- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

On social media, one thing is clear: Cute animals and sunsets often trump politics.

Amid a host of policy shifts from the Obama to Trump eras, one thing that has remained constant at the Interior Department is its massive online following, driven primarily by daily posts featuring wildlife, scenic landscapes and breathtaking views of the nation’s national parks.

Within the federal government, Interior’s following on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other platforms is rivaled only by NASA, the Pentagon and President Trump.

The department’s social media prowess began in 2014 but has continued virtually unchanged into the Trump administration, making it the exception rather than the rule while Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke overhauls the department in a number of areas.

Unlike the vast majority of government social media accounts, which exist largely to make policy announcements, regurgitate press releases and post mundane photos of federal officials at public events, Interior — much like NASA has done with captivating photos of and from outer space — views its accounts in a fundamentally different way. A key aspect is offering Americans an easy way to see gorgeous sites from across the country that they never have viewed in person and, in some cases, may have never even heard of.

“We think of it as an art gallery in the sense of trying to balance locations — not just parks, it’s also wildlife refuges and public lands,” said Rebecca Matulka, deputy director of digital at Interior, who spearheaded the approach when she joined the department in 2014. “We try to balance and showcase some of the lesser-known places with the more popular places.”

Two weeks ago, for example, the department tweeted photos of a sunset at Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, kayakers at California’s Lake Berryessa and a sleeping bear at Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve to mark “National Lazy Day.”

Interior also has used social media to launch a comprehensive guide to the upcoming solar eclipse, offering advice on which public lands will provide the best viewing experiences.

The response from social media users, by government standards, has been impressive and often dwarfs those of other agencies and departments.

On Aug. 4, the Energy Department posted on Instagram a photo of its headquarters to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its founding in 1977. The photo garnered 323 likes.

The same day, Interior posted a photo of small burrowing owls for “Owl Awareness Day.” It drew nearly 50,000 likes.

On Twitter, the department has 3.95 million followers. By comparison, Energy has 753,000, the Justice Department has 1.45 million, the Environmental Protection Agency has 570,000, Homeland Security has 1.44 million and the Education Department has 1.26 million.

The Defense Department outpaces Interior with 4.8 million, as does NASA, with a whopping 25.2 million followers.

Mr. Trump, though, takes the top prize on social media following, with well over 35 million followers on Twitter.

Analysts say Interior’s approach to social media is noteworthy, though the department, like NASA, benefits greatly from the fact that it has a better product to show to the American people.

National parks and cute animals at wildlife refuges are simply more exciting and visually appealing than virtually anything the Department of Health and Human Services, which has 699,000 followers on Twitter, for example, has to offer.

“They have a different client or target population. Interior, through the national parks, deals with people directly,” said Lori Brainard, a professor at George Washington University who specializes in how the federal government communicates with citizens and disseminates information. “We all in the course of our lives will touch the Department of Interior, but we don’t necessarily touch communications regulations or we don’t directly touch [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission].”

“It’s a lot more immediate in our lives, and I think people are more inclined to follow,” she said. “The national parks may be one of the few things we can all agree on. We all value them. We may want them regulated in different ways, but we all sort of value them.”

The social media success, with its heavy focus on national parks and monuments, comes even as Mr. Zinke undertakes a sweeping review of more than 20 monuments. The purpose of the study, ordered by Mr. Trump in April, is to determine whether past presidents — especially President Obama — abused executive authority in creating the sites, which by law are supposed to be limited to the smallest area possible.

Mr. Obama used presidential power to cordon off massive swaths of wilderness and sea to prevent energy exploration and other activities.

While Interior has built its internet following largely on national monuments, critics say, Mr. Zinke is actively waging war on those locations.

“Our national monuments remind us what we share as a country, who we are as a people and what we as Americans value enough to protect and conserve,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said last week. “Protecting each of these treasures is a promise we’ve made to our children — and a promise we’re going to keep. If this administration tries to violate that, we’ll hold the president to account in the court of public opinion and in our courts of law.”

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