Who's actually paying for the ads against the Florida social media bill? You won't know (2024)

'You need as much transparency as possible when it comes to advertising for and against legislation,' one open government advocate says.


Who's actually paying for the ads against the Florida social media bill? You won't know (1)

Who's actually paying for the ads against the Florida social media bill? You won't know (2)

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Floridians are seeing advertisem*nts for and against their Legislature's proposed social media ban for kids — but they won't find out who’s funding them.

With a bill (HB 1) seeking to ban minors under 16 from using social media moving this legislative session, ads about the measure are saturating social media and elsewhere on the internet (including the websites of the USA TODAY NETWORK newspapers in Florida).

“Empower parents,” one ad says. The bill doesn’t allow for a parental rights exception. “Don’t ban social media. #FixHB1.”

That ad links to the website of the Citizen Awareness Project, Inc., a Colorado-based 501(c)(4) nonprofit that was founded in 2012.

But its website doesn’t have much information about the group beyond that. Messages sent to an email address listed on its privacy policy” page, which says it was last updated in 2016, bounced back with an error message. There are no details about its leadership or its funding.

And it doesn’t have to reveal anything about its funding. Such nonprofits, or “social welfare organizations,” don’t have to publicly disclose that, per federal rules.

They do have to provide some information about their spending in forms filed to the IRS, but they’re not exactly dripping with details.

“501(c)(4) groups often submit vague explanations for how money is spent with vendors, such as ‘consulting’ or ‘fundraising,’ and are not obligated to say what the money purchased with any specificity,” writes Open Secrets, a group that tracks money in U.S. politics.

They exploded onto the scene following the 2010 Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision, which said political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.

And such a group is trying to sink one of the biggest priorities of Florida’s 2024 legislative session.

“You need as much transparency as possible when it comes to advertising for and against legislation,” said Ben Wilcox, research director and co-founder of the government watchdog Integrity Florida. It “seems to be a deliberate attempt to hide the source of funding for this advertising.”

And the ads supporting the bill?

On the other hand, state political committee Florida Right Direction is behind a surge of ads promoting the legislation. One reads: “Florida needs common sense guardrails that allow kids to be kids, instead of ‘products’ for Big Tech.”

But, because of a state law passed and enacted last year (SB 7050), political committees at this point in the election cycle only have to file their contribution and expenditure reports quarterly instead of the previous monthly.

“I thought that was a step backward as far as finance transparency,” Wilcox said.

The report for who’s currently giving money to Florida Right Direction won’t be out until after the legislative session, scheduled to end March 8.

But David Johnson – the committee’s chair and a longtime, influential Florida-based GOP consultant – said it’s received no funds since its last filing, which listed a November $100,000 contribution from Honest Leadership. (The donating group has the stated mission to “promote and support principled conservative causes and candidates” in Florida, and it’s chaired by state Republican Rep. Sam Garrison of Fleming Island.)

“I do political work for the speaker, and this was one of (his) priorities,” Johnson said, referring to House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast. “So we came up with a plan to support him and support his effort."

Johnson, a former Republican Party of Florida executive director, assumes the group running the ads against the bill are being funded by social media companies. “We don’t know much about them, and I believe that’s by design,” he said. “We don’t know who their funding sources are, and that is by design.”

The Senate passed the legislation on Thursday. Its next stop is the House, which already passed it once, to approve modifications to the language.

Then it would go to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk. The governor has voiced legal concerns with the legislation and hasn’t said whether he would sign it.

During a press conference after Thursday's vote, DeSantis said he didn't think the bill was "there yet." If the House further modifies the language, it would have to bounce back to the Senate.

"Parents need to have a role in this," DeSantis said. "I do think parents are concerned about social media and what goes on there, and I do think they think it's a problem. But I also think that for people that are in high school, it's not as simple."

During DeSantis’ now-suspended presidential bid, the Citizen Awareness Project put out largely positive polling on the public support for him. It hired Public Opinion Strategies for its survey results, which worked for DeSantis’ campaign.

Other states have passed similar laws to Florida’s proposal – but they’ve had parental rights exceptions. And that hasn’t been enough to protect them against legal challenges.

Florida's bill in part defines social media platforms as ones that use “addictive features."

Renner said at a press conference last week that he thought the legislation was legally sound: "We're not saying kids can't be on social media platforms. We're saying that social media platforms can simply adjust their behavior slightly to make it less addictive."

What about parental rights?: Questions of parental rights raised as Florida lawmakers push social media ban for minors

Senate committee changes HB 1: No social media for kids? Florida moves even closer to banning minors from platforms

So what is the Citizen Awareness Project?

The Citizen Awareness Project has an active page on X, formerly known as Twitter, that it created just this month. There have been no posts on its Facebook page since 2014. The page's bio reads: “Citizen Awareness Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to advocating for conser.”

The cut-off word could be “conservative.” Despite that nonpartisan description, the group spent nearly $1,000,000 to oppose former President Barack Obama's 2012 reelection bid, according to Federal Election Commission data. The FEC doesn’t have any contribution records for the group beyond that election cycle.

At the time, Marketplace, a public media outlet, ran a piece referring to CAP as a "mystery group." It's previously received funding connected with the libertarian-leaning Koch network, according to a 2014 ProPublica analysis.

Soon after, the group was fighting the IRS in court.

The Citizen Awareness Project accused the federal agency of showing political bias by releasing confidential records of its pending nonprofit tax exemption application to investigative news source ProPublica, which ran a story titled, “IRS Office That Targeted Tea Party Also Disclosed Confidential Docs From Conservative Groups.”

CAP ended up entering into a settlement agreement with the IRS. So did dozens of other conservative groups.

The controversy still has political reverberations. When congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which increased IRS funding, no Republican voted for it. Pointing to the incident, many conservatives warned of political targeting.

And the organization is still active. According to IRS records, its chairperson has remained Charlie Smith, a Denver commercial real estate attorney.

CAP is managed by New Frontier Management Group, LLC, a company that Smith owns, according to IRS documents. Its listed address is the same as the one for CAP: A residence in Highlands Ranch, an unincorporated community just outside of Denver.

“Citizen Awareness Project is a national organization that has engaged in states across the country to educate citizens and public officials,” Smith said in an email. “As a matter of policy, we do not disclose our donors.”

Smith said his organization got involved in Florida because it believed the legislation is “government overreach and parents know best – not the government.”

Smith pointed to a poll his group commissioned from the Tyson Group, a national research firm. Its founder is top GOP pollster and consultant Ryan Tyson, described by Politico as "a key cog" in DeSantis’ 2024 presidential campaign.

The survey found that nearly 80% of Florida voters believed parents should be able to choose whether their teenage children use social media.

But a survey commissioned by Florida Right Direction went in a completely different direction. Cygnal, a GOP polling and analytics company, found that 67% of voters were in favor of the legislation.

Who's actually paying for the ads against the Florida social media bill? You won't know (3)

Who's actually paying for the ads against the Florida social media bill? You won't know (4)

House Speaker Paul Renner gives 2024 legislative session's opening remarks

House Speaker Paul Renner outlined two priorities. One restricts social media use under age 16. Another requires p*rn viewer age verification.

What else do the IRS records say?

CAP listed nearly $2.5 million in expenses in its first IRS Form 990, an annual reporting form for tax-exempt organizations, which was filed in 2013.

Its collective listed expenses since then are less than $400,000, though the last available full Form 990was for 2021,and there's a gap between the filings for 2016 and 2020. Organizations that report receiving less than $50,000 annually don't have to submit as much information to the IRS.

The group spent $22,000 in 2021, mostly for “professional fees and other payments to independent contractors.”

In 2020, when the organization received a $400,000 contribution from an unnamed source, it spent approximately $170,000. That mostly went to “a project called the Fairness Initiative to ‘ensure fairness in politics, society, media, and government so everyone can enjoy their own piece of the American dream.’ The project ran local media campaigns to educate the public about unfair and misleading labor practices," according to an IRS filing.

The group does not specify where that occurred in the form, or what labor practices it was referring to.

CAP spent around $1,000 in 2016. Most of its other post-2013 filed expenditures went to its litigation against the IRS and “investigating" it.

The lack of detailed information is no surprise, said Sarah Bryner, Open Secret’s research director. She said it’s not the IRS’ mandate to make nonprofit spending information useful to the public.

“It’s not (the IRS') fault,” she said. “It’s up to state disclosure agencies to require that information.” A request still is pending with Florida Department of State spokesman Mark Ard about what, if any, policies the department has in this area.

Meantime, Bryner said the group’s limited web presence and limited information about its operations is troublesome. Getting information is “hard for a reason,” she said.

“It is very, very challenging to understand, much less clarify, the funding and donations to groups that try to obfuscate that information,” Bryner said.

This reporting content is supported by a partnership with Freedom Forum and Journalism Funding Partners. USA Today Network-Florida First Amendment reporter Douglas Soule can be reached atDSoule@gannett.com.

Who's actually paying for the ads against the Florida social media bill? You won't know (2024)
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