Meet your #AltGov: a preview of Chapter 1

It’s 10:30 on a Friday night on the East Coast, and your AltGov is at work, all over the US. Much of AltGov happens late at night, and they joke about the insomnia that many of them share, caused in part by the need to make things happen when they live in multiple time zones. It is a perpetual balancing act for the dozens of individuals and groups who participate. This evening, one is working on a profile picture for his Twitter account that will stand out in a crowded feed, getting design advice from others in an extended Twitter direct message. Another is training people in using code to pull tweets, using an online collaboration tool to coordinate a group of more than 50 Alts and followers. This group is part of an effort to find and report malicious automated Twitter accounts that they call the Bot Spotter project. Another is setting up a website for that same project. Another is thankful his spouse has gone on to bed so that he can freely participate in a few group messages and do some planning for the next week of work. He tells me “The Resistance never sleeps.”

AltGov is a loose alliance that uses social media to communicate about U.S. public policy, to influence followers to act, and to criticize government actions and leadership. Behind the screens and handles are people. Some accounts are managed by groups, while others are individuals, and most of them invest a great deal of time in their AltGov activities, both on and off-line. The people who run the accounts are diverse in backgrounds, goals and methods and the scope of the AltGov is hard to define, even for those who follow it. When a few of the accounts asked followers to define AltGov, most of the responses were about the value of AltGov for followers or vague, like the follower who said, “Like the government, but alternative.” There is a mystique that isn’t always deserved. AltGov is “A group of various govt departmental employees who recognize that they work for the country, not a specific person. Their commitment to the people, their disciplines, and the country cannot be over-stated. Leaders to the #Resistance,” another follower wrote. This isn’t completely true. Some accounts that are part of AltGov are run by current federal government workers; many are not. Some were federal employees but have since quit. Others work in industries with close ties to the government and thus have a nuanced understanding of policy or even contact with current employees. Still others have an even looser connection.


#WeAreAltGov – Inside the resistance on Twitter


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.



My best friend that I’ll never meet

If you are a fan of an actor, a sports figure, a politician, a YouTuber, you might have a parasocial relationship. This term goes back all the way to the 1950s and refers to the feelings someone in the audience has for someone they only see through media. It’s like a one-sided friendship.

Although researchers came up with this idea for celebrities, technology means that anyone can develop a following. Some of my students did an interesting paper on beauty vloggers and found that even though YouTubers ask for comments on things like video ideas, most of the YouTube comments were one-sided, like you would have with a friend.

I’m working on another project about the AltGov – a loosely affiliated group of Twitter accounts that share information and commentary about government workings and policies. They’re also really funny, and a good example of everyman’s ability to develop a following – between them, they have more than a million. 

The neat thing about social media is that it’s social – a way to interact. So those one-sided, parasocial relationships can get a boost when accounts occasionally talk back. It may be time to expand our theories.

Some thoughts about anonymous sources

As a journalism professor, I teach my students about the standards and ethics of the journalism profession. One interesting place where law and ethics intersect is in the use of anonymous sources. It’s generally legal to use anonymous sources, but it is something journalists avoid if at all possible because it it highly subject to abuse

Clear agreement

Part of a journalist’s ethical obligation is make it clear with a source how information they provide will be attributed in a final product. There are a key phrases.

Off the record. Mashable has a useful article on off the record’s meaning, basically that when a reporter agrees to go off the record with you, they agree that they won’t publish what you tell them. As the article explains, this is frequently done so the source can give you a piece of context that, while not directly relevant to the issue, helps you as the reporter to understand the information you are getting.

On background. The Associated Press definition of this is that the information may be published, but the attribution will be negotiated between the journalist and the source. Typically, this means that the source won’t be named, but his or her relationship to the information will be clear (answering the “how do they know”?)

On deep background. This generally means that you might use the information, but there would be no mention of the source by name, position, etc., in the document.

Journalist practice

Professional journalism outlets will have a stated policy about using anonymous sources. For example, here is the one for National Public Radio. These vary a bit from place to place, but as a general rule, I tell my students that anonymous sources are best avoided. This is because they are extremely risky for journalists personally and for the larger matter of the truth. Journalists get used by people in power of all sorts, and being anonymous means those in power don’t have to own their actions. For example, when  government is considering a new policy or program, they will someone “leak” the information to a journalist in order to get it published and gauge public reaction. If the reaction is negative, they will blame the journalist for publishing “fake news.”

Typical newsroom policy is that more than one person needs to know the identity of the anonymous source (usually a journalist and an editor) and the information they provide must be verifiable in multiple ways, not just from one anonymous source. Sometimes, multiple anonymous sources will suffice for verification, but most outlets’s policies say this should be rare. It might happen in a whistleblower situation where a large number of people are at direct risk from the information.

I also tell my students that anonymous sources are a bad idea for a few serious reasons.

Your promise to allow anonymity should be a binding agreement that can have implications for you. Publishing an anonymous source puts a journalist in a controversial situation where they might have to choose whether to violate the source’s confidence or face imprisonment  if a court wants the identify.

You deny your readers the ability to assess the credibility of your information if you aren’t clear about the source, and that is a real problem.

Implications for sources

In 2018, there is a great deal of information being sought and reported about the U.S. Government. At the same time, some potential sources are anxious about loss of employment or the potential for online or even physical harassment if they share with the media.

On top of that, the trend of labeling unattractive information as fake news means that media professionals are walking a delicate tightrope between the need to Seek Truth and Report It and to retain access to newsmakers. This is aggravated by the now much smaller staffs most news organizations are working with. Extra verification is more challenging than ever.

As a source, you can

  • Make sure, if you talk with the media, that you are both very clear about information use and attribution.
  • Help provide that extra verification. If you can’t speak on the record, who can corroborate what you say? If you can’t provide that, can you provide data or other original source material for verification?
  • Understand that the definition of journalist is shifting. The American Press Institute notes that the professional practices of journalists separate them from other information sources. Anyone can publish something to the web, but that doesn’t mean they use those professional practices. You can find a list of them here. It is OK to ask someone who wants to interview you what their practices are before you decide if you want to talk to them.
  • An actual journalist probably won’t talk to you if they can’t know who you are. They may not publish it, but they (and their editors) will want to know.

Clicks are great, but they aren’t everything

Talking about web analytics this week. There’s an increasing number of free and low-cost tools to give you all kinds of numbers about your site and your content. It can be a little addicting. Number go down (sad face) and up and it’s easy to think that you are learning important things about how to make your content more effective. Real-time data on subscriptions, visits, etc. is exciting. But here’s a little secret: your information is only as good as the questions you ask. Here’s how to get more from your analytics:

Match your data explorations to your business questions – What is your real goal in your business? Is it to sell things, get subscribers, improve your reputation, lower calls to customer service? Those are outcomes that you can measure. It’s easy to measure visits, but they don’t answer those questions.

Don’t just rely on clickstream data – Hits are easy to measure, but really don’t tell you all that much. Just because someone visited your page doesn’t mean they read anything. Even if they did, that visit alone may not explain why you made sales.

Keep notes on outside events – One thing you learn in college stats class is that correlation is not the same thing as causation. Data from dashboards is awesome because it is easy to get, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. What lurking variables in real life could explain the effects you are seeing?

Take the long view, mostly – You can get reports on any time frame you like, but measuring and iterating too rapidly can lead to bad decisions. You want to monitor regularly for crises, but for bigger decisions and changes, match your analyses to the times when you need to make decisions.

Stop, look and listen: Cross domains to be creative in your content production

The advice that helped you get across the street as a kid can help you populate your blog. In my class today, we are talking about coming up with ideas for reader-friendly content, and for a lot of people, that is the hardest thing about writing.

I’ve written already about the types of content you produce, the things your audience needs to know and the things your audience wants to know and I’ll be talking today about using variations on a topic to come up with ideas.

Another technique you can try is bringing ideas across media. Here’s how it works:

Stop. Use your reading habit to find ideas in a lot of places. You know you can use an .rss reader to keep up with writing in your area of interest. But do more. What are popular podcasts in your area? Do your YouTube subscriptions bring in new ideas? Keep a list handy in the cloud so you can add to it when deliberately searching and on the go.

Look. Train yourself to attend to serendipity. You are surrounded by content pretty much all the time. Look intentionally at billboards, that TV channel that they plan in the grocery store, the back cover of the magazine that lady is reading on the bus. Snapping photos of things you want to remember and pinning them on a private Pinterest board is a good way to remember this kind of information.

Listen. There’s content that you are interested in, and there is content other people are interested in, too. People talk about media frequently, it is worth it to pay attention to the things they say, both for topics and smaller pieces of information that are interesting. For example, the Superbowl featured a bunch of new ads, like usual, and people have favorites. When they talk about the ones they like, ask questions – what did you like about it? Who was your favorite character? What surprised you? This can give you ideas for both topics and approaches in your own work.