Washington, DC January 23, 2017 – Government social media accounts were temporarily shut down in apparent retaliation for forwarding a story that the crowd in attendance for the Trump inauguration was smaller than Obama’s. It signals that a notoriously thin-skinned President may censor not just federal social media but websites and reports, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
On Friday afternoon shortly after Donald Trump took the oath of office, the National Park Service (NPS) retweeted two news reports: one with photos showing a smaller crowd for the Trump inauguration than Obama drew in 2009. The other recounted White House web postings on topics such as climate and civil rights had been scrubbed. Within hours, an “urgent” message went out that the entire Interior Department, not only NPS, was “directed by incoming administration to shut down twitter platforms immediately until further notice” and to “contact your bureau web staff immediately and make sure they are complying.”
By mid-morning Saturday, however, the Twitter platforms were reopened after the Trump people had provided “social media guidance” according to an Interior spokesperson. The two re-tweets had been removed from the official feed and replaced by this apology from the NPS:
“We regret the mistaken RTs [retweets] from our account yesterday and look forward to continuing to share the beauty and history of our parks with you.”
“This episode suggests that federal civil servants must now screen factual information for potential political sensitivity prior to public release,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, questioning whether the Trump “social media guidance” had been reduced to writing. “Based on the nervous chatter we are hearing from agency employees, there is already a distinct chilling effect – and perhaps that is precisely the new White House’s intent.”
The incident is reminiscent of attempts during the first term of George W. Bush to prevent national parks from releasing unwelcome news. The Bush circle issued “talking points” from which park superintendents could not deviate, fired the Chief of the U.S. Park Police for admitting to a reporter that she lacked adequate staff to cover all responsibilities and even tried to rewrite national park historic exhibits to remove anti-war, pro-choice and gay rights marches and to feature Republican figures and themes.
Given the sharp policy differences between the incoming and outgoing administrations on issues ranging from climate change to health care, the likelihood of informational dissonance is magnified. The fate of mountains of material on agency websites, libraries and labs at variance with or outside a Trump agenda is uncertain. Rumors of vast data purges are sparking private efforts to archive material lest it disappear.
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but the concern is that a Trump administration may demand its own set of facts,” added Ruch, noting that the excesses under Bush led to pledges of transparency and scientific integrity under Obama. “Since it has articulated no transparency policies, the federal workforce may be justified in concluding that a Trump administration will demand a posture of opacity where only politically convenient facts see the light of day.”
Look at moves under George W. Bush to—