Like many Americans who use social media, I first became aware of the resistance within the government shortly after the inauguration of the 45th president, when Twitter accounts related to the US National Park Service began tweeting information relating to the crowd size at the inauguration, to climate science and to other science issues. It seemed like an arms race – a new story about the removal of public access to a data source was matched by new accounts coming on line with what they said was insider information about how the government was actually working.
As a professor of journalism who studies digital marketing and analytics, my own Twitter account is a mostly professional one. I curate and comment on issues related to news, analytics and social media. I was curious about this emerging movement, but I didn’t want to appear biased by openly following those accounts. I made a Twitter list, locked and unhelpfully named “Politics” that I jokingly referred to as my “consipiracy Twitter” to my family. Much of it felt like conspiracy and rumors. Sometimes, there were verifiable insights on existing policies and forthcoming actions. Other times, there were wild sounding stories about how many Krispy Kreme donuts the president required on an overseas trip or a lengthy chain of events that would lead to impeachment and so many government figures going to jail that Orrin Hatch would become president. I watched, mostly amused, looking for predictions that did come true. When the government issued a subpoena to Twitter to compel release of the identity for one of the accounts, I knew that some of what was being shared must be close to home.
As I watched, the things those accounts did changed over time. First, the scope broadened noticeably. The first accounts in my list were affiliated with identifiable units in the government – usually an agency like the EPA or sometimes a smaller unit in an agency like parks, a smaller portion of the Department of the Interior. Later additions, which I found because they engaged with those early accounts, had information relevant to the workings of the government, but didn’t state that they were current or former employees. Their interactions changed as well. There was quite a bit of infighting that developed, with some accounts warning that other accounts were not what they seemed to be. All the while, the followers grew in both number and variety. There are tools to look who follows different accounts, and I could see that some of the accounts were being followed by well-known journalists, by elected officials, by celebrities. These Alt/Rogue accounts were starting to have impacts that went beyond Twitter.
Along with my research student, Andrew Scott, we decided to get systematic about what that impact might be. For an early paper, we focused on Andrew’s passion: the environment, comparing a sample of Alt accounts with the official Twitter accounts of the agencies they parallel. We found that there were real and significant differences. While official accounts mostly discussed policies, Alt accounts mostly discussed people. Official accounts were overwhelmingly positive in tone, while Alt accounts were more varied, with both positive and negative postings. Influence was an important difference. Influence cuts two ways: to whom you listen and who listens to you. AltGov accounts listened to government accounts and to each other. Official accounts listened primarily to each other. The official government accounts were older and had more than ten times more followers overall, but AltGov accounts had many more journalists, even out of that much smaller total number. Since media are an important way that people learn information, the AltGov accounts have serious potential to impact the national conversation. In the months since we collected this initial data in October of 2017, the influence and extent of the AltGov has grown substantially.
That first paper led me to make contact with some of the AltGov accounts in the Spring of 2018 and they allowed me to do some interviews with them as well as some observations of their interactions and work behind the scenes that helps to put what happens in public on Twitter in context. I found several things of interest. Overall, I found a unique type of community of overcomers. The AltGov is composed of people able to overcome the limits of technology, their own diversity of background, purpose and skills and the challenges of maintaining anonymity, even from each other, to take action to better a nation that they find extremely frustrating. Their story is fascinating and sheds light on the ways communities can form and be effective, even as technology appears to make us less engaged with each other.
And so, this book. Using my background as a journalist and a social scientist, I look at the AltGov from multiple perspectives to see how the need for anonymity and flexibility affects both postings in public and affects interactions in shared, private spaces. I also look at the effects of the movement, both for the army of followers who interact on social media and for the others who have been touched by their efforts in tangible ways ranging from politicians who are hearing from their constituents to candidates running for office to animals in protected lands. The story of the AltGov is a fascinating one with important implications for civil society in a technology-driven age, and I am pleased to share it with you.
A final note: I have many of the accounts in a Twitter list to make them easy to follow. If you click here, you can subscribe to the list and see for yourself.