Update, Jan. 28: After this story's publication, the owners of @AltNatParkSer changed their Twitter handle to @NotAltWorld. "We are not members of any US government agency. We support those who do, in particular those who work in the science and environmental depts. From now on, this account will work to help spread scientific news & issues around the world. We ask our colleagues to do the same," they wrote on Twitter yesterday.
@ALTUSNPS also does not appear to be run by government employees, and claims to be selling merchandise to "raise awareness [and] funds."*
Ever since President Trump launched an offensive against government transparency—first, by personally complaining about a retweet from the National Park Service that drew attention to his small inauguration turnout—Twitter has been a hotbed for burgeoning political dissent.
One of the most visible channels for this discord has been an account called @AltNatParkSer, which started as a reaction to the muzzling of a National Park Service Twitter account for sharing facts about climate change. About a dozen other alt accounts have popped up in the last week.
Yesterday, Motherboard's Jason Koebler argued that "rogue" Twitter accounts claiming to be owned by off-duty federal employees should verify themselves. The point being, if you're communicating with millions of followers under the guise of being an insider, it's sort of on you to prove it. Otherwise, there's no reason for anyone to believe you're actually helping government scientists stand up to President Trump.
The story was met with criticism from @AltNatParkSer, the two-year-old Twitter account that recently claimed to be helmed by "several active NPS [National Park Service] rangers and friends." For the record, Motherboard pointedly said, "this doesn't mean Twitter checkmark verification," only that it would be easy for whoever is operating the account to verify their identity to a third party and still remain anonymous.
More than 1.2 million people currently follow the account, and it's doubtful most of them know it's since switched to the authorship of alleged environmental activists and journalists.
Over the last 24 hours, many Twitter users have noticed idiosyncrasies that have led them to question the account's ownership.
For example, @AltNatParkServ uses British (or Canadian) spelling variants for words like "subsidised," "honour," "privatised," "programmed," "archaeological," and "U.S." The account also recently changed its location to say "New York, Edinburgh, Hong Kong," when it previously said "Washington, DC."
We reached out to @AltNatParkSer through Twitter DM today, and learned more about the origins of the account and its future. A version of the interview, which has been edited for clarity and to protect the identities of those involved, is included below.
Hi there! Are one or more of you British?
We have a Canadian Brit and an Englishman in our group here. We're not the park rangers. We took the account over from them.
Was this account originally created for someone else? I noticed one of your first tweets was to a Scottish political commentary blog about elections in the UK. Curious to know why it got transitioned to alleged National Park Service rangers. Also, are any of you based out of the United States?
Here's the spiel. It was. It's an old account used by the English guy. He started using Twitter and then stopped after a few days, going back a year or so ago. He knew the rangers online and a group of us got talking about our concerns for the environmental impact of Trump's plans.
When we saw the issue with the Badlands tweets the rangers were furious. The Badlands Twitter had been tweeting facts and observations about the effects of climate change in the park for a couple of years. Then all of a sudden the climate posts got pulled down and a former employee got the blame.
We kicked up the Twitter account and they started using it while on duty. We were helping with posting tweets and research too. Then it kind of exploded.
[The rangers were concerned about being identified and reported to their superiors at work.] The threats came on Twitter and the rumours started at their job and they decided they didn't want to continue being involved in it. That's why they publicly handed the account over, so the park service and above would stop any digging on its own employees.
There's a group of us running it from the UK, US, and a few other countries. That's why you'll find spelling variations all over the place. We're not sure what to do. The journalists are taking a back seat and have asked us not to get too political, just tweet the facts and not go nuts.
But it's a bit hard to restrain yourself when Trump goes and says something that hits the bone. The only reason we're still doing it is because people from all over actually started calling out the politicians and Trump over how messed up it is when they lie straight on TV about photographs and climate change.
Why have those of you who aren't park rangers remained anonymous as well?
That's a fair question. We've been arguing a fair bit about that. One of the group is happy to identify herself as she feels it would add weight to her activism. But you gotta put yourself in the shoes of the guys who helped the rangers in the first place.
Imagine it was you who decided to do it. Now you're journalist working for Vice, right? You're in a serious job and you're supposed to remain impartial in public and not let it affect your bias or whatever term is best when it comes to your reporting. But you can do what you want on your own free time as long as it does not influence your paid daily job. You can still be an activist for women's rights or Planned Parenthood or whatever if you want to be a straight reporter. But if you let your bias and preferences come into your work then you have an opinion piece and not a news article.
Now imagine if you had helped these guys go outside of their job description in an attempt to help them be whistleblowers. Do you hand on heart believe you would want to give up your identity just so some clickbait scribbler at BuzzFeed could get a couple of thousand likes while you risk being accused of undermining a national authority?
These are all good points. I don't think I ever said that your account was biased though! What I'm curious to know is whether you plan to keep tweeting under the title of "alt National Park Service," which might lead some people to believe you're speaking for park rangers who are currently being muzzled.
Or, alternatively, will you move toward more of a science fact and news update Twitter feed?
I think the rangers had good and honest intentions and they're not involved with anything now, but they wanted to make a very clear statement that any suppression of scientific fact would NOT be tolerated. We all felt that if they stood up others around the country would, and it might maybe just make Trump realize he isn't as powerful as he makes out.
We've made it clear that we do not speak on behalf of the rangers anymore but we do want to try and keep up what they stood for. We don't speak for the national park either, officially or unofficially. I think the others want to change a few things to highlight that to. But we do still want to promote the national parks as well as science facts and news.
[I asked them if they would be open to privately verifying one of the park ranger's identities through an encrypted channel of communication.]
I'm sorry but there is absolutely no way in which the rangers want to be identified. Full stop. The reporters who do our fact checking literally said that in no way are we to ever give any indication of who they are, or pressure the rangers into doing so. One of the reporters was saying earlier he was in his newsroom in New York today and people were talking about all the rogue accounts. He couldn't even identify himself as being involved he was so scared about getting hauled into his editor's office and being pressed for it.
I understand why you and people want and feel the need to prove who they were because otherwise it's like there's all this hype about an account that claims to be one thing, but without any proof. And as far as the rangers go, that doesn't matter much to them now because they did their thing, they shouted out and pulled in the attention. It only matters now because it would make a great headline and for all the 30 second attention span of the media a couple of park rangers were confirmed to have started a rogue account but after that it doesn't mean much. The reports said that without confirming the rangers' identities it's likely people will keep trying but the media will lose interest.