Going Rogue in 140 Characters or Less
by Prateek Ranka | published Feb. 27th, 2017
Within the flurry of political events that’s surrounded the new presidential administration, there very much seems to be an ever-present conflict over what is considered “true.” Not only in terms of what the facts themselves are, but what sources to trust as well as how information is disseminated.
The nation is still in the early days for President Trump, but if the first four weeks are any indication, constant disagreements over these questions are going to be commonplace for the next four years.
One of the first manifestations of this conflict was the rise of several alleged “rogue” Twitter accounts for various government agencies.
It all started when an official Twitter account for the National Park Service retweeted a Washington correspondent for the New York Times Binyamin Appelbaum, (@BCAppelbaum) showing a side-by-side comparison of the crowds at inaugurations of President Obama in 2009 and President Trump in 2017. In lieu of this an email went out to employees at the National Park Service.
“We have received direction from the Department through [the Washington Support Office] that directs all [Department of Interior] bureaus to immediately cease use of government Twitter accounts until further notice,” stated the email obtained by Gizmodo.
The order impacted all accounts under the Interior Department’s purview, which included a lot of individual park accounts which use the medium to provide emergency information. The notice did not apply to any other social platforms and the account resurfaced a day later to apologize for the “mistaken RTs” that came from the account.
Just a day after this email went out, a new rogue account popped up by the name of AltUSNatParkService and began to build what it called a voice of dissent against the order and President Trump’s cabinet. The name was a reference to the now infamous ‘alternative facts’ comment by President Trump’s counsellor, Kellyanne Conway.
There’s of course obvious historical analogs to point to for how unpopular suppressing or even just obfuscating the truth can ultimately be for politicians. Rogue accounts such as @AltUSNatParkService had particular focus on spotlighting discrepancies between the Trump administration’s policies and climate change facts.
“Aside from the use of Twitter, there is nothing new about government employees leaking info when they disagree with the direction that the elected officials are trying to take the government,” noted Ferber.
“Aside from the use of Twitter, there is nothing new about government employees leaking info when they disagree with the direction that the elected officials are trying to take the government,” noted Professor Paul Ferber of RIT’s Political Science Department. The use of social media, however, did add a new dimension to this trend.
What started off as a show of resistance quickly went viral (with the @AltNatParkService account garnering around 60,000 followers in one day) to the extent that the very word has meaning in today’s political climate. With events seemingly unfolding at so unprecedentedly fast and exhaustive of a pace — an incident could very likely be buried. Especially since we already have access to so much more possible information and news than ever before.
“Previously one would have to leak info to some other organization, probably the media, in order to get wide dissemination,” pointed out Ferber.
“Previously one would have to leak info to some other organization, probably the media, in order to get wide dissemination,” pointed out Ferber. Instead of leaking information to the media for wide distribution, the middle man got taken out of the equation and people could receive information and perceive it as they please.
During the 2016 election, President Trump characterized his own campaign — and his reach on Twitter — as a way of bypassing the ‘fake news’ mainstream media outlets; often as a means to directly connect with people. The administrators of these accounts positioned themselves as seemingly doing the same, but instead as government employees circumventing the media and administration itself.
Is Anyone Really Who They Claim to be on the Internet?
The ensuing weeks since the launch of such accounts has allowed for many of them to be more carefully examined. In wake of phenomena like ‘fake news’ during the election, and its subsequent appropriation as a term to slander real reporting, being mindful of the information we consume is increasingly important — including what sources we look towards.
In fact, not long after the creation of both Not Alt World and AltUSNatParkService, Mashable reported how both accounts had been passed to activists who weren't government employees. While their stated purposes remained the same, they are no longer dissenting voices from the inside.
That’s why it is important to note that none of these accounts have been verified by Twitter, and not one of the people running them has come forward to identify themselves.
However on the other hand, accounts like “Rogue POTUS Staff” are most likely — as GQ noted — not who they actually claim to be. If one wanted to trumpet these accounts as definitive proof that such agencies are being so rebellious, they may want to hesitate.
This can be especially true if such accounts almost too conveniently confirm fears some might have. Rogue POTUS Staff, for instance, recently attempted to play into such fears by claiming without substantiation there to be a “Fake News Task Force” executive order being drafted. They asserted that the administration would investigate “major media outlets”, but evidence for this specific order being real has been less than sparse.
However, whether or not such accounts are really who they claim to be, they underscore something very present at the moment: a stark and growing division between what is recognized as real, trustworthy sources of information and what is not.