While state lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis were engaged in a seesaw debate over the fate of a water management bill last month, one South Florida environmental front group went out of its way to exert influence on the outcome. The group, Captains for Clean Water, waged an astroturfing campaign – the practice of projecting artificial support or opposition to a political issue, as though the supporters were the real thing – in order to collect petition signatures to be used in opposition to Senate Bill 2508.
The campaign, waged on social media sites like Facebook, showed digital images to users and asked them to sign the group’s petition in opposition to the legislation. That by itself is a common practice, and groups often then deliver the signatures to state lawmakers as evidence that public opinion is on the side of the activist group.
But of the at least $25,000 that Captains for Clean Water spent on digital advertising to oppose the bill, about 91 percent of those dollars were spent seeking out-of-state petition signers, including about 19 percent of the ad dollars that went toward targeting California residents, urging them to sign the petition. Florida ad dollars accounted for only about $2,000 of the total $25,000 budget, according to digital advertising data made available to The Capitolist.
Captains for Clean Water did not respond to multiple emails seeking an explanation for why the group sought out-of-state support on an issue pertaining specifically to Florida. Among the unanswered questions is whether or not the group used the petitions to influence state lawmakers and whether or not the number of out-of-state petitioners were disclosed.
It’s not clear how influential the petition drive turned out to be. While the bill ultimately passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’s signature, compromises that included clarifying language sought by the group were ultimately included in the final version of the bill.
The practice of astroturfing is not illegal, but it is misleading, often generating fake media stories and projecting a false sense of public sentiment. When caught, groups or individuals engaged in astroturfing often lose credibility. And this latest incident isn’t the first time that Captains for Clean Water have courted controversy at the expense of their integrity.
In 2020, they criticized elected officials for appointing professional lobbyists to a water management board, only to be caught on camera partying with their own lobbyists in both Washington D.C. and Tallahassee. The group has been exposed as a front for the Everglades Foundation, which has funneled major donations to Captains for Clean Water in exchange for the echoing the Everglades Foundation’s anti-agriculture messaging, while ignoring real incidents of avoidable water pollution.
Over the last four years, Captains for Clean Water has spent more than $125,000 on digital ad campaigns seeking to influence Florida’s political scene. While some of those dollars have gone toward merchandise sales and attempts to broaden its base of support, the group’s shift toward recruiting out-of-state support appears to be a signal that they aren’t being taken seriously enough in Florida to be effective.