When a former employee of Badlands National Park took over the park’s official Twitter account to tweet climate change facts in direct defiance of the Trump administration, they couldn’t have known that they were starting a movement. Almost one month later, more than 80 accounts claiming to represent various federal organizations and employees, many of them national parks, exist in opposition to the Trump administration and its policies.
The goals and methods of these accounts vary widely. Some stick to spreading scientific facts and research performed by their agencies, especially regarding climate change.
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— Rogue NOAA (@RogueNOAA) January 26, 2017
Others, lacking specific actions or nominees to oppose, share memes and ridicule the President, his staff and lawmakers to maintain engagement.
Invertebrates belong in nature, not on the senate floor. — BadHombreLands NPS (@BadHombreNPS) February 17, 2017
And some, like Alt Immigration, have taken to leaking information and documents to the public.
— ALT Immigration (@ALT_USCIS) February 20, 2017
Some of these acts are clearly in different leagues from each other, but each represents an act of opposition that could make a federal employee vulnerable to retaliation. That’s why it’s been so difficult to verify who is or isn’t a federal employee. Many of those running the accounts refuse to answer the question one way or the other.
Of course, there are exceptions.
I am a NPS Ranger, and I am not ashamed! #RealRanger #RogueRanger ️@nytimes @FoxNews @CNN @MSNBC @ABC @washingtonpost @BostonGlobe @latimes pic.twitter.com/8PlGOTwi4O — AltNPSAlaskaRegion (@AltNPSAlaska) February 14, 2017
Federal News Radio attempted to contact more than 50 of these accounts via Twitter, although the vast majority won’t accept direct messages from people they don’t follow. Those who do claim to be federal employees frequently point to their access to inside information to prove their case.
BREAKING: DACA will not be touched this year. New email within USCIS. DACA unchanged and no immediate plans to make changes. #daca
— ALT Immigration (@ALT_USCIS) February 21, 2017
“It is actually quite fraught for federal employees [to use Twitter], as it is for private employees as well,” Brooke Van Dam, associate professor and faculty director of the Masters in Professional Studies in Journalism at Georgetown University, said in an email. “I can see why they would want to directly talk to the public but most institutions and organizations want to keep a single line or statement and having a multitude of actors sharing ‘what’s really going on’ or ‘the truth’ is problematic. In that, it gives an easy out for those higher up to fire or get rid of those that don’t toe the line as we just saw with Shermichael Singleton at HUD.”
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Singleton was an aide to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Nominee Ben Carson, before he was fired after a background investigation turned up writings from the campaign season in which Singleton criticized then-Presidential Candidate Donald Trump.
Still, whether or not actual federal employees these accounts, it’s significant that they’ve chosen to build their identities around agencies, bureaucratic organizations that more frequently find themselves characterized as part of the Evil Empire than the Rebel Alliance.
Amy Eisman, director of Media Entrepreneurship and Special Programs for American University’s School of Communication, said there is one thing that separates these accounts from previous movements on social media, such as Black Lives Matter.
“What strikes me as different this time is the speed and breadth at which the rogue sites have sprouted, sparking debates over their veracity, the legal rights over using agency logos and whether some think some posts are satire or real,” she said. “The growth appears to be sparked by the change in administration; look at their creation dates.”
The person running the AltHomelandSecurity account, one of the ones that refuses to confirm whether or not they are a federal employee, said they are just following the example of the National Parks.
“I never really used Twitter before this whole rogue/alt thing started. My motivation was just to share information and facts. I had no idea it would end up at almost 50,000 followers in less than a month. It is kind of overwhelming,” they said.
AltHomelandSecurity isn’t the only one who wasn’t prepared for the response they would get.
Alt_Labor originally created an account for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but took over the larger account when its creator couldn’t keep up with the demands. Since Andrew Puzder’s nomination to Labor Secretary was withdrawn, Alt_Labor has brought on another person help spread news and educate people about labor issues.
But while the rogue accounts amassed a huge following in a very short time, Van Dam said their reach is amplified by more traditional communication forms.
“The ironic part of this is that most American citizens are not on Twitter. According to Pew, only about 24 percent are on the social network. The reason we are talking about this at all is because journalists are one of the most active users on the site,” Van Dam said.
But AltHomelandSecurity is quick to say they aren’t political or partisan.
— AltHomelandSecurity (@AltHomelandSec) February 17, 2017
“Just because you are a Republican, Democrat or whatever you label yourself as, doesn’t mean that should dictate your thoughts on whether something is right or wrong,” they said. “Something myself and other rogue accounts tweet all the time is ‘country over party.’ I am a 100 percent believer in that philosophy, so I will criticize anyone for something that doesn’t support that ideal. It’s about moving forward as a country at this point, we have been far divided for too long.”
Backing that up is the recently posted mission statement for the RoguePotusStaff account. RoguePotusStaff, which claims to be the shared account of multiple White House staffers who tweet inside views of chaos in the administration, is one of the accounts that draws the most skepticism from cynics.
“Those involved in Rogue Potus Staff are not part of a partisan attack against Republican politics,” the statement said. “To the contrary, most of us are devout Republicans. We are, however, opposed to the egregious incompetence, idiocy, and pettiness of President Trump’s White House, and the effective divorce from reality with which it is run. We aren’t working to support Democratic victories. We want the American People to regain control of their government through civic engagement, careful contemplation, intellectual scrutiny, activism, and ultimately voting action.”
Amid the snark, memes and retweets, Alt_Labor’s main goal is still to combat misinformation and educate people about the Labor Department and its issues, like when they shared a letter against Puzder’s confirmation written and signed by DoL employees.
Update on the DOL employee letter on Puzder: Obviously wasn’t sent but had 600 signatures split b/t current and former employees #resist
— Alt_Dept. of Labor (@alt_labor) February 17, 2017
“I mean we can do this on our private time using personal computers/phones without breaking the Hatch Act. Personally I advocate and donate to DC Statehood issues,” Alt_Labor said. “But I think with these accounts, employees can combat it easier because the audience is larger, right? Not just some guy tweeting about stuff as an employee. It’s like an unfiltered look at the agencies.”
The alt accounts stay in contact with one another as well.
“We actually collaborate a bit, through a few group messages as well as trying to engage them because I think it’s becoming like a sort of cyber family,” Alt_Labor said. “So anything from us setting up a forum or someone tags us all in a post we just start sending GIFs to each other. Keeps the stress lighthearted and people see us more as people and not these mysterious accounts sharing articles.”
Aside from creating a support system, there have also been movements toward collaboration.
“It has been pretty disorganized. I think we are slowly moving in a direction of working further together on specific campaigns, but they are in their infant stages,” AltHomelandSecurity said. “We definitely need more organization if we want to keep moving forward, that is for sure.”
Alt_Labor said one such campaign was a possible AMA (Ask Me Anything) event. In that vein, some of the alt government accounts are hosting a Twitter town hall on Wednesday, Feb. 22.
“It seems insiders, fearing their voices will not be heard, are seeking ways to get their messages out,” Eisman said. “And a growing number of people want to listen.”
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Daisy Thornton is Federal News Network’s digital managing editor. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she covers federal management, workforce and technology issues. She is also the commentary editor; email her your letters to the editor and pitches for contributed bylines.