- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2017

What began with a few posts about climate change on a National Park Service Twitter handle has morphed into an army of rogue social media accounts — ensuring the revolution will not in fact be televised, rather it will be tweeted.

In the weeks since the Badlands National Park Twitter account went off script Jan. 24, when a former employee defied a Trump administration order to cease external communications and posted several tweets about climate change, dozens of rogue government accounts have sprouted — each seeking to fuel rebellion against the president’s policies and actions.

Ranging from “alternative” Justice and State department handles to @RoguePotusStaff, the Twitter accounts vary in tone, message and backstory.

Some present themselves as a form of resistance in message only, posting quips critical of the Trump administration, links to news reports or copies of government documents already in the public record.

But others claim to be something more — resistance from within the administration in the form of rogue employees of various agencies who hope to spread the message about what’s going on behind closed doors.

Sociologists who study protest movements say that while the authenticity of the accounts’ “rogue” status could be critical in their individual relevance and staying power, they collectively are building a new informational structure that appears to be playing a crucial role in the growing resistance movement.

“The biggest problem we have now is knowing which of these people are activists who are pretending, and we have no way to know,” said Dana Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland who studies protest movements.

The @Alt_DOJ account, with more than 87,000 followers, describes itself as: “The unofficial ‘Resistance’ DOJ. Not an Official DOJ Account. Follow for Justice News but Legal facts may vary from ‘Alternative Facts.’”

The @RoguePOTUSStaff account, however, offers a purported insiders’ look at what’s going on behind the scenes in the White House.

“POTUS encouraged Kellyanne to push Ivanka clothing in interview, but later said she’d be fired if she makes another mistake like that,” read a recent tweet offering purported background knowledge of how President Trump reacted when White House counselor Kellyanne Conway encouraged people to buy Ivanka Trump’s products when she was asked in a news interview about retailers dropping the brand.

A web page associated with the Twitter account, which now boasts more than 830,000 followers, claims those running it are White House staffers at various levels within the administration.

“In solidarity with others who were courageous enough to create #altgov twitter accounts, pushing back against President Trump’s attempt to silence dissent and inconvenient facts, we are committed to supporting the resistance by revealing the inner chaos and incompetence of President Trump’s White House,” their website says.

Regardless of their authenticity, Ms. Fisher said the rogue government Twitter account trend “is taking advantage of momentum on social media to increase the movement against the Trump administration on all fronts.”

Not just ‘armchair activism’

As a general phenomenon within the Twitterverse, where there are millions of users, a very limited number of accounts receive the lion’s share of the attention, said Michael Heaney, assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan, who is conducting research on recent protests in the nation’s capital.

The initial rogue posts on the Badlands account garnered widespread attention and spawned the army of alternative government accounts that have earned thousands of their own followers, but there may be a limited shelf life for the accounts as forums for dissension.

“Some of the accounts will become an important source of information for public policy and advocacy, but that will depend on the quality of information they have, who is listening and what they do with it,” Mr. Heaney said. “But I think you will find most of the accounts do not get much attention and will fade away and become irrelevant shortly.”

Accounts that have the best potential to live on offer the most distinctive message — perhaps by churning out insider information from the administration or by reorienting to serve as a focal point for getting word out about planned boycotts, marches or other action.

“These accounts individually aren’t going to matter as much as they are as a broader information infrastructure for these movements,” Mr. Heaney said.

Sprinkled in among tweets criticizing Mr. Trump’s Cabinet picks and posts dissecting the president’s statements during press conferences are signs the resistance accounts are being used as vehicles for action.

@RogueNASA spread word to its 886,000 followers last week about fundraisers for organizations such as Girls Who Code and For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), which encourage children to get involved in the fields of technology and science. Meanwhile, other rogue accounts are helping to spread the word about future marches and protests — such as a March for Science on April 22.

Regardless of whether they actually work for federal government agencies, those behind the rogue accounts are trying to tap into the momentum social media have as a vehicle for dissent.

Facebook in particular is recognized as playing a huge role in the turnout at the Women’s March on Washington in January. Ms. Fisher said it was the first time in the 17 years she has studied protest movements that more participants said they found out about a march via social media than through friends and family.

“In the recent past we used to say there is a difference in armchair activism and real activism. But social media doesn’t just keep people on their butts doing things at home,” Ms. Fisher said. “It is getting them to do something real.”

Whether the rogue accounts will be able to provide more than just pithy commentary in the months to come remains to be seen.

“On one hand social media makes it really easy to call a march,” Ms. Fisher said. “That doesn’t mean its easy to get people in the streets.”

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