In early November, shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, a career scientist working for the federal Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management began having muted conversations with colleagues about what the new presidential administration meant for dedicated agency staffers.
The Bureau of Land Management is not as high-profile a target as the Environmental Protection Agency, but the agency’s effectiveness is also deeply threatened by the Trump administration’s suspicion of science. BLM performs a precarious balancing act, managing the conflicting goals of conservation and profit extraction on millions of acres of public lands. It makes decisions on behalf of the American public about which acres of sagebrush, pine forest, and rocky mountain should be preserved and which should be harvested for fossil fuels, timber, and minerals. “There’s been a great deal of influence historically from the industry, especially mining. There are managers with the agency, and they see their job as trying to permit as much mining as possible,” the scientist said. “BLM is an agency that I think depends on internal debate and depends on a tolerance for dissent.”
Under the new president, dissent against industry interests suddenly became more dangerous. “I can’t imagine a time, at least in my life, where it’s OK to think whatever you want to think is real,” the person said. “It’s deeply troubling when you work in a field that needs to be guided by science, by fact, by things that are provably true or false.”
The scientist reached a conclusion with colleagues in other locations around the country. “We decided it was necessary to try to establish an alternative outlet,” the BLM employee told me. The Alt_BLM Twitter account was the result.
— Alt. US Interior – Bureau of Land Management (BLM) (@blm_alt) February 13, 2017
Although the employee, who has survived multiple administrations working for the government, declined to share their identity with The Intercept out of fear of retaliation, Kirsten Stade, advocacy director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, was able to confirm that the scientist is an owner of the account and works for the agency. PEER was founded more than two decades ago to support environmental agency employees made vulnerable as they stand in the way of powerful special interests.
“Our job is to follow the law and uphold the Constitution. Our job is not to serve the president,” the scientist said.
The Alt_BLM account is one of dozens of “alt” and “rogue” federal agency accounts that launched shortly after Trump’s inauguration, operating under names like altEPA and Rogue POTUS Staff. A number of the accounts are administered by actual federal employees, including three who provided information to The Intercept indicating they work for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, and the Interior Department. Others are run by a cast of characters that includes a former military analyst who worked for the NSA, a union employee, an art student, and a Boeing employee. Most of them declined to be named out of fear of workplace retaliation and pressure to shut down their accounts.
The alt-accounts’ activism is premised on the assumption that their key participants cannot be identified for fear of workplace retaliation, and though their primary act of rebellion is simply tweeting the truth, it’s a setup in many ways primed for exploitation by scammers. In the case of alt-accounts that have used their massive following to sell merchandise, noble motives are virtually unverifiable for followers.
For those who do put themselves at risk by sharing information on rogue Twitter, the possibility of deceit is an insidious distraction. “I do think that certainly a lot of these accounts are legitimate, and we’re hoping people aren’t going to be able to get away with dismissing them,” said the BLM scientist. “The administration would like to be able to do nothing more than call this stuff fake.”
The alt-Twitter movement began on the Friday of Trump’s inauguration, with two retweets from the National Park Service’s official account. The first was a tweet about the White House website being scrubbed of information on civil rights, climate change, and health care; the second was a side-by-side photo comparison between Trump’s inauguration turnout and Obama’s much larger crowd in 2009. The tweets were quickly removed, and the park service’s Twitter account was shut down for the day.
By the following Tuesday morning, a sense of unreality had set in. Trump had used his first weekend in office attempting to prove that he’d enjoyed “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.” And reports emerged that Environmental Protection Agency communication with the public had been frozen — no more press releases, tweets, Facebook posts, or blogging.
Rebellion flared again from the official Badlands National Park Twitter account. “The pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm). As of December 2016, 404.93 ppm.” That data point and three others like it made an unlikely hero of the anonymous social media worker, tweeting from the middle of a South Dakota blizzard. The park deleted the tweets and told BuzzFeed the culprit was a former employee who still had access to the account.
In the days that followed, the first alt and rogue accounts launched. They played off the idea established by the Badlands Twitter account that under Trump, simply broadcasting facts could be an act of resistance. Most of the time, the rogue accounts tweet out reactions to the news or information that Trump wouldn’t like to publicize. But every now and then, there’s a flash of insight into life in Trump’s government. And some of the administrators say they maintain their accounts so that when something severe happens, they have the means to communicate with the public.
Alt_Dept. of Labor is one of the most obnoxious accounts in the Twitter resistance. Although it regularly tweets out sobering statistics about the state of the labor economy, GIFs and obscenities, sometimes blamed on alcohol, are more typical. The split personality of the account can be attributed to the duo that runs it. The GIFs are from an employee of the Bureau of Labor Statistics; the stats are from an employee of a union.
The BLS employee, who provided The Intercept with a BLS ID badge as verification of his identity, initially launched an account dedicated to his own agency but later inherited the alt_labor handle. “I figured I might as well start the BLS one because there might be problems down the line,” he said. “I always tweeted at alt_labor saying ridiculous things like, ‘Dad where are you?’ And one day he messaged me and asked, ‘Do you want this account?’ So I got it, and I turned it into a monster.”
A union employee, irked by the lack of informative content in the Alt_Dept. of Labor Twitter feed, began sending article suggestions. The BLS employee asked her to help run the account, labeling her his “intern.” “Definitely a sexist move,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m older than you, and I make more money than you.’” He changed her label to “associate.”
“Any platform I can use to share information about why the answer to working class woes is not cutting taxes for the wealthy but collective bargaining and people power you obtain through collective action, that’s a win for me,” the union employee said.
Jokes aside, the BLS employee experienced a crisis of conscience when Trump was elected. Like all federal employees, upon his hiring, he swore an oath to defend the Constitution. He worried that Trump’s lack of commitment to observable reality could put pressure on the numbers his agency produces, should unemployment statistics be less positive down the line.
“I remember calling my mom after the election, like, ‘How can I still work here with integrity?’” he said. “She’s like, ‘Well, think about it. If everyone that had your integrity were to leave, who would you be replaced by? Maybe someone else who would go along with something he wants.”
“I’ll be there just in case,” he said. “Kind of like a backup defense.”
That oath also nagged at the conscience of an administrator of the Rogue EPA Staff account, who provided various biographical details as verification of their Environmental Protection Agency employment. “We don’t talk about politics at work. We don’t even talk about politics with the political staff when they come in — it’s not what we do. After the election, there was a pall that came over the agency. There was silence in the hallways. It was pretty grim. A lot of staff didn’t know where or how we could work through how we felt about the election results,” the administrator said. Alongside the order to halt communications with the public, a hiring freeze was enacted. Rumors circulated that climate data would soon be deleted from the agency website. Activist developers accelerated efforts to download vital environmental databases to non-government servers, fearing that they would disappear.
“It’s been eight years of incredibly valuable climate science work. It’s an unending list of things that are hard-won victories for people that would like to see a livable planet for our kids. All of those victories were finally making a difference. And we’re about to see a pause button on that,” said the EPA employee. “I wanted to make sure we had a conduit to the outside world now that we were being held hostage. … If they do try to undo things that are an important part of the country’s effort to act on climate change or protect human health, I don’t want them to be able to do that without somebody calling them on it.” After seeing the Badlands climate tweets, Rogue EPA Staff was launched.
Although the account tweets out an array of bad-for-the-environment Trump administration decisions every day, the administrator is driven by an unlikely sense of hope. “Some of it is optimism that those in positions of power to change the course of direction can see just how appalled EPA staff are,” said the employee. “This is unprecedented for EPA staff to have this level of opposition. That’s not what we do. We came in, we signed an oath, with an understanding we would be working for administrations who we don’t necessarily agree with.”
Days before Scott Pruitt’s confirmation hearings, the employee held on to the possibility that they could be convinced to support the new agency head’s agenda. “I would love to have a conversation with the appointees and get a sense of how they think this is a good plan,” the employee said. “I think checks and balances is a good thing. I would love it if I could be talked into supporting their goals.”
Many accounts concede in their Twitter bios that they are not run by government officials.
An employee of Boeing, one of the nation’s largest defense contractors, runs the AltDIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) account. “I have connections to DIA and throughout the Department of Defense and military and thought it would be a good way to get out information from my network,” the Boeing employee said.
The Boeing employee worries that under Trump, Boeing’s business model will shift with the national economy toward reliance on the defense industry and weapons sales. Boeing is split into two business units, one focused on commercial aircraft and another on defense products. “If Trump chose to create an isolationist economic policy but wanted to increase militarization, [Boeing’s] defense side would create more air weaponry,” the employee said.
A former signals intelligence and counterterrorism analyst who provided military documents showing he worked for the NSA during his 4 1/2-year deployment as a U.S. Marine runs the AltNSA account. He was particularly disturbed by Trump’s Muslim ban. “There’s no direct threat,” he said. “The countries that have been banned have had minimal to no terrorists who’ve attacked Americans on American soil. … It doesn’t make sense.”
Alt FBI is run by Miles Goscha, a 23-year-old photographer at Ringling College in Sarasota, Florida, who said he felt that an account dedicated to issues of criminal justice was missing from the list of environmentally focused alt accounts. “I don’t have any special perspective or special knowledge in that space,” Goscha said. “At the end of the day I’m just hoping that somebody can leave the account having read something that will help them become more informed.”
And an account called YellerstoneNPS is run by a university technology worker based in New England. “I don’t really know why I’m doing this Twitter account, other than the fact that I hate Trump and it’s a way to spread info that I feel should be spread, and no one would listen to just me the person,” they said via email, adding that they also started accounts called Capitol Reef NPS and Alaska NPS.
And there are some accounts that have raised questions among members of the rogue social media community. The Alt National Park Service Facebook page is one. It has more than 1.5 million followers and says it represents “204 National Park Service employees, 52 state park employees, 19 National Forest Service employees, 22 EPA employees, 4 USDA employees, and 128 environmental scientists.” In between posts about the Trump administration’s attempts to slash support for environmental programs, the page sells bumper stickers.
The Facebook page’s name is very similar to the Twitter account credited as the first alt agency handle, @AltNatParkSer or ALT National Park Service. In an interview with Vice, an administrator of ALT National Park Service said that park rangers had started the account before handing it to a group of activists and journalists who changed its name to NOT ALT WORLD, out of fear of workplace repercussions.
There’s no evidence that @AltNatParkSer has any link to the Alt National Park Service Facebook page. But the page launched shortly after the Twitter account, appearing to piggyback off of its success and wide following. On January 27, the administrators introduced themselves. “We’re a growing coalition of 59 National Park Service employees,” the post read. “We all refuse to watch everything we love crumble. Join the movement at www.altnps.org.”
What it means to join the movement is unclear, aside from entering your name, email address, and zip code into an online form. “A message for President Trump: You can shut down the use of our social media accounts, but you cannot shut down the internet or take control of what we do with our personal time! We only wish to protect and preserve the environment for future generations to come,” the landing page says. Entering your data returns no immediate reply, so it’s a mystery what the owners will do with their growing list.
Another way to participate in the movement is to buy bumper stickers. The account sells packs of two stickers for $3.50. Although the page says repeatedly that the stickers are sold at cost, packaged by volunteers, and are meant only to spread “awareness,” earning no returns for the sellers, a site called Makestickers.com says that such a product should cost only 43 cents per sticker, when purchased in large quantities. According to Alt National Park Service, the stickers have been popular. A recent post said the coalition has sold more than 5,000.
In response to The Intercept’s questions about the cost of the product, account administrators replied, “You dont understand the true cost of one order. Did you consider order processing fees, credit card fees, ssl certificate fees, store hosting fees, price per stamp?” Asked to elaborate on those costs, the account administrators grew defensive, citing concerns about maintaining employment. “We have families to support and love our jobs. We honestly dont care what news story you write, but we will address the situation.”
The page also provides updates on the latest assault on environmental agencies and occasionally launches a Change.org petition or shares an offending lawmaker’s contact information. Lately, it’s begun posting about a new planned campaign to “save the bees,” by selling seed packets.
Other alt-accounts have also sold products, like T-shirts. For example, Rogue NASA, whose bio says it is “not managed by gov’t employees,” divided at least $218,232 in T-shirt proceeds between Girls Who Code and the National Math + Science Initiative. The donations were handled by the company Cotton Bureau. An employee named Nathan Peretic said the arrangement was unusual for the company. “For each shirt sold, $16 was directly donated or is being donated to Girls Who Code and NMSI. The remaining $16 pays for the shirts, printing, labor, etc. … Zero proceeds for these shirts went to Rogue NASA,” he said, adding that the transactions are still pending and have taken some time given the small size of the T-shirt company and its lack of experience dealing with large donations.
The question of profiteering is one that plagued the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. BuzzFeed reported that numerous Facebook accounts operating under names like I Stand With Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Like if You Love Native Americans, and Indigenous People of America, were created to sell T-shirts, some of which used designs stolen from actual American Indian artists and activists. Meanwhile, GoFundMe accounts, created to raise money for people to live at resistance camps or participate in protest activities, proliferated and drew criticism from other members of the movement.
An administrator of AltYellowstoneNatPar, whose bio says it’s run by an “unofficial group of employees scientists and activists, in and around Yellowstone national park,” told The Intercept via Twitter direct message that they avoid working with any account that sells products, because of the risk of grift and “since there’s zero transparency to an alt account.”
TheAltYellowNatStonePar account administrator said they collaborate with around 15 other accounts on projects like Change.org petitions. Contributors to the Yellowstone Twitter feed are required to follow a code of conduct, which is also shared with collaborator accounts. It reads, “We do not accept offers of financial help. Direct all offers of financial aid through the proper and approved non profit partners of the park.”
“Park rangers and personnel aren’t rude or argumentative, we don’t use foul language or engage in hate, our intention is to live up to the high standard of behavior and respect we always have for our visitors,” the conduct code says. “The ONLY policy deviation we’re engaging in is that we’ll now speak out on political issues and fight pending congressional action that’s detrimental to our parks.”
Sketchy accounts present yet another challenge to the efforts of the federal scientist who runs the Alt_BLM account to cut through the distortions clouding the Trump era, a fog that has failed to let up since inauguration weekend.
The scientist takes solace in the earth’s longevity. “You’ve got to keep in mind the lands we manage are resilient. They have been there long before the U.S. government ever existed and will be there long after we’re gone. In some ways we have hope that the land base we’re responsible for, that’s going to continue. The real question is the impacts that it might face. Are we going to see big losses to lands that have otherwise been protected? It’s possible,” the scientist said. “With what’s going on with the global climate, we don’t have time to continue to be doing nothing or putting things in reverse.”
“You’re there in easier times and you’re there in hard times. If you quit, then, boy, it’s just going to get worse,” the BLM employee said. The scientist will spend the years ahead writing their disagreements with industry-leaning managers into FOIA-able emails. The game plan: “Do my job. Continue to document the science. Document the law. Document the regulations we need to follow.”