on Michigan and Illinois. One freelance writer for the site, Amelia Hamilton, also writes for Mighty Michigan. While Facebook does not disclose detailed information about how its advertisers target users, ads by The Center Square, Mighty Michigan and Velvet Hamster run in the last year all feature photos of Whitmer and primarily target men.
Several of the organizations also have data collection implemented on their sites. When a visitor to mightymichigan.com selects “yay” or “nay” for legislation in the site’s “Take Action” section, a review of the page’s code indicates the choice is tracked using Facebook and Google’s tools. As common with many retail sites, the information can be used to further target users with advertisements on an individual level. Both Franklin News Foundation and Think Freely Media have in-house marketing arms.
“They're using the platforms as they're designed to work, and they can just connect people and create a movement,” Rinehart said. “Never before have these campaigns been able to pivot so quickly and collaborate on issues of like-minded topics.”
After a phone interview with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Tillman followed up by email to reiterate the separation between the nonprofits.
“We share back office services, but that does not mean that the organizations work together or are affiliated, it means a lot of us know each other, but the organizations are independent, have independent boards, operate independently, have independent missions,” Tillman told MCFN. “They're just very different.”
Beyond office space, though, each of the nonprofits Tillman is affiliated with also has staff or directors overlapping with another of the organizations. Tillman said American Culture Project is run by Kristina Rasmussen while he continues to chair its board. Rasmussen has served on the board of both The Center Square sponsor Franklin News Foundation and Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), according to IRS filings, and is a former president of IPI’s board.
A review of IRS filings from 2015 through 2018 by MCFN found many of the organizations chaired by Tillman moved well in excess of $10 million between each other in a series of loans, grants and transactions too convoluted to detail in this reporting. The nonprofit Government Accountability Alliance, directly controlled by IPI, acted as broker for much of the money. Franklin News Foundation and Think Freely Media both listed Illinois Policy Project as a related organization in 2018 IRS filings. The Center Square and IPI also have the same Facebook tracking ID on their websites, indicating the tracking could have been managed by the same individuals or organization, Rinehart said.
Public information on these newer projects is limited, however. Because they didn’t ramp up activities until 2019, IRS filings that would detail financial activities related to the creation of Mighty Michigan, The Center Square and Velvet Hamster aren’t yet available. Strangely, the reported Facebook page owner of another Think Freely Media project, American Will, is listed as Americans for Government Accountability, ACP’s former name. It has spent more than 20% of its advertising in Michigan in the last month, according to Facebook disclosures.
Some of the organizations have also used for-profit consultants and businesses owned by nonprofit board members as vendors, paying the businesses sums well into the six-figure range, as first reported by Propublica Illinois.
A Pilot Project
In speaking with MCFN, Tillman was clear that Mighty Michigan had no role in organizing Operation Gridlock, though he praised the protestors.
“Prior to the coronavirus, the mission was to give voice to the powerless against the powerful, advance ideas from enterprise free markets and protect taxpayers. I think that is the worthy thing to do, that brings people of all political persuasions together,” he said. “As to how that plays out now given what's going on with the COVID-19 issue, that's a different subject.”
Mighty Michigan’s homepage is still devoted to the petition, and a day after Operation Gridlock they published a cartoon that was widely shared. In it Whitmer is depicted as Marie Antoinette, pointing to a television covering the protest and telling an aide, “let them eat cake,” the Queen’s notoriously clueless response upon learning the French people had no bread. In this cartoon the aide replies, “umm… you banned cake.” The nature of the internet makes it diffcult to gauge the full impact of these cartoon when they can easily be saved and reuploaded.
Two weeks later protestors, some heavily armed, filled the Capitol and Michigan again made national headlines. The protest was meant to originally mark the end of the stay-at-home order and was markedly uglier, with swarms of people ignoring precautions against the virus and a line of state police needed to prevent a crowd from entering the House floor.
The Center Square made no mention of it, instead writing about the legislature’s intent to stop Whitmer’s state of emergency extension. Mighty Michigan shared a news story that provided just a passing reference to coverage of the protest. Republican legislative leaders denounced some of their actions and Facebook later removed several of the grassroots groups on the platform that birthed the various protests as threatening rhetoric began to appear.
Just how closely the major funders of American Culture Project and the other nonprofits may be aligned is unknown due to a lack of disclosure. Tillman said he respects his donors’ privacy and leaves it up to them to reveal their support. IRS records indicate some major foundations contributed to several of Tillman’s organizations in the same year along with other free market-oriented think tanks.
He rejected the notion that financial transparency is relevant to their work.
“The whole idea that who funds an organization matters is not true,” Tillman said. “Our work speaks for itself. It goes out there and either the public, the media, political actors and other elites and influencers take it and are persuaded by it or they're not. The fact that they don't know who's funding it doesn't change the fact that that information is out there transparently for all to see and can be judged on its own merits.”
The long-term aim for American Culture Project, Tillman said, is nationwide impact.
“Our goal with our culture project is to do this eventually in all 50 states, and we are very close to it,” Tillman said. “We are operating in multiple states right now and expect to operate as many as eight to 12 states by the end of the year.”
The approach Tillman has tested in Michigan, it seems, is ready for national distribution.