AMONG THE BIGGEST spenders on Facebook political ads during the recent midterm campaigns are some names you’d probably expect. There’s Beto O’Rourke, who lost to Ted Cruz in the Texas Senate race. There’s President Donald Trump—both his campaign and his super PAC. There are billionaires like J.B. Pritzker, incoming governor of Illinois, and Tom Steyer, the environmentalist leading the campaign to impeach Trump. And of course, there’s a multibillion-dollar oil giant, ExxonMobil. But tucked into that list, rounding out the top 10, is a name few have heard of: Concealed Online.
Since May, Concealed Online—a for-profit company that offers an online course and sells online certifications for concealed-carry gun permits in Virginia—shelled out more than $2 million on Facebook advertisements. That’s slightly less than ExxonMobil, and far more than well-known groups like Planned Parenthood. Its ads warn about the “blue wave.” “MOB RULE IS COMING!” read one series of ads before the midterm elections. And after: “IT’S ALMOST OVER! The Gun Control Dems are IN.” The messages are laced with heated political rhetoric, but they don’t advocate for political action. Instead, they seem squarely designed to gin up customers to make the company money. They urge Facebook users to “certify online for free to carry concealed” through its website. (The certificates cost $65 to download.)
Concealed Online doesn’t share much information about itself. The company’s website gives no indication of ownership; its address as of early November was a virtual office in Burbank, California. But after inquiries from WIRED, the company changed the address listed on its site to Walnut, a suburb about 20 miles east of Los Angeles. There’s no Concealed Online company registered with the California Secretary of State, while the website is registered to a business that buys domains on behalf of clients who don’t want their information disclosed. A legal complaint filed in the Northern District of California in February 2017, however, identifies OrionClick LLC as the parent company of Concealed Online.
WIRED reached out to Concealed Online through an email address on the company’s website. After WIRED received a response from Concealed Online’s lawyer, Karl Kronenberger, the company’s owner agreed to an interview if WIRED did not publish his name. The owner says he chooses to keep his identity private in part because he fears attacks by “crazies,” and in part because his personal politics are “the opposite” of the ones reflected in his ads. He insists he’s not a partisan actor, but an internet marketer, capitalizing on political events to make money.
“We’re opportunistic marketers, sure,” he says. “The point of the ad is to effect a purchase, not influence policy.”
Digital political ads exist in a regulatory no-man’s land. Where political advertisers on radio or television must file disclosures with the Federal Election Commission and include disclaimers about who paid for the ad, no such rules exist in the digital space, though some have been proposed. Even on TV, for ads that aren’t purchased by candidates or PACs, the FEC only requires disclaimers on so-called “electioneering communications,” which must be publicly distributed shortly before an election and include clear references to a specific candidate. But the digital gap allows anyone, regardless of motive, to run highly targeted, politically divisive ads with next to no oversight. With its ad archive, Facebook has tried to institute some transparency into the process. But Concealed Online’s multimillion-dollar ad campaign raises questions about how transparent that system really is.
Concealed Online launched in 2016, three years after Virginia started allowing people to take online courses to qualify for concealed carry permits. Those permits are recognized in states across the country, and even nonresidents of Virginia are eligible. The company’s owner saw a business opportunity in that. So he developed an online training course, where people can watch a video on gun safety, take a test, and instantly download a certificate of competency with a handgun for a fee. You can take the test as many times as you need, making it nearly impossible to fail. I passed without watching the training video and with no firearms experience to speak of. I purposely got questions wrong and still passed.