This week's hits to the Executive Branch's science agencies have been unrelenting, frightening, and have come from all angles. The Trump administration has restricted many agencies from speaking to Congress or the press, has placed limits on government-owned Twitter accounts, and anonymously sourced reports say that the administration is planning on deleting the Environmental Protection Agency's climate change webpage.
Amid these horrors came the rise of "rogue" Twitter accounts. Within hours of its launch, "AltUSNatParkService," an account claiming to be run by several off-duty rangers, had amassed a following of tens of thousands of people. By Thursday, it had over 1 million followers. The account tweets truth-to-power, a mixture of climate change facts, National Parks photos and stories, and—most importantly—signals of hope that civilian federal servants would not allow themselves to be silenced under an antiscience regime.
AltUSNatParkService has been joined by AltEPA, BadHombreLands NPS, AltMountRainierNPS, Rogue NASA, AltUSForestService, and AltNWS (National Weather Service), among others. Some of these accounts claim to be run by government employees, others expressly do not. The public doesn't know who runs these accounts, and there has been no definitive proof that any of these accounts are being or were ever being run by employees within the agencies they are supporting.
Forbes raised some interesting questions Wednesday evening: Are these accounts secure? Are they actually being run by rogue government employees? If so, what role will they play in resisting Trump's anti environmental campaigns? What's stopping people from using the moment to secure a huge base of Twitter followers and then changing their mission?
So about that three percent…
These are important questions. More important, I think, is this one: Are anonymous rogue accounts actually helping science agencies to resist Trump?
If the purpose of these accounts is to serve as a whistleblower to malfeasance and censorship within the agencies, to serve as a voice for the silenced, then they should verify themselves.
Verifying accounts that purport to have government employees running them would not be difficult and would go a long way to quell doubts about the accounts' intentions.
We're sorry, but we do not feel it is safe or in the public interest to identify ourselves. We have been advised of this by svl journalists. https://t.co/9z0QEKpNNe
— AltUSNatParkService (@AltNatParkSer) January 26, 2017
This doesn't mean Twitter checkmark verification, it means working with a trusted, credible third party to verify that they are indeed current employees of the agencies they are unofficially representing. The third party could be a journalist, but it doesn't have to be. It could be the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or the American Civil Liberties Union. It could also be Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an organization that has assisted whistleblowers within the government since 1993. If done with a third party that has a history of protecting its sources, there would not be a substantial risk of prosecution or retribution from law enforcement.
"Whether they verify themselves in some way is up to them but until that happens I don't think people should be looking to them as leaders or as trustworthy sources of information," David Steen, an assistant research professor at Auburn University told me. "I have not seen any particularly interesting information from the 'rogue' accounts so I'm not sure what they're adding to the conversation other than encouraging a perception that there is internal turmoil within government agencies."
The rogue accounts have been posting mostly a stream of news and links about science, national parks, and politics, and jokes about the Trump administration. What they conspicuously have not included are reports from inside the agencies they unofficially represent. If that is going to continue to be the mission moving forward, then these accounts are not better than the news sources we already have, they are worse.
Wednesday evening, AltUSNatParkService issued a series of tweets announcing that the account was being handed over to several anonymous environmental activists and two journalists: "We have decided to pass over control of this account to individuals outside of government employment for the sake of our colleagues," the account tweeted.
What's been created, then, is a newsfeed with a huge readership being curated by an anonymous team of people. This is a situation that reminds me a lot of "unofficial" Twitter account for the Anonymous movement, which, behind the scenes, was barely affiliated with Anonymous and was subject to infighting and power struggles, to the detriment of that group's goals and the public's understanding of them.
"There are a ton of verified scientists and science journalists on Twitter—as well as a ton unverified but clearly authentic accounts—that I think people can follow to stay informed and gain a better understanding of how the scientific community is viewing ongoing policy changes and related discussions," Steen said.
Why does this matter? We are dealing with serious issues & a twitter account posting silly memes of no substance should not be spokesperson.
— David Steen, Ph.D. (@AlongsideWild) January 26, 2017
Accounts that are expressly not being run by government workers, then, should not remain anonymous.
To be clear, this is not an attack on the mission of supporting civil servants, and it's not an attack on the larger goal of protecting and advancing environmental protection and policy informed by science. Resisting Trump over the next four years will require bravery on the part of civil servants; speaking out about abuses within agencies will require hard, verified evidence in the form of documents, memos, and emails. It will at times require the politically vulnerable to speak out, on the record. It will require us to trust the source of these documents. If "alternative" agency Twitter accounts are to play a positive role, they need to start by gaining the public's trust.