Category: Uncategorized

An Alt Approach to the Shutdown

The government may be shut down, but the AltGov has been busy.

A few of the accounts I talk to are managers with various agencies and, as such, feel a lot of responsibility for the employees they supervise. One even made care packages for her employees.  Several of the AltGov are on the “work today, paid someday?!?” plan. They are frustrated, and so are the ones who are sitting at home.

So they act, some directly, in their community.

screen shot 2019-01-17 at 2.00.37 pm

Others help share information on behalf of folks in crisis. For example, @NastyWomenNPS, a vetted group of park employees, shared about a Facebook Marketplace group where furloughed rangers and other Federal employees are selling personal items to get money for expenses.  It’s real – I checked it out and bought these magnets.

screen shot 2019-01-17 at 2.02.27 pm

National Park magnets sold to help a furloughed federal worker with bills.

 

Another account has been crowdsourcing resources for a list of help for furloughed workers,  while big accounts like @RogueNASA are collecting #ShutdownStories, getting dozens of responses and large exposure, presumably including numerous journalists, celebrities and politicians that follow that account. Folks who run that account are, themselves, furloughed, and shared “Life is so weird when one day you’re a rocket scientist and you go to your rocket science job and then the next day everything is like WTF and you have no rocket science job to go to so it’s like what’s the point of anything?”

Like other federal employees, some are facing real economic challenges themselves. One said he lives in a remote area like thousands of federal workers, which means it would be pretty challenging to get a side job while he waits for the shutdown to end, since there are few work opportunities where he lives. He is looking for things to sell. Another said someone in his family is having to forgo some ongoing doctor’s appointments, because insurance deductibles reset at the new year, and there’s no money for co-pays. Health problems have been a concern for others who are furloughed, and AltGov has taken action on that as well.

screen shot 2019-01-18 at 7.35.11 am

 

 

Advertisements

Ethics of news coverage

Author’s Note: This is the text of a Twitter thread I wrote about the ethics of network’s plan to broadcast the President’s address on the government shutdown. I put it here because Twitter is a good place to share information, but a difficult place to have a civil discussion. 

As a former journalist and a researcher of the relationship between and , I think I understand both sides of the argument over whether tonight’s presidential address should be carried live. A few thoughts.

It’s important to look at the decision in itself. Even if you think it violates precedent, and therefore is hypocritical, it may be that the previous decisions were the wrong ones and shouldn’t be repeated.

For example, if I used to throw my trash out the car window, arguing that it kept prisoners busy doing litter pickup, that’s clearly stupid. If I now know it’s dumb and stop doing it, that is a greater good than my being consistent by still doing it.

So why would the networks choose to broadcast this? A few reasons. First, it’s not a campaign rally. It’s an official government event by a sitting president. It’s newsworthy.

Second, if they fail to cover it, that could well be argued to be a politically partisan decision. If the decision is based on it not being newsworthy, it’s worth it to take the heat of that argument. I don’t think that’s the case here.

Third, just because it’s difficult to cover responsibly doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. There’s concern that facts may be skewed or misrepresented and that this will be quite difficult to fact check in real time. That kind of fact checking IS very hard. You still MUST do it.

As has been highlighted by many tweets and articles over the last few years, is governed a little bit by law and a whole lot by ethics. I look to the code of ethics here.

A few pieces are highly applicable in this case. “Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.” Arguably, this could be done after the fact, but fact checking during an event people are watching will impact those who watch live and nothing else.
“Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.” Civil is the word that will cause trouble here, but again, it’s an actual presidential address.
“Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government…” This is where the fact-checking comes in.
It’s useful to note that the last part of the code is transparency, and this is the part that I think is missing. ” Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”
I shouldn’t be making this argument for the networks – they should be doing this for themselves. This story says to even find out that the speech would be carried live required using unnamed sources. This is a problem.
I hope we see the networks “Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness,” as the ethics code also says. Why are you broadcasting? How will you handle any misinformation? This is also part of your job.
You can find me on Twitter as @drsturg and I’ve love to hear your thoughts in the comments on this post.

#AltGov and real Gov

Government officials have varied relationships with the AltGov from following and interacting to willfully blocking to trying to out the people behind the accounts. My first foray into understanding the AltGov was through comparison with official government accounts. They differ in several important ways including the types of followers and the types of messages.

What’s really interesting, though, is how government officials interact with AltGov accounts.  The interaction between official government accounts and AltGov accounts is usually very lopsided, with the AltGov referencing and tagging the government much more often than the reverse, my research has found. Even when they don’t interact, though, my analysis of AltGov followers found that there are several politicians who follow one or more of the accounts.

One politician who doesn’t like to follow them is the President. The AltGov’s direct address and criticism of the president hasn’t always gone over well – many of them are blocked by the president’s account. Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 7.51.24 AM

In March, 2018, judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled that the Twitter account constitutes a public forum, and therefore it is not legal for the president to block people from viewing his tweets.

As of 2019, some accounts are still blocked. @AltUSDA_ARS tweeted “‘Yet I only get “news of” this, as I am still blocked for calling him a racist, despite the courts finding it unconstitutional..”

In some cases, the relationship is more threatening, such as when the administration asked Twitter to reveal the person behind @ALT_uscis, an account that provides context and data on immigration issues, but also frequently sharply criticizes the government. Twitter went as far as to sue the government to protect the account holder and eventually the government dropped the request. @ALT_uscis is still around and a frequent poster.

An interesting twist happened when the government issued guidance that tweeting about the resistance or even the hashtag #Resist was a violation, as it was a political statement involved in the 2020 Presidential Campaign. This did not go over well with the AltGov…

 

 

AltGov fights back

Edited on Dec. 31 to note follow-up to one of the posts, last paragraph.

One AltGov campaign involves trying to combat malicious information on Twitter itself, both from automated “bot” accounts and from what they call trolls: people who post frequently with a goal of being inflammatory as well as of changing minds. Some trolls are American, others are foreign. A coordinated effort called “Project Bot Spotter” started in the summer of 2018, following efforts by the @AltDIA , @AltUSPressSec and @AltGS_Rocks accounts to come up with a method of identifying automated accounts.

A brief explanation: Like almost all social media platforms, Twitter tries to first show users information that is the most interesting, which can be based on the popularity of topics. For example, if the University of Alabama football team is playing in a national championship playoff game, tweets about them are more likely to be seen during the game than they would be in the following April. Twitter tries to give users information that is being talked about at the time when people are talking about it When automated accounts like and reshape information, it makes particular posts and ideas seem more popular than they are, which causes them to be shown to users more often. Twitter itself has been trying to fight the misuse of its platform as a vehicle for propaganda,  which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of accounts being deleted. The machine-based solutions are helpful, but not sufficient, so the AltGov has tried to bring malicious accounts to light so that humans can report them and get them deleted.

For example, @AltGS_Rocks has posted Twitter threads about bad actors so followers might see and report those threads. One starts like this:  (sorry for the salty language)

Screen Shot 2018-12-30 at 8.51.05 AM.png

 

and others offer evidence of the type of account being shown.

Screen Shot 2018-12-30 at 8.52.57 AM

In this case, the visualizations are making an argument that the second account is automated – basically a program tweeting content to fool the algorithm and get it in front of more Twitter users’ eyes. The circles represent the volume of tweets over time. Since people sleep, they would not have consistent tweet volume 24 hours a day. The word clouds tell you the content of the tweets.

This one did not turn out to be a simple find, because bot spotting is not an exact science. When social media accounts use software to delete malicious accounts they sometimes get it wrong. Adding the human layer like the Alt Gov effort does helps, but it isn’t perfect. The next day, the @WebCaptioning account engaged with @AltGS_rocks and eventually they posted this. You can find the whole response thread here, (If the link doesn’t work, know that account does sometimes get turned off when they feel their account was attracting more attention than was comfortable for anonymity. From what I’ve seen so far, it usually comes back eventually. Other account holders will do this as well. )

Screen Shot 2018-12-31 at 6.04.24 AM

 

@AltGS_Rocks shares these findings both in open Twitter and in DMs with followers. They get some interest on open Twitter – more than 12,000 impressions for one of the threads in a day. But the real traction happens behind the scenes, where dozens of citizen botspotters have labored…

AltGov gets out the vote

Screen Shot 2018-12-25 at 12.52.08 PM

In October, the U.S. was divided and disrupted by the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U. S. Supreme Court. The AltGov accounts were active in communicating about the events – encouraging followers to express opinions to senators and, at the end, to attend in-person marches and protests, some even promising that the Alts themselves would surreptitiously be there, which they were.

When Kavanaugh was confirmed, they were mad. That anger turned to action. A small group organized an effort to get out the vote in advance of the November midterm elections. Eventually as many as 14 AltGov accounts were involved as well as a group of followers bringing the total to nearly 40 at times. Encouraging action is a tricky matter for the AltGov accounts who work for the government as the federal Hatch Act (or “An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities”) effectively prevents government employees from some types of political action when on the job, including campaigning for a particular party. So most of the actions were focused on general citizenship – publicizing voter registration dates and processes, encouraging people to help register others to vote and to vote themselves, and spreading information on incumbents and how they had voted on issues like healthcare and women’s issues. There were real-life effort as well, as some involved in the initiative went out in their neighborhoods and workplaces and helped people register to vote.

Some of the accounts have large followings, in the hundreds of thousands. When the accounts would tweet the same message at the same time, they hoped it would help more people to see it as Twitter’s algorithm would decide that it was something a lot of people were interested at that time, thus showing it to even more people. Posts were informative, mixed with memes and videos created for the campaign, some by Alts and some by followers.

Using a #YouCanChangeThis hashtag, they got some celebrities to help boost the influence: People like Debra Messing, Bradley Whitford and Selenis Leyva shared a post or two, getting an AltGov-created message in front of their large followers. At the peak of the campaign, their messages reached more than 21 million people a day.

One special effort was a contest where people could enter by proving they voted…

#AltGov across the country

I tend to see a lot of the #AltGov interactions quite late at night for me, as I live on the East Coast and some of them do not – they are spread from sea to sea. Coupled with the fact that several of them have told me that they basically have raging cases of insomnia, it’s common for me to wake up for work with the last posts of their night only 3 or 4 hours old for me. One of the ways they keep themselves safe is by keeping their exact locations hidden.

This is done in obvious and less obvious ways. For example, a profile description may put a location as Oceania, Antartica or “Your nearest port.” But more than that, there is sometimes deliberate disinformation about where the account holders are. One describes a D.C. Metro station, but doesn’t live in D.C. Another calls New York “my city” but doesn’t live in New York. Some of the AltGov have attended, and even helped to organize, real protest marches like the Women’s March, the Science March or the Keep Families Together March. In some cases, accounts shared pictures from these events, but they weren’t their own pictures because they weren’t even there.

Books are more fun with pictures

One of the things I’ve been looking at is relationships between AltGov accounts. On top is one visualization of accounts using the #AltGov hashtag. The red, yellow and blue are clusters around various Alt accounts and the green is a cluster of followers who helped in a very large-scale disaster relief program the AltGov designed and ran in 2017. On the bottom is a different view, showing clusters of followers around various Alt accounts.

Screen Shot 2018-12-08 at 10.07.16 PM

Screen Shot 2018-12-09 at 8.11.17 AM