Donald Trump's reported gag orders on federal science agencies are continuing to spawn a wave of anonymous Twitter accounts, each claiming to speak for a branch of the government. Over the last day, we've seen accounts supposedly authored by renegade members of the EPA, the Forest Service, the USDA, and even NASA. The accounts come from different corners of the government, but all claim to represent workers who are risking their livelihoods by tweeting climate change facts, details of apparent silencing, and criticism of the Trump administration.
There's reason to believe these accounts may be genuine. The Trump administration's demands that EPA scientists stop releasing research to the public has not been well received in the academic community, and even prior to the restrictions imposed on government Twitter accounts, some agencies' social media teams indicated they were no fans of the new president — who has questioned the legitimacy of climate change and frozen EPA funding.
Twitter would also be a sensible place for them to vent their concerns. Not only because they could garner a significant audience — the alternative National Park Service account has already racked up just shy of a million followers — but because attacking Trump on the service is seemingly hitting him where it hurts. Reports claim that the president is particularly stung by what he feels is unfair criticism and a lack of respect on Twitter — a suggestion borne out by press secretary Sean Spicer's repeated reference to specific tweets and pictures posted on the service. Logistically, Twitter also offers a layer of anonymity, as well as a chance to share an account among multiple disgruntled authors.
But none of these accounts have yet verified that they are what they claim: that they do indeed speak for real workers inside actual government agencies. The sheer number of them makes that claim hard to believe. A Twitter search for "alt epa," for example, brings up at least six accounts that claim to represent Environmental Protection Agency workers. Much of the information posted by similar accounts is also freely available, describing the new president's crackdown on scientific agencies, or anecdotal: reports of supposed White House workings already detailed in other publications.
A number have already deleted whole swathes of tweets, or had their accounts removed entirely. The sneakily named @BadIandsNPS (that's a capital "i" in the middle) now has just over 500 followers and a single tweet, a day after it garnered almost 50,000 followers for tweeting a stream of climate change facts intermingled with criticism of Donald Trump. @WhiteHouseLeak — purportedly the work of a "mid-level White House staffer" — was scrubbed from the service entirely without explanation.
The LA Times' Matt Pearce has pointed to specific tweets posted by @AltNatParkSer — the most prominent of the renegade accounts — that could be seen as out of character for a US park ranger. British English is used in the biography, for one, while the account also replied to a Scottish political commentator in 2015, asking for his opinion on the UK general election result. Not that it matters much after the account announced this morning that it would be handing over the reins to activists.
None of this is evidence that the accounts in question are not run by US government officials, but nor is it confirmation that they were indeed run by scientists keen to spill secrets.
just an extremely normal, regular American park ranger, doin' a tweet in 2015 pic.twitter.com/Ky746S5KzC— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) January 26, 2017
@AltNatlParkSer had said that it was based in Mt. Rainer National Park in Washington State, but wouldn’t identify its authors because it didn’t feel "safe” and it wasn’t “in the public interest." Certainly the former point is a very valid concern, as going against government orders could easily result in loss of livelihood. But confirming that the most influential of these accounts are indeed the work of (rightfully) upset scientists arguably is in the public interest, because at the moment, there's no guarantee these supposedly renegade Twitter accounts are anything other than parody accounts offering wish fulfillment for progressives.
Twitter has proven time and time again that whenever a news event occurs, the parody accounts will shortly follow, be they as meaningless as an IKEA monkey, or as important as the reframing of scientific debate in the United States. More dangerous still is the thought that these accounts could be created or co-opted by the same internet thugs who work secretly to interfere with foreign elections, spout neo-Nazi rhetoric on camera, or otherwise disrupt progressive agendas "for the kek."
For now, at least, most of these unverified accounts seem to be pushing positive agendas: the climate change facts that many of them tweet are unequivocal, and the planned march of scientists on Washington promises to raise legitimate concerns about scientific progress in the United States. But a dejected left-wing and liberal group should remember that these accounts are emotionally gratifying, not edifying. Embracing such gratification without critical analysis veers close to the Trump administration's embracing of "alternative facts" — lies that suit the narrative you'd prefer.