The US administration’s gag on state agencies is the other side of the Trump team’s own skill at fostering dissent online. By Mike Seccombe.
Internal resistance in Trump’s America
The United States National Park Service doesn’t only look after sequoias and bison. It also looks after sites of national cultural significance, including the National Mall in Washington, where they celebrate presidential inaugurations.
Thus there might have been some justification for the official NPS Twitter account posting a picture of Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20. But not for the one it posted: a retweet of two photos contrasting the size of the crowd that turned out for Trump with that present for Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
That one post would have been inflammatory enough. Trump’s acute sensitivity to reflections on his popularity – evident in his angry insistence that he had won a “massive landslide victory” when he actually lost the popular vote by a record margin of almost three million – was already well known.
But there was another post, too: a retweet linking to a highly critical Esquire magazine article, reporting that one of the first acts of the incoming Trump team was to scrub all reference to climate change from the whitehouse.gov website, along with references to the Affordable Care Act and civil rights.
The administration’s response was swift. An instruction went out to staff at the Department of the Interior directing “all bureaus to immediately cease use of government Twitter accounts until further notice”.
A day later, the NPS began tweeting again, with an expression of “regret” for “the mistaken RTs from our account yesterday”.
Those two posts were clearly no mistake, though. They were the work of someone concerned that the incoming administration was intent on burying inconvenient truths, and who consciously set out to embarrass it by pointing out a couple of those truths.
And so began the resistance to the Trump regime’s rejection of any notion of due process or open government.
A list compiled this week by the Sunlight Foundation, a national, non-partisan non-profit dedicated to promoting political transparency, identified numerous government agencies – including the Environmental Protection Agency; the departments of health and human services, agriculture, energy and transportation; and the National Institutes of Health – that had been gagged from communicating with not only the public in various ways – via social media, press releases, information bulletins et cetera – but from communicating with other government officials and elected representatives.
The foundation noted that even the former Republican presidential hopeful Senator Marco Rubio had complained that when his staff tried to obtain details about Trump’s executive order on immigration they were told by the State Department that the administration had ordered the agency not to share information with congress. A half-dozen or more Republican lawmakers shared similar complaints, according to media reports.
It’s entirely likely the litany of gag orders is much longer than the Sunlight Foundation knows; its list was compiled from memoranda and other information leaked to various media. The White House has not responded to its requests, or those of the media, for clarification.
If the official channels of information are blocked, the obvious response is to set up unofficial channels.
Following the gagging of the National Park Service, there quickly appeared a rogue Twitter account – @AltNatParkSer – featuring a similar arrowhead logo to the official one. As of midweek, the alternative account had more than 55,000 followers.
From there, rogue accounts have proliferated wildly. There are alternatives to the official sites of the Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Forest Service, Food and Drug Administration, the State Department, you name it. In some cases there are multiple alternatives.
Some, not all, are very slick and informative. An alternative to the official National Aeronautics and Space Administration account – @RogueNASA – tweets and retweets actual science, particularly climate science, along with posts about related political developments.
Many of these rogue accounts superficially resemble the official ones, using official logos or minor variations on them. The administration has responded by threatening criminal prosecution for trademark infringement.
At the start of this week, Forbes magazine enumerated 15 accounts, with a combined following of 3.5 million people, but this was surely an undercount. It did not, for example, include the 75,000-odd followers of the rogue State Department account. And the follower numbers are increasing rapidly.
These are impressive figures. The number, size and rate of growth of the Twitter resistance accounts prompted some of the more excitable progressive media to proclaim a decisive advance in the political use of social media. Some, such as Vox, suggested Trump – @realDonaldTrump – was being beaten at his own game.
Hardly. For one thing, Trump’s Twitter following, at 23 million, is far bigger than all those rogue accounts. For another, the big advance, if you could call it that, was the Trump team’s use of social media during the election campaign.
Almost a decade ago, two researchers in the field of psychometrics at Cambridge University began working with nascent areas of social media. As part of their work they invited Facebook users to answer psychometric questionnaires based on the OCEAN personality scale – an acronym for openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – to give them a “personality profile”. Users were also invited to share their Facebook data with the researchers.
The researchers, Michal Kosinski and David Stillwell, got millions of responses.
“Suddenly,” as a recent article in the online technology magazine Motherboard put it, “the two doctoral candidates owned the largest dataset combining psychometric scores with Facebook profiles ever to be collected.”
Among the things they discovered as they went through the data and refined their model was that a remarkably accurate profile of a person could be drawn simply from a few dozen “likes” on Facebook: skin colour, sexual orientation, intelligence, religious affiliation, political views and more.
As they refined further, they realised that accurate profiles could be gleaned not just from Facebook likes but from the data trail we all leave.
To cut short the long, riveting, scary story told by Kosinski to Motherboard, he was approached in 2014 by a company wanting access to his database and methods. He knocked them back, but in late 2015 a related company bobbed up, working for the “Leave” campaign in the Brexit referendum. It offered “micro-targeting” of voters through the coupling of big data with the same psychological model used by Kosinski and Stillwell.
That company, Cambridge Analytica, also went to work on the US presidential campaign. Its boast was that it had profiled the personality of “every adult in the United States”. Steve Bannon, who became Trump’s chief strategist in August last year and is arguably the second-most powerful person in Washington, is a director of the company.
“We have never seen a campaign quite like it before,” says Andrew Hughes, a lecturer in marketing at the school of management at the Australian National University, specialising in political marketing research.
The Trump campaign was untroubled by issues of truth or falsity, unconcerned that critics identified the many inconsistencies and contradictions in the candidate’s statements, uninterested in detailed arguments with opponents or the political media elites.
Instead, it identified the greatest concerns of particular fragments of the electorate: drugs, blacks, Muslims and other minorities, Mexicans, the Chinese, free trade, gun ownership et cetera. Then it tailored multiple different messages and served them automatically online.
“It was very simplistic messaging, working on fear,” Hughes says. “It worked well because these people said, ‘Yeah, no one’s ever listened to me on that before.’
“Trump used misinformation really, really well. His policy assertions weren’t backed up by fact or evidence, but he knew his market. He identified the trigger points that would move people from being disengaged to being engaged.”
So they came out and supported Trump. Hughes suspects they support him still, maybe even more strongly.
“Right now they are getting affirmation that they’ve done the right thing because all the people they don’t like, from the left or the establishment, are now so upset.”
But this does not mean resistance is futile. Bear in mind that only about 58 per cent of the 150 million-odd US registered voters actually turned up and fewer than half of them voted for Trump. Not many minds have to be changed.
Erica Chenoweth is an American political scientist at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, a specialist in civil resistance who has studied violent and nonviolent resistance movements around the world.
She found not only that nonviolent opposition to dictatorial regimes is far more effective than violent insurrection, but that it requires the active, determined opposition of only a few per cent of the population to be effective.
It needs more than Twitter posts, though. It requires a large, diverse mobilisation of people, taking to the streets, implementing boycotts or taking other action such as strikes. It requires defections from within the ruling elite and noncompliance from within the bureaucracy. And it requires some, but not much, money.
We have seen evidence of these preconditions already in America. The American Civil Liberties Union raised $24 million in a weekend to fund legal action against Trump’s travel bans. The acting attorney-general, Sally Yates, defied the White House by instructing Justice Department lawyers not to defend his new travel restrictions, and more than 1000 senior State Department officials put their names to a document dissenting from it. We have heard from the millions on the streets protesting against Trump’s executive orders, and from the corporate leaders – including Republican stalwarts such as the Murdochs and Koch brothers, not to mention a significant number of world leaders.
It is all quite unprecedented, but let us not forget it’s only been a couple of weeks. Chenoweth’s work showed effective resistance required, above all, perseverance. On average, it took about three years.
That’s a long time for people to maintain the rage.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 4, 2017 as "Goad of silence".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial