Why Alternative Twitter Accounts Matter

During the first week of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, the Administration issued social media bans for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Interior Department. Almost immediately, those impacted by the ban began to resist the gag order. The Badlands National Park Twitter feed was filled with facts about Climate Change posted by a former employee who was no longer supposed to have access to the account. The tweets were subsequently deleted by NPS officials, but they were lauded by those who saw them as important acts of political resistance to a president who has stated that climate change is a hoax. Soon after, alternative twitter accounts emerged, including @RogueNASA, @AltUSNatParkService, @ActualEPAFacts, and @Alt_NASA, each claiming to be run by current or former employees in direct resistance to the gag order and Trump Administration policies.

The tweets from these accounts have been shared across media platforms, even leading to memes celebrating park rangers as leaders of the resistance. But they are still just anonymous tweets. Why do they matter?

These alternative social media accounts matter for five reasons. First, we currently have a president who, during the campaign season, primarily communicated with voters using his Twitter account, and now, as president, continues to communicate through this medium. The alternative Twitter accounts of government agencies the Trump administration tried to silence bring argument to Trump’s preferred medium of conversation. We may debate the value of bringing political debate to social media (including anonymity and social alienation, the limits of inclusion, and character limits on reasonableness and charitable interpretation), but we cannot ignore that in the most recent election cycle, social media was a significant, though perhaps not dominant, place that significant debate, information gathering, misinformation campaigns, and civic engagement occurred.

Second, by creating these rogue Twitter accounts (as well as parallel Facebook pages), individuals affiliated with the government signaled that they would go to the mediated space where Trump had constructed his audience as “the people.” Trump has used this platform as a mode of communication to reach the U.S. citizenry, and based on his messaging, encourages his audience to see itself as “the people” with democratic power.  The rogue Twitter accounts use this same medium and rhetorical appeal to the masses to inform the citizenry, even if they had to do it in their free time and outside their official capacity as government employees. Such an act can remind those interacting with the feeds that the government and its data belong, over the long term, to citizens.

Third, tweets become part of the governing record, like official emails and web pages in recent decades, or official telegraphs and notes before those. In an era where government agencies are expected to avoid messaging at odds with Administration talking points, finding a way to get scientific information on issues such as climate change, endangered species, and the scientific basis for wildlife protection into the public record is important. Although these rogue accounts may not be memorialized in official government record keeping, internet posts live on forever, particularly on digital platforms where users sign away the rights of their digital property to the site. The tweets and posts from these accounts will remain long after a Trump presidency, marking these acts of resistance into the official historical record.

Fourth, the alternative twitter accounts resist silencing. They are part of a long history of resistance from those on the margins of power. Government hierarchy would suggest that the departments and agencies attached to these accounts should tow the administration’s line by reinforcing the administration’s messages and following orders. In a presidency marred by questions of legitimacy (including Trump’s discounting of the popular vote as meaningful, concerns over lacking qualification and expertise far down into cabinet positions, the president’s unwillingness to divest from financial holdings, the withholding of his tax returns, and suspicions of Russian interference in the election), these social media accounts produce another threat to the administration’s reputation by refusing to remain silent in an atmosphere of uncertainty.

In a 2015 essay in Social Media + Society, Daniel Kreiss explains that social media provides unprecedented access to participate in political discourse, and that politicians and other political actors “conflate it” with public opinion. Alternative Twitter accounts and their accompanying Facebook pages become important in this context in that they may be seen by political figures, such as Trump, as representing the opinion of the masses. In breaking through the silencing policies of the Trump Administration, these rogue social media accounts are able to raise more questions about the legitimacy of the Trump presidency and position themselves symbolically as part of a broad resistance, as part of “the people.” Moreover, by towing the line between popular sentiment and expert opinion, the Tweets represent an aspect of society (“coastal elites,” “liberal academics”) that Trump supporters have attempted to ignore or remove from the citizenry. At the same time, it is hard to see a park ranger in South Dakota as fitting neatly into these campaign categories (either elite, coastal, or academically aloof), so their presence has the potential to raise questions about the entire election’s rhetoric.

Finally, the self-identified government employees running these accounts resist in spite of the risk it has to their careers and livelihoods should the administration choose to punish those speaking out. This risk allows these accounts to serve an important democratic function. For those already prone to questioning and challenging the Trump Administration, these Twitter accounts contribute to the formation of a community of solidarity and resistance that embody civic courage. They provide a public performance of activism that has the potential to rally others to speak out.

In the wake of these accounts, as well as other public demonstrations of protest, such as the Women’s March, scientists across the globe have committed to holding rallies and marches on April 22, 2017. The symbolic power of these Twitter feeds and Facebook pages come in part from the fact that they are run by individuals not traditionally considered radical. Uniformed park rangers and scientists in lab coats would create a new visual iconography of protest, alongside the black and feminist activists who have traditionally occupied those roles. Twitter accounts and the activism they generate alter social assumptions of who protestors are, and raise questions of what makes this administration so different that apolitical individuals become politicized.

By reminding individuals that the government and its data works for them, symbolizing public opinion that unsettles the legitimacy of a Trump presidency, and encouraging new representations of political activism, these alternative Twitter accounts come to matter. They contribute, in the word of Kreiss, to a narrative that reinforces “an abiding faith in the people as sovereign.”

Special thanks to Dr. Stephen Barnard at St. Lawrence University for his assistance on this article.

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