Rogue Twitter Brings Government Leaks to Masses

February 7, 2017

TipSheet: Rogue Twitter Brings Government Leaks to Masses

The parking garage where Woodward and Bernstein got their Watergate leaks is so old-fashioned. Today, all a journalist has to do is go on Twitter.

It actually started when the National Park Service’s main Twitter account was suspended the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Quickly, the story emerged that the reason was a retweet of photos comparing Trump’s crowds unfavorably with former President Barack Obama’s.

A few days later we learned that Trump himself had pressured the Park Service to find different photos. All this happened as Trump transition teams were slapping gag rules on social media at many agencies. But the story did not end there.

First, a few brave tweets from the Badlands National Park account had blandly suggested that climate change was real and was affecting national parks. Then those were suppressed. In an eyeblink, @AltNatParkSer appeared as the first Rogue Twitter account. Underground. Anonymous. Sassy. Viral.

Then dozens of rogue twitter accounts sprung up, most claiming or appearing to be run anonymously by employees of various agencies, especially those whose missions and messages were threatened by the Trump administration — agencies like EPA, NOAA, NASA, CDC, the Interior Department, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and the Energy Department.

The list included science agencies, like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Many already have tens of thousands of followers, and a few have hundreds of thousands.

SEJ's list of rogue government Twitter accounts
SEJ has put together a list of over 40 rogue Twitter accounts of use to environmental reporters. Shown above are some recent additions.

This being the free marketplace of ideas, there are often several rogue accounts for a given agency. For the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there are @ungaggedEPA, @ActualEPAFacts and @altUSEPA.

For the Interior Department, there is @altinterior. For the National Park Service, there are @AltNatParkSer, @ALTUSNatParkSer, and @NatParkUndrgrnd. There are rogue accounts for almost 10 individual National Park System units.

Twitter accounts can be anonymous, and virtually all of these rogue accounts are. That is a two-edged sword. Anonymity can protect legitimate whistleblowers who want to leak embarrassing secrets, but can also deprive journalists and their audiences of verifiability.

Nobody has any proof that the people running the rogue twitter accounts are who they say they are. While most seem to be real agency dissenters, @AltNatParkSer now admits in media interviews that it is not run by people inside the agency.

The bad news is that you will have to look a long time to find explosive government secrets on these accounts. Mostly they tell people to call their Congress member, share what’s already in the media, argue against the Trump administration and purvey the agency messages they feel are being silenced. Snark abounds. Many identify via hashtags with “resistance.”

The Society of Environmental Journalists (that’s @sejorg on Twitter) has put up at Twitter a list of over 40 rogue Twitter accounts that may be relevant to environmental journalists. Find it here.

You can see much of the traffic from rogue accounts by searching or following the hashtag #altgovt, and you will find more accounts there. At a minimum, you may find news more relevant and interesting than what’s on the standard agency press releases and desk statements.


* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 6. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.