A social media “resistance” movement is taking shape against the Trump administration, inspired by the new president’s efforts to control information.
It began after the deletion of tweets and data from official US accounts and websites which proved embarrassing to the new president, including government reports on climate change, which have been challenged by President Donald Trump.
Some took to Twitter with “alternative” handles -- claiming to be federal employees exercising their free speech rights -- and the resistance mushroomed into a movement.
The seeds of rebellion were first planted by the National Park Service, which came under fire from the new administration for its photos comparing crowd size at Trump’s inauguration to the event eight years earlier with Barack Obama.
After those tweets were deleted, tweets from one national park’s account -- which according to some reports came from a former employee -- offered links to climate change studies, and when those were removed, a new @AltNatParkSer sprung up and amassed 1.2 million followers in a matter of days.
The account is described as “The Unofficial #Resistance team of US National Park Service.”
“We don’t want any trouble. We just want to keep peer-reviewed ‘factually accurate’ climate science flowing out of US institutions,” the group said in one of its first tweets.
Over the next few days, dozens of “rogue” or “alt” Twitter accounts emerged, including @RogueNOAA (for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), @RogueNASA (for the space agency) and @alt_fda for the Food and Drug Administration.
Another account called AltEPA (@ActualEPAFacts), with more than 150,000 followers, aims to offer data which might be suppressed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“He can take our official Twitter but he’ll never take our FREEDOM,” the account says. “UNOFFICIALLY resisting.”
The messages were gaining traction with hashtags such as #ResistTrump, #ClimateFacts and #Twistance, although it was not clear if the messages were coming from federal employees themselves.
Some of the Twitter handles, according to various tweets, have been turned over to people outside government to avoid potential reprisals.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer denied the administration was trying to suppress free expression among federal employees.
“There’s nothing that’s come from the White House, absolutely not,” he said when asked if the White House had ordered a clampdown.
But according to The Washington Post, Trump personally expressed anger to the head of the US park service over the inauguration day photos and ordered him to produce images to show a stronger turnout for his ceremony.
Arab Spring redux?
Philip Howard, a professor at the Oxford Internet Institute who has studied the role of social media in the Arab Spring uprisings, said he sees some parallels to those events.
“Whenever governments try to close up the supply of information, people look for new ways to express themselves and share information,” Howard said.
“Social media resistance was an important part of the Arab Spring, during which protesters successfully used social media to turn roiling dissent into massive street protests. It is hard to know if social media will have the same role in the US, because Trump and his political communication team are already actively there on Twitter and Facebook.”
John Wonderlich, executive director for the Sunlight Foundation, a group promoting transparency in government, called these actions unprecedented.
“It’s a new kind mass resistance from employees who feel they can’t talk to the public, and they are finding alternative channels,” Wonderlich said.
“What is amazing is the public response, which is amplifying those voices.”
Still, Wonderlich said the Trump administration’s efforts to suppress and control data have raised concerns about the trustworthiness of information from the government.
“What we are seeing from the White House is anti-science, anti-government, anti-civil service and broad politicization of the federal workforce,” he said.
“All government information under a Trump administration is going to be inherently suspect.”
But because anyone can create a Twitter account and claim to represent a constituency, this makes it difficult to separate truth from misinformation, Wonderlich said.
“This means a new model of verification (is needed) and no one has figured that out,” he said.