It all started with those inauguration crowd shots.
President Trump, a man who has never indicated that he is fixated on the size of things, was none too thrilled when the National Park Service retweeted photos that showed the crowds on the National Mall at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration side-by-side with those of his inauguration last Friday.
The NPS followed that post with a tweet pointing out that the pages dedicated to climate change, civil rights, and health care were missing from the new White House website.
By the end of the day on Friday, according to an internal email obtained by Gizmodo, the NPS was ordered by its Washington support office “to immediately cease use of government Twitter accounts until further notice.”
Living up to its name, Badlands National Park defied the order. From its official Twitter account, the park tweeted facts about climate change. The first of these rebellious one-liners — “Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time int he last 650,000 years. #climate.” — went up Tuesday morning. It was retweeted over 9,000 times before it was deleted. Another tweet, about ocean acidification, followed an hour later, and was retweeted over 1,000 times. Within hours, Badlands’ follower count skyrocketed from 7,000 to 69,100.
This bout of defiance lasted only hours. By late afternoon, the tweets disappeared, and the official word on the matter was that a they were sent by a former employee at the park in Interior, S.D., who still had access to the account. An anonymous NPS official told the Washington Post that “the park was not told to remove the tweets but chose to do so when they realized their account had been compromised.”
But on Thursday, the Washington Post reported that, in fact, the morning after inauguration, Trump set up a phone call with National Park Service director Michael T. Reynolds in which the president “personally ordered” Reynolds “to produce additional photographs of the previous day’s crowds on the Mall” and “expressed anger over a retweet sent from the agency’s account.”
Meanwhile, the NPS shut down its Twitter; the account was reactivated the next day, and the NPS issued an apology for the “mistaken” tweets. Though it is not clear, really, what mistake was made. The photos, and the obvious fact one can discern from viewing them — that far more people attended Obama’s first inaugural than Trump’s — are accurate. In what alternate reality is telling the truth a mistake? This one, apparently.
We regret the mistaken RTs from our account yesterday and look forward to continuing to share the beauty and history of our parks with you pic.twitter.com/mctNNvlrmv
— NationalParkService (@NatlParkService) January 21, 2017
On Monday, the Trump administration instituted a gag order on the Department of Agriculture’s research department (which was rescinded on Tuesday), forbidding scientists and researchers from sharing any information with the public, including “news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.” Trump also issued a media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency, along with a freeze of all contracts or grants (which still stands). Later that week, Reuters reported that the Trump administration instructed the EPA to remove the climate change page from its website, though it appears that directive has been walked back.
If anyone should know that it is, as a practical matter, impossible to force a willful individual to stop tweeting, it’s President Donald J. Trump. So perhaps he was least shocked of all to see that, on Tuesday night, a new handle popped up on Twitter: @AltNatParkSer.
By way of introduction, the anonymous founders tweeted: “Hello, we are the Alternative National Park Service Twitter Account activated in time of war and censorship to ensure fact-based education.”
Mr Trump, you may have taken us down officially. But with scientific evidence & the Internet our message will get out.
— NOT ALT WORLD (@NotAltWorld) January 24, 2017
The account is less than a week old. It has issued over 300 tweets — on the Trump White House, on climate change, on the importance of peer-reviewed and factually-accurate science — and racked up 1.24 million followers in the process.
Within days, at least a dozen Twitters claiming to be the rogue employees of the government agencies for which they work appeared, describing themselves as the “unofficial resistance”: @RogueNASA, which already has 628,000 followers; @altUSEPA whose bio reads “Environmental conditions may vary from alternative facts” already has 184,000 followers; @RoguePOTUSStaff, allegedly tweeting from “inside the White House,” has a follower count of nearly 60,000. The National Weather Service, the State Department, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Education, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services,: all have alternative accounts with thousands of followers a pop.
When well intended patriots disagree, that's democracy. When POTUS says it's not fact until he approves it, that's tyranny.
— Rogue POTUS Staff (@RoguePOTUSStaff) January 26, 2017
The tone is tongue-in-cheek, but the messaging is clear: Climate change is real. Facts are facts. The public has the right to know the truth. Science should not be dictated by politics. Attempts to silence official means of communication will only spark alternative means of communication. It’s a fitting act of rebellion under a president so taken with Russia: Resistance to Trump, via samizdat-com.
There’s also something satisfying about seeing the word “alternative” used against Trump and not for him, seeing as it was recently adopted by Kellyanne Conway as a modifier for “facts” (her way of defending White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s blatant falsehoods about, of all things, the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration) and co-opted by neo-Nazis as half of their more media-friendly, less-obviously-fascist title of choice, “alt-right.” The alt-NPS Twitter teams give “alternative” back to the public, for its correct use.
— Alternative NOAA (@altNOAA) January 27, 2017
Using Twitter to defy Donald Trump is like using a bow and arrow to take Katniss out of the Hunger Games. We’re watching the Commander-in-Chief’s weapon of choice be wielded against him by people who agree with him on exactly one thing: Twitter is a powerful way to bypass official, approved channels of communication and get out the facts when other options prove ineffective or inaccessible.
None of the individuals behind any of these accounts appears to have granted interviews to the media yet and so it is not yet possible to confirm if any or all of them actually work for the agencies they say they do. But on Friday evening, the group claiming to be behind the Alternative NPS Twitter described themselves in a bit more detail in a Facebook post, identifying themselves as “a growing coalition” of nearly 60 NPS employees from nine different National Parks, including Yosemite and Grand Canyon:
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A Fish and Wildlife spokesperson told ThinkProgress in an email that “unofficial accounts operated by third parties do not represent us or our activities and we are not engaged with them.” And on Thursday, the handle that started it all, @AltNatParkSer, announced that it would be “pass[ing] over control of this account to individuals outside of government employment for the sake of our colleagues.”
Thank you for supporting the EPA. This agency (et al) operates most effectively with transparency. A gag order does not foster communication
— altEPA (@altUSEPA) January 26, 2017
Trump and his ilk, like Breitbart-alum-turned-chief-strategist Steve Bannon, stoke distrust in the mainstream media like an abusive boyfriend insisting that no one else in your life really wants what’s best for you like he does. When the president is a pathological liar who does everything within his power to prevent government agencies from arming the public with accurate information, something as simple as telling the truth becomes a radical act.
The Trump administration’s efforts to deny readily apparent truths is, as Masha Gessen writes, a means of “assert[ing] power over truth itself.” But these rogue Twitter accounts are a means of asserting truth over power itself. They are a way of announcing to the president — who is surely paying attention, considering how much time he spends on Twitter — that facts will not quietly be dethroned by fiction.