The Rebel Alliance is on Twitter: The Role of Science and Media in Politics and Activism
By Margaret K. Overton
Are “rebel” citizens a contemporary form of political activism, or are today’s “rogue” Twitter accounts just novel iterations of a recurring trend in the environmental movement? How do activists and the media shape public perceptions of science as well as its role in modern American society? I argue that a disconnect has grown between the general public and the field of science, and that in order to move forward, it is necessary to look at the ways that environmentalists have overcome similar challenges in the past. I review the history of the conservation movement, particularly when activists oppose the views, decisions, or goals of those in power. Then I trace the history of the “rogue” Twitter accounts that began to appear following Donald Trump’s inauguration, from their inception to the different identities and purposes that they forged for themselves as well as their collective successes. By understanding these activists as part of a long succession of rebellious environmentalists, we can paint a more complete picture of the complex interplay between politics and science as well as chart a path forward for the modern conservation movement among a changing American society.
If — or when — aliens make contact with the human race, one of the most baffling concepts that they will have to understand about us is the constant rivalry between our emotions and objective fact. Researchers and scientists have discovered and published a variety of ways to eliminate world hunger, improve medicine and schools, preserve the environment, and produce clean energy indefinitely, yet we continue to cling to tradition, gut feelings, and other emotionally-based, irrational justifications for our failure to come together to take action against widespread global suffering. The continued existence of measles, famine, and coal mines, to name a few, is evidence of the powerful pull of the status quo and a short-term mindset that plagues the human psyche, making long-term progress difficult and forward-thinking decision-making a tremendous feat indeed.
This is not a paper about the complex psychological theory surrounding human (ir)rationality, although it is hard to consider the value that society places upon scientific advancement without at least mentioning this inconsistency. Truly, this essay could not exist without a long history of struggle between culture and science. Through an array of mechanisms, this divide has widened as chemistry, biology, physics, and other realms of inquiry grow increasingly advanced, with the public losing interest in the minutiae of seemingly-insignificant experimental findings.
Compounding this problem, scientists have struggled for decades to communicate their findings accurately to the public despite a minefield of media outlets who value attention and viewership over accuracy and careful reporting. And this problem only grows worse the more viewers value the sensationalism and scale of news stories over their importance and intrinsic value to society. Weingart et al. explain, “When reporting on science, the media are aware that the vagaries and uncertainty of scholarly hypotheses do not lend themselves to interesting “news.” The media accordingly tend to translate hypotheses into certainties.” This gives the public a false sense of certainty regarding science, which extends into inaccurate perceptions of what is easy, fast, or even possible to accomplish in the field.
Thanks to this misrepresentation of scientific pursuits, much of the American public holds unrealistic expectations for what science can do. They want to see bigger, flashier results and are unaware of the decades of work and millions of dollars that often go into research and development. In fact, “the amount of media attention a topic receives is not correlated to its scientific importance, nor are all scientific disciplines represented equally in the media.” Instead of learning about innovations that may alleviate the burdens of poverty, famine, environmental degradation, disease, or drought in disadvantaged populations, the public focuses its attention on trendy, eye-catching projects that (a) appeal primarily to wealthier Americans and (b) are often not broadly useful or commercially available.
Yet while many Americans admire science and benefit from its innovations and advancements, they perceive it as extremely difficult compared to other fields, with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors topping every list of the “hardest subjects in college.” As a result, while someone may feel safe investing in the stock market without an Economics degree or sharing their political opinions on Facebook despite not having studied Political Science, they are unlikely to try and engage in conversations about science. Phrases like, “Oh, my brain just isn’t wired that way,” and comments about the impossibility of math or engineering perpetuate a view of science as inaccessible and nearly magic, discouraging society from pursuing the goal of increased scientific literacy on a broad scale.
The result of this mess? A populace that considers itself scientifically-educated, yet is disconnected from the realities of science. (For a good overview of the gap between societal opinions and scientific consensus, this 2015 Pew survey is extremely enlightening — and somewhat concerning.) Sadly, as countless victims throughout history know, ignorance breeds fear and anger. And today, this is the lens through which we must view the Trump Administration’s relationship with science.
It is arguably possible to write entire books about how President Trump treats truth and evidence, but to do so would go against the spirit of my subject today, which relies on avoiding subjectivity and partisanship in favor of focusing on what we can establish as fact. Instead, I want to focus specifically on how the White House has interacted with environmental science and climate research. But to properly understand where we are today, we have to look at the history of the environmental movement and how it has been shaped and directed by both the public and the federal government.
David Walls writes:
In late 2004 two young environmentalists, Ted Nordaus and Michael Shellenberger, proclaimed the “death of environmentalism,” arguing that the inability of environmental organizations to obtain government action on the threat of global warming means that the current strategy of the environmental movement is a failure. […] The laundry list of environmental problems facing the planet — ozone layer depletion, global warming, destruction of tropical rainforests, extinction of species, toxic and radioactive wastes — can appear overwhelming and insurmountable. Yet reviewing the successes of the last forty years — millions of acres of wilderness saved; air, water and pesticide pollution reduced; nuclear power development halted; public consciousness raised and powerful organizations built — should give all environmentalists a second wind.
Therefore, we begin as our nation did: with the Native Americans.
II. HISTORY OF ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM
When European settlers first arrived in America, they thought they had discovered a pristine land full of opportunity — land and resources free for the taking. In fact, the continent was already home to between 10 and 16 million people belonging to hundreds of native tribes that had existed in North America for at least ten millennia. Despite initially relying on Native Americans for help establishing agricultural colonies, settlers quickly grew greedy and began to covet land already being cultivated by tribes in New England. There was no concept of land ownership among Native Americans, and while settlers frequently made treaties with tribes over who could use certain areas of land, these were rife with fraud and rarely honored by the Europeans. As a result, armed attacks against these settlements became more common towards the mid-1600s, but the native populations were eventually overwhelmed by larger European forces with more advanced weaponry, and resistance was ultimately futile. Thus began centuries of abuse and exploitation by Europeans towards Native Americans and the environment as they seized ancestral lands and forced tribes onto small, often barren reservations.
For the next couple centuries, the idea of protecting the land lay forgotten as America expanded west, built railroads and cities, and grew into an industrial powerhouse. However, by the late 19th century, three different ideas emerged as motivation for efforts to protect the environment. First, there was the issue of pollution driven by urban growth. Between the 1860s and 1910s, governments responded to pressure by “building sewer systems, taking responsibility for collecting garbage and cleaning streets, protecting sources of drinking water, establishing parks, and regulating the smoke nuisance.’” Thus, public health was a major source of motivation behind efforts to live in a “cleaner” society.
The other two forces behind interest in environmentalism were the prospect that the nation soon would run out of vital natural resources, especially wood, and the notion of preserving “undeveloped lands of great natural beauty” — areas that became known as wilderness. In 1871, Artist Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson traveled as part of the US Geological Survey expedition to document the Yellowstone region, particularly the Grand Canyon. The photographs and artwork the duo produced were quickly circulated to newspapers, magazines, and eventually the halls of Congress. Corps of Engineers Captain Hiram M. Chittenden wrote that Moran’s paintings and Jackson’s photographs “did a work which no other agency could do and doubtless convinced everyone who saw them that the regions where such wonders existed should be preserved to the people forever.” Just seven months later, Yellowstone became the first National Park, and the idea of protecting nature — albeit mostly for industrial, aesthetic and recreational purposes — became a solidified goal of both the government and the environmental organizations that arose in support of conservation and preservation.
Theodore Roosevelt played an instrumental role in institutionalizing the conservation movement both as president and as a private citizen. In 1887, he and George Bird Grinnell (the creator of the Audubon society who would later earn the title, “father of modern conservationism”) established the Boone and Crockett Club as an organization for hunters devoted to conservation and responsible hunting practices; they held the belief that “preservation of forest and of game went hand in hand.” They successfully lobbied the federal government on behalf of the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which enabled the President to set aside land as a forest reserve by executive order, which was followed by the Yellowstone Preservation Act of 1894, which would be instrumental in saving the American buffalo. Then during Roosevelt’s presidency from 1901 to 1909, he established four game reserves, five national parks, and eighteen national monuments. Yet while the President was concerned with preservation for the purpose of productive use of natural resources by the public, by the early 1900s, two main ideological camps had emerged: utilitarian conservationists like Roosevelt, and preservationists, who sought to keep nature untouched and “wild.”
Various theories exist to explain how this early progress developed into the modern environmental movement. Some posit that it grew out of grassroots movements to save wildlife and wilderness. Others point to early efforts to improve conditions around cities, factories, and working-class neighborhoods. Still more claim that conservationists sought to make production efficient and sustainable in a more consumer-oriented approach. According to Samuel Hayes, widespread prosperity after World War II “inspired many people to adopt a new set of priorities: maintaining good health, living amidst pleasant surroundings, devoting time to leisure activities, and improving the quality of life.” Most likely, it was a combination of all of these factors and more, spurred on by several high-profile disasters that caught the attention of the American public with enough momentum to carry the movement forward into the new century.
Ultimately, it wasn’t until the second half of the 1900s that the conservation movement caught on with the public, borne out of the concerns of the nineteenth century. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring is widely regarded as a turning point for environmentalist, as it brought the public’s attention to the dangers that chemicals pose to organisms and ecosystems and sparked renewed interest in paying greater attention to human-inflicted damage to the environment. Lending momentum to this sentiment, a series of environmental disasters — including the 1965 power blackout and garbage strikes of New York City, the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, the Love Canal Disaster of the 1970s, and a series of massive fires on the surface of the extremely polluted Cuyahoga River — garnered widespread public support for political and social change to clean up the environment. Protests on college campuses across the nation, including high-profile campaigns at Columbia and Berkeley, also brought students into the movement and heightened environmental awareness for the rest of the nation.
Support for the conservation movement also coincided with broader changes in political philosophy, social thought, and economic theory. Specifically, a trend began in the late 1960s in which “activists began to link the destruction of the natural environment to the complex interplay of new technology, industry, political power, and economic power.” In 1970 in Gary, Indiana, a mixture of affluent whites, blue-collar steelworkers, and black youths came together to support a city bill that would force a local company, US Steel, to curb its air emissions, signifying the triumph of community interests over corporate profit. Grassroots community groups arose across the country to support “family and community autonomy against the powerful institutional forces of corporate industry and government bureaucracy.” Along with this, the environmental movement began to align itself more and more with the political left. Consistent with many Americans’ view of conservationists today, it became associated with “alternative institutions and lifestyles,” organic food production, and urban and rural communal living.”
However, the idea of keeping nature pristine and undamaged was still broadly appealing, especially for families, and the connection between environmental protection and public health remained in the forefront of most American’s minds. The increasing momentum of the environmental movement culminated in the first Earth Day celebration on April 22, 1970, marking a turning point for environmentalists, many of whom were concerned that the focus would turn to industrialization and social justice rather than wilderness protection. On August 31, 1970, the ideals and popularity of the conservation movement overcame its partisan slant when Republican president Richard Nixon succeeded in creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), solidifying conservation as a governmental as well as societal priority. However, much of the EPA’s focus rested on issues of pollution in the context of human health, with most regulatory markers relying on health-based standards, as seen in several landmark pieces of legislation, including the Clean Air Act (1967), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974).
By the 1980s, “mainstream environmentalism” emerged in the wake of the Reagan Administration’s anti-environmental deregulation policies, and a group of ten environmental organizations emerged at the forefront with massive memberships and fat pocketbooks, ready to capitalize on a broad base of support through the power of lobbying and deal-making in the halls of Congress. This left other groups such as Greenpeace and Environmental Action, which relied more on grassroots community organizing and were distrustful of the federal government, feeling excluded and frustrated; meanwhile, apolitical organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund were simply eliminated from the discussion entirely. A combination of this new dynamic and Reagan’s deregulatory approach led to a resurgence of grassroots energy across the country. Perceiving mainstream environmental organizations as “too accommodating to both industry and government,” these organizations rely on “[c]ommunity right-to-know laws, citizen-enforcement provisions in federal and state legislation, and local input in waste clean-up methodology and siting decisions.” This resulted in a split in the movement which ultimately proved to be beneficial for both parties:
Although mainstream organizations do perform necessary functions such as educating the middle class to environmental concerns, litigating, and fighting the industrial lobby, grassroots groups create the real movement on issues and force environmentalism onto the public agenda.
On an ideological level, this represents a shift in the focus of environmentalism towards a more intersectional and interdisciplinary approach. Instead of only wanting to leave forests untouched or streams unpolluted, it incorporates ideas about corporate accountability, social justice, feminism, and religion and spiritualism. It also achieves levels of racial, ethnic, sexual, and socioeconomic diversity that were lacking in the earlier iterations of the movement.
In the modern era of environmentalism, these grassroots organizations can be divided into four broad categories. First, there are splinter groups, where members of larger organizations leave due to ideological differences or other conflict in order to preserve their original vision of prioritizing environmental protection over personal desires. Second, the new conservation movement consists of hundreds of localized groups entirely dedicated to preserving trees and old growth forests; these arose in response to perceptions that mainstream organizations had failed in this particular mission. Finally, both environmental justice groups and Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) groups work to address the unequal distribution of the “costs of pollution and the benefits of environmental protection by framing environmental issues within the larger context of social justice, civil rights, and the democratic process,” with particular emphasis on populations traditionally underrepresented in the political process. While environmental justice groups are primarily focused on the issue of communities of color shouldering a disproportionate burden of environmental pollution, NIMBYs are locally-formed groups dedicated to fighting perceived health risks to families and communities.
III. DONALD TRUMP AND THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT
And this brings us to the environmental movement of today: an effort characterized by broadness, both of public acceptance and of issues that it is trying to address. However, it has been struggling of late, with Gallup finding in a 2010 poll that there had been a 10 percentage-point decline over the preceding decade in support for environmentalism, with only 6 in 10 Americans being “active in or sympathetic toward it.” More recently, the partisan divide over environmental issues has grown, with an approximately 30 point gap between Republicans’ and Democrats’ opinion of how well the environment is doing (a division that increased by 10 points after President Trump took office — you can guess who is more confident about the status quo).
In fact, recent political developments hint at growing turmoil in the movement. On Election Night, Donald Trump rode to victory in Pennsylvania on a wave of unprecedented support from coal miners after he promised to revive the dying industry. His repeated promises to get rid of “unnecessary, job-killing” regulations and his baffling and widely-discussed tweet that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” drew a great deal of attention during the election. As inauguration day drew near, a sense of panic set in for many Americans. Among their concerns was the sentiment that the new administration would be the polar opposite of the old when it comes to climate change, energy policy, and environmental protection. Liberals and conservationists were on high alert for President Trump to roll back the environmental protections that had been so celebrated by Democrats and Republicans alike in the late 1900s — and they wouldn’t have to wait long.
IV. THE RISE OF ROGUE TWITTER
The storm began brewing before Trump’s presidency was even a day old. On January 21st, someone within the National Parks Service’s social media team retweeted a pair of photos comparing the size of the inaugural crowds in 2009 and 2017, followed by the observation that the Trump administration had removed climate change, civil rights and health-care issues from the Obama White House website. In response, every Twitter account belonging to the Department of the Interior was shut briefly while officials determined whether they had been hacked and “clarified” their social media guidelines with employees. Although the National Parks Service apologized, many pointed to the incident as a sign that the Trump administration would attempt to silence employees who spoke out against the government or disagreed with official policies.
An already suspicious public would see further evidence of this theory just three days later, when Trump administration officials instructed employees at several federal agencies to cease all communication with the public. While this is apparently standard policy for incoming presidents while they establish their new policies and positions, many were concerned because this move appeared to target “agencies that are charged with overseeing environmental and scientific policy,” including the EPA, NPS, and USDA. On top of this decision, the administration instructed officials at the EPA to freeze grants and contracts and ordered the agency to remove the climate change page from its website.
Regardless, the situation may have blown over had it not been for a former Badlands National Park employee who had retained access to the official Park Twitter account. The same day that the gag order went out, it deployed a series of four tweets that would have gone unnoticed at any other time, but in this particular instance, started a firestorm. Each was a fact or statistic pertaining to climate change, and for millions of tense Americans, they were a beacon of hope in the face of what they viewed as looming threats to the First Amendment and the health of the planet under President Trump. Fans on Twitter went nuts, creating the hashtag ‘#Badasslands’ and the nickname ‘Breaking Badlands’ in admiration of the rebellious posts.
The idea of a government agency “going rogue” caught the imagination of the American public, and within days, dozens of “alternative” (“alt-”) Twitter accounts were created that claimed to be run by various federal employees. Uniting these identities was a shared mission of promoting scientific inquiry and climate change research, and each took the name and logo of the agency that they purported to represent. Accounts like @AltNatParkSer, @RogueNASA, @AltUSDA, and @BadHombreNPS rode the tidal wave of public interests and amassed hundreds of thousands of followers in a matter of days.
Despite the general support being shown for these modern defenders of truth and science, a few criticisms arose. First, the Trump Administration may not have been to blame for much of the supposed “censorship” that began the whole debacle. Slate does an excellent job of summarizing why this is the case:
On Monday, news was leaked about an apparent gag order issued to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It would be completely in character for the Trump administration to do such a thing, but frighteningly, it seems that this directive didn’t come from inside the White House. In fact, the USDA gag order came from … the USDA. As Science magazine reported Thursday, “Firestorm over supposed gag order on USDA scientists was a self-inflicted wound, agency says.” The memo that got so much grief was “a poorly worded effort by career official—not anyone appointed by Trump.” This particular “gag order” has since been rescinded. [Furthermore,] on Tuesday night, National Park Service officials said the Badlands was not told to remove the tweets but choose to do so on its own.
However, it must be noted that even if the USDA and NPS shot themselves in their respective federal feet, the EPA still appeared to be under a true gag order. This means that the brave US government employees who risked so much to share climate science data on Twitter are still heroes for standing up for truth and justice… right? In fact, it would be difficult to defend such a claim, since nobody really knows who runs the accounts. Forbes published a cutting critique of the media’s naïveté surrounding the whole situation:
While each of the accounts claimed early on to be run by US Government employees gone “rogue,” many of them have now posted statements to say they have transferred control to non-Government employees for their protection… To recap, a series of anonymous Twitter accounts are created claiming to be run by government employees, they amass millions of followers almost overnight, then abruptly announce they are handing themselves off to non-government activists to take over from here… The fact that the accounts have resisted every request for even the most basic of verification that they were ever run by a government employee is concerning, especially given the timing of the handoffs once they had amassed substantial follower counts.
In fact, some accounts turned out to be just regular citizens attempting to hijack some momentum; for example, a “rogue NASA” account actually criticized climate change research and attracted over 700 followers before being exposed. Yet regardless of their true identities, the curators of these accounts were thus handed a tremendous amount of influence, and each began to wield this power in their own way. Let’s take a look at a few of the biggest accounts and the identities they forged for themselves.
@AltNatParkSer (@NotAltWorld) — 1.31M followers
“The #Resistance team against #AltFacts #FauxNews #FauxScience Formerly: Unofficial National Park Service #Science #Climate #Facts Run by non-gov individuals”
This account started the trend of creating “alt” Twitter accounts, and the individuals behind its creation have also been the most heavily scrutinized. It initially began by tweeting a slew of facts and statistics about climate change on January 24th. That same day, it claimed to be run by “several active NPS rangers and friends” and tweeted a description of media “blackout” for government employees. It took some time to advertise various parks in the NPS, then took a more broadly political stance by encouraging its followers to call their representatives and criticizing the Trump administration more broadly. Still on January 24th, it began promoting the March for Science, then fell into a routine of sharing general facts about climate change. By January 27th, some had raised concerns about the identities of the people running the account due to the use of several British spellings of words. In response to these questions, Vice conducted an interview with them over Twitter direct messages and learned that while initially there were real park rangers doing the tweeting, they handed it over to a group of reporters, activists, and scientists due to threats they had received as well as the risks of having their employers find out what they were doing. The next day, the account changed its handle to @NotAltWorld. Over time, the account began to focus more on sharing articles about science and politics rather than writing its own original tweets about science. Additionally, it became more partisan, heavily criticizing the controversial Muslim travel ban, with information about science and the National Parks Service sprinkled throughout their content. As of this writing, they have not tweeted since February 7th, and confusingly, their last retweet was a message from Scottish political party Better Together in 2014 encouraging Scotland to vote to remain a part of the United Kingdom. On the whole, this account was characterized by displaying lots of personality with a particular flair for political snark and sarcasm.
Notable early tweet: “Can’t wait for President Trump to call us FAKE NEWS. You can take our official twitter, but you’ll never take our free time!”
@RogueNASA — 904k followers
“The unofficial “Resistance” team of NASA. Not an official NASA account. Not managed by gov’t employees. Come for the facts, stay for the snark.”
This account came onto the scene slightly later than the rest, but far more prepared to jump into the fray. It began by promoting shirts and other merchandise with the “Rogue NASA” logo to raise money for Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, the National Math and Science Institute, and FIRST. It shared a broad array of scientific articles, with a general focus on climate change and NASA-related news. While promoting the March for Science, it built up a larger following by retweeting the hashtags #ActualLivingScientist (consisting of various scientists introducing themselves and their work; it started in response to the realization that 70% Americans can’t name a living scientist) and #DressLikeAWoman (consisting of various women sharing pictures of their typical, usually science-related work attire; it started in response to Trump’s apparent order that women in his administration should “dress like women”). Like @NotAltWorld, when the Muslim ban controversy began, the account also heavily criticized the order, tweeted about women and minorities in scientific fields, and encouraged its followers to become more politically active and get in touch with their representatives. More recently, it has begun soliciting and sharing recommendations for science books, and is still actively tweeting about science and politics. On the whole, this account was characterized by high levels of interaction with its followers, having more clearly-defined objectives and initiatives (raising money for various organizations), and staying focused on science, climate change, and political issues directly related to scientific fields.
Notable early tweet: “For the next four years, you have to hold onto the passion and fire you feel right now. Don’t let it go. Together, we fight. #resist”
@AltUSDA — 263k followers
“Resisting the censorship of facts and science. Truth wins in the end. #NoUSDABlackout : https://twitter.com/altusda/status/829384894308634627”
This account fell deeply into the media hysteria over the Trump “gag order” and generally focused around one issue: the “USDA blackout.” However, after the dust cleared and there was no official restriction on media communications for the department, it refocused its resistance on the removal of information about animal welfare from the USDA website and continued to promote issues relating to Department of Agriculture activities. Soon, it started a campaign to get people to tweet pictures of their rescued pets as a response to the “blackout” and in general opposition to puppy mills. The account also encouraged its followers to call their representatives, and it tweeted a lot about the attempted ACA repeal and the proposed cuts to the EPA in the Trump budget. Today, the account continues to tweet regularly about and is notable for its heavy political focus and occasionally profanity-filled commentary.
@BadHombreNPS — 212k followers
“Unofficial feed of Badlands NP. Protecting rugged scenery, fossil beds, 244,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie & wildlife from two-bit cheetoh-hued despots.”
This account invented the hashtag #WildernessWarriors as a way to address its followers, and is notable for regularly sharing quotes about the environment and nature. Like the others, it slowly began to cover a much broader range of political topics, from the ties between Russia and the Trump administration to the proposed cuts to the EPA. It is also characterized by high levels of political interest, calling for Trump to be impeached and encouraging its followers to become more politically engaged through tweeting with the hashtag #WhyIResist.
@AltNOAA — 121k followers
“The Unofficial “Resistance” team of the NOAA. Account not tax payer subsidized. The NOAA studies the oceans, and the atmosphere to understand our planet. #MASA”
Although it began like the other accounts with a focus on climate change research, this account now consist almost entirely of political commentary with occasional references to science. It does not appear to be very interested in promoting the work that NOAA does, although it does share an article about them from time to time. It is also much more aggressive and abrasive than the others, particularly in the language that it uses to describe and reference President Trump.
V. THE FUTURE OF ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE
Over time, the environmental movement has changed in focus and scale, moving from a more elite base focused on health concerns and preserving America’s wilderness to a diverse membership devoted to a broad array of concerns, ranging from urbanization and industrialization to environmental justice and climate change. However, accompanying this shift is a growing divide between the American public and the realities of science. As we move forward under an administration whose relationship with the truth is shaky at best, the nature of the environmental movement will change as well, shaped by pressure from above and a changing culture at home.
The “rogue” Twitter accounts provide a glimpse at the future of environmental activism in these new conditions. Thanks to social media, it is now easier than ever to gain a large following and share your message with an ever-growing audience; the makers of these accounts took advantage of the fact that while resisting the government can win you admirers and enemies, either way, you are guaranteed a lot of attention. However, being a political contrarian is a high-risk, high-reward lifestyle. While party loyalty is generally beneficial, failing to achieve your goal (or making the problem worse) may cause this approach to backfire, and you will be blamed for a lack of progress.
Many of the alt- Twitter accounts were able to get the best of both worlds through a tricky maneuvering of identity, content, and style. They capitalized on the anonymity of their platform, thus avoiding the direct personal backlash associated with openly opposing a party (and the President himself.) They also remained, at least initially, far removed from generally political topics, instead claiming the noble, morally higher route by casting themselves as heralds of scientific facts and painting their opposition as the enemy of truth, effectively eliminating most grounds for criticism. These accounts also took advantage of one of the most American of ideals: we all love an underdog. They cast themselves as fighting for the silenced and the oppressed, and the public ate it up.
However, over time, many accounts deviated from this original position and began to comment on a broader variety of political topics, becoming more partisan — and more controversial — over time. Yet initially, they were able to take advantage of the opportunity and the momentum of the first few “rogue” accounts in order to gain a large platform while taking advantage of popular attitudes towards the government and those in power as a whole. Ultimately, this is an entirely unprecedented form of activism; nobody in the twentieth century could have dreamed of getting an audience of over a million people in a matter of months, let alone days.
On the other hand, the idea of being rogue and subversive is hardly a new one in American politics or environmental activism. Throughout history, we have always admired people who are seen as standing up for what is right in the face of opposition from those at the top — just look to George Washington and the other Founding Fathers if you want to see a bunch of rebels being celebrated as heroes for centuries. But sometimes, as with the cases of Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Harvey Milk, and Bayard Rustin, this popular approval takes more time to appear, as society and culture must evolve and adapt to accommodate the causes that these individuals advocated. Regardless, activists and those that speak out on behalf of maligned causes and individuals draw attention to relevant and important issues. Even though many who fought for justice never live to see the fruit of their work, the most important thing is that a conversation was started in the first place.
In the case of environmental activism, rebelliousness has been extremely effective at attracting attention, support, and often a great amount of success for various groups. The international group Greenpeace is one of the most famous examples; in addition to its usual activities (vandalism, sit-ins, demonstrations, and other forms of civil disobedience), in retaliation to the President’s executive order greenlighting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines, a group of volunteers climbed a crane near the White House and hung a giant banner proclaiming “RESIST,” later facing criminal charges for the act. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is another such example, which is no surprise considering that its founder, Paul Watson, worked for Greenpeace in the 70s. Its aggressive and often borderline illegal activities to stop Japanese whaling have become the focus of the seven-season TV show Whale Wars that was viewed by at least 4 million people nationwide. Both of these groups have harnessed the power of acting subversively and sometimes illegally in order to raise awareness and support for their causes.
Christopher Robé provides a good term for this kind of approach: “spectacle-driven activism.” He writes, “Media coverage serves not as a byproduct of such activism but as a key ingredient in organizing it, popularizing its message, and hopefully forcing those who abuse… the earth to stop under global public pressure and scrutiny.” While the response to the Trump administration via alt-government agencies has not yet reached quite the level of attention that he describes, the pattern of activism is very much the same. The use of Twitter as a novel medium for spreading information, gathering support, and mobilizing citizens for action builds on this familiar approach of “going rogue,” and despite its relative newness, it has seen a tremendous amount of success both individually and collectively. @RogueNASA raised over $100,000 for various science education programs, and @AltUSDA’s photo campaign on the behalf of animal welfare laws has caught the attention of dozens of elected representatives.
Furthermore, there is evidence that these alt- accounts have had an impact as a collective force and not just individual accounts with their own messages. Their combined efforts came to fruition on April 22, 2017 — Earth Day — when millions of people in over 600 locations on all seven continents participated in the March for Science: a mass demonstration in general support of research, action on climate change and other environmental issues, and evidence-based policy decisions. And in an age where America’s citizens are growing ever more distant from science, this is exactly the jolt of energy that is needed to shift the country’s momentum in the opposite direction. In fact, there are promising signs that we are not in fact headed down the path towards an increasingly subjective and opinion-based society. Of the “rogue” Twitter accounts, the ones that stayed more focused on sharing information, facts, news, and statistics about science and environmental issues maintained more support and interest over time, and they continue to be popular and enjoy high follower counts even today, months later.
What does this mean? That Americans still care about science and its role in society. The apathy that many bemoan has infected our country in modern times has yet to manifest in real life. In fact, science and technology enjoy broader support among Americans (with 59% of people saying they are interested in it) than politics (58%), religion (53%), entertainment and celebrities (46%), sports (44%), and the arts (41%). Most importantly, those who are interested in science are also more knowledgeable about it, although it is impossible to determine from survey results whether a causal relationship exists, and if so, in which direction. Yet this raises questions about the potential for science education to boost public support for research and evidence-driven policy. This is the opportunity that environmental activists and those who campaign on behalf of scientific literacy must seize while they hold the prominence and momentum to achieve success. If those who are passionate about environmental and scientific issues learn anything from the narrative of the “rogue” Twitter accounts, it is this: you do not need to sacrifice the integrity of your content in order to gain popularity and get your message out. There is no need to disguise, hide, or ignore a passion for science and the environment for the sake of gaining an audience; in fact, such emphasis may actually aid you in your mission, and you will be more successful overall as a result.
However, various populations are unevenly invested in these causes, which may limit the potential for conversations surrounding science: while 37% of Americans enjoy keeping up with scientific news “a lot,” this is most characteristic of Democrats, men, non-Blacks, those who are highly educated, and the non-religious. As a result, there is a great potential for the growth of scientific literacy and understanding among populations that are traditionally excluded from these conversations. Campaigns already exist to encourage women and minorities to enter STEM fields; they have made significant progress, but still have a long way to go. The political divide further complicates campaigns to promote science and environmentalism, as such efforts are frequently perceived as more politically-motivated than they may be in reality. Yet in theory, support for science should be a nonpartisan issue, and if we as a country wish a return to fact-based policy decisions, we should strive for research to remain an area from which subjectivity and ideology are excluded to the best of our abilities.
Ultimately, we return to the problem with which we began: how to communicate the reality of science to a public that has drifted away from the field thanks to factors influenced by our education system, the media, and our politics. Science has become a partisan issue thanks to conflicts over GMOs, climate change, renewable energy sources, and vaccines, and while the alt- accounts began with good intentions, many of them diverged from their noble mission of spreading truth when they began commenting on non-science-related political issues. But the reality is that science is unlikely to go back to being a bipartisan or apolitical field as advancements continue to be made in medicine and technology. The real question is not how to return to a world where the two fields are separate, but how to ensure that our citizens are educated, thoughtful, and fact-oriented enough to navigate these challenges as they arise. In the debate over climate change or vaccines, the conflict is not whether or not science supports a certain conclusion, but a refusal by certain groups to acknowledge legitimate scientific findings in the first place.
Many of my teachers throughout my education had some variation of a poster in their classroom that said, “The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see.” In turn, the best science communicators are not those who dictate what you learn from science, but who simply teach you how to interact with the world in a scientific way: questioning everything, but in a way that is grounded in facts, evidence, and observable data. It is good to be skeptical, but not to the extent that you refuse to believe even the most demonstrable of phenomena. If environmental activists — or any scientists, for that matter — want to see change, they should take advantage of the momentum of the March for Science and use the new presidential administration as an opportunity to go out into communities, reach out on Twitter, and start a movement that encourages values like curiosity, the scientific method, objectivity, and research among not only our nation’s students, but our nation’s adults too. It may be a difficult approach, but without the ability to work together, we are unlikely to move forward at all. If we can instill in the American public the same fascination with scientific exploration that it enjoyed during the space race (or, as The Onion suggests, when “the moon looks different than usual”), then we may be on the right track for having a coherent, productive, and most importantly, bipartisan conversation about the issues facing our nation in the future.
Further reading about activism and the conservation movement:
“Politics Beyond the State: Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics” by Paul Wapner — http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2950691.pdf
“Theory of Planned Behaviour, Identity and Intentions to Engage in Environmental Activism” by Kelly S. Fielding, Rachel McDonald, & Winnifred R. Louis — dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.03.003
“Encouraging Pro-Environmental Behaviour: An Integrative Review and Research Agenda” by Linda Steg & Charles Vlek — dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.10.004
 Harman, G. (2014, November 10). Your brain on climate change: why the threat produces apathy, not action. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/nov/10/brain-climate-change-science-psychology-environment-elections
 Weingart, P., Engels, A., & Pansegrau, P. (2000). Risks of communication: discourses on climate change in science, politics, and the mass media. Public Understanding of Science, 9(3), 261-283. doi:10.1088/0963-6625/9/3/304
 Schäfer, M. S. (2011). Sources, Characteristics and Effects of Mass Media Communication on Science: A Review of the Literature, Current Trends and Areas for Future Research. Sociology Compass, 5(6), 399-412. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9020.2011.00373.x
 See: https://www.buzzfeed.com/targetbacktocollege/hardest-college-majors-you-could-do?utm_term=.wgqxW9YmP#.atAOv1yMX
 Walls, D. (n.d.). Environmental Movement. Sonoma State University. Retrieved from http://www.sonoma.edu/users/w/wallsd/environmental-movement.shtml
 Faville, A. (n.d.). A Civil Rights History: Native Americans. Knight Chair in Political Reporting at Syracuse University. Retrieved from http://knightpoliticalreporting.syr.edu/?civilhistoryessays=a-civil-rights-history-native-americans
 Oh-Toh-Kin (1992). 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance. Retrieved from https://issuu.com/randalljaykay/docs/oh-toh-kinvo1no1winterspring1992 and https://archive.org/details/GordHill500YearsOfIndigenousResistance
 Rome, A. (2003). Conservation, Preservation, and Environmental Activism: A Survey of the Historical Literature. National Parks System. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/hisnps/NPSThinking/nps-oah.htm
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 National Parks System Museum Management Program (n.d.) Thomas Moran: Painter of Yellowstone NP. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/moran/yellow.htm
 Dobson, G. B. (n.d.). Hayden Expedition. Wyoming Tales and Trails. Retrieved from http://www.wyomingtalesandtrails.com/hayden2.html
 The Library of Congress (n.d.). The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/connections/conservation/history.html
 Silveira, S.J. (2004). The American Environmental Movement: Surviving Through Diversity. Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review, 28(2), 497-532. Retrieved from http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1194&context=ealr
 Mogan, A. (2012). Theodore Roosevelt and the Boone and Crockett Club: The Saving of America’s Buffalo. Global Tides, 6(7). Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1051&context=globaltides
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 Hurley, A. (1992). Challenging Corporate Polluters: Race, Class, and Environmental Politics in Gary, Indiana, since 1945. Indiana Magazine of History, 88(4), 273-30. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/11259/16227
 Beck, E. C. (1979). The Love Canal Tragedy. EPA Journal, 1, 17. Retrieved from http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/epajrnl5&g_sent=1&collection=journals&id=17
 Adler, J. (2002). Fables of the Cuyahoga: Reconstructing History of Environmental Protection. Fordham Environmental Law Journal, 14(1), 89-146. Retrieved from http://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/faculty_publications/191/
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 Environmental Protection Agency (n.d.). Laws and Executive Orders. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/laws-and-executive-orders
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 Dowie, M. (1995). Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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 Dunlap, R. E. (2010, April 22). At 40, Environmental Movement Endures, With Less Consensus. Gallup. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/127487/Environmental-Movement-Endures-Less-Consensus.aspx
 Reinhart, R. J. (2017, March 22). Partisan Gap on Environment Widens After Trump’s Election. Gallup. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/206900/partisan-gap-environment-widens-trump-election.aspx?g_source=environment&g_medium=search&g_campaign=tiles
 Frazier, R. (2017, January 4). After Helping Elect Donald Trump, Pennsylvania’s Coal Country Looks Ahead. The Allegheny Front. Retrieved from http://www.alleghenyfront.org/after-helping-elect-donald-trump-pennsylvanias-coal-country-looks-ahead/
 Jacobson, L. (2016, June 3). Yes, Donald Trump did call climate change a Chinese hoax. Politifact. Retrieved from http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/jun/03/hillary-clinton/yes-donald-trump-did-call-climate-change-chinese-h/
 Rein, L. (2017, January 21). Interior Department reactivates Twitter accounts after shutdown following inauguration. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/01/20/interior-department-banned-from-twitter-after-retweet-of-smaller-than-usual-trump-inauguration-crowd/?utm_term=.4a5bb31a5a88
 Eilperin, J. & Dennis, B. (2017, January 24). Federal agencies ordered to restrict their communications. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/federal-agencies-ordered-to-restrict-their-communications/2017/01/24/9daa6aa4-e26f-11e6-ba11-63c4b4fb5a63_story.html?utm_term=.c30c9f8ebd87
 Bronwich, J. E. (2017, January 25). Greenpeace Activists Arrested After Hanging ‘Resist’ Banner in View of White House. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/us/greenpeace-resist-banner-protest-trump.html?_r=0
 Bogardus, K. & Yehle, E. (2017, April 17). ‘I take responsibility’ — rogue Badlands tweeter. E&E News. Retrieved from https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060053173
 Fears, D. (2017, January 24). For a few hours, Badlands National Park was bad to the bone in defiance of Trump. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/01/24/for-a-few-hours-badlands-national-parks-was-bad-to-the-bone-in-defiance-of-trump/?utm_term=.a9521a9bd744
 Davis, W. (2017, January 27). It’s not just the Park Service: ‘Rogue’ federal Twitter accounts multiply. MPR News. Retrieved from http://www.mprnews.org/story/2017/01/29/npr-rogue-national-twitter-accounts
 Matthews, S. (2017, January 27). Scientists Are About to Be Censored. They Shouldn’t Censor Themselves. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2017/01/scientists_shouldn_t_self_censor_out_of_fear_of_the_trump_administration.html
 Leetaru, K. (2017, January 28). How The ‘Rogue’ Twitter Accounts Rewrote How We Communicate Science In The Social Era. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2017/01/28/how-the-rogue-twitter-accounts-rewrote-how-we-communicate-science-in-the-social-era/#1c1ded862dc3
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 Emerson, S. (2017, January 27). A Conversation With the Rogue National Park Service Twitter Account. Vice. Retrieved from https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/a-conversation-with-the-rogue-national-parks-service-twitter?l
 NOT ALT WORLD. (2017, January 24). “Can’t wait for President Trump to call us FAKE NEWS. You can take our official twitter, but you’ll never take our free time!” [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/NotAltWorld/status/824091198457573376
 Becker, R. (2017, February 3). Meet some #actuallivingscientists on Twitter. The Verge. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2017/2/3/14506068/actuallivingscientists-twitter-viral-hashtag-actual-living-scientists
 Cresci, E. (2017, February 3). #DressLikeAWoman: Twitter backlash over reports of dress code for Trump staff. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/03/dresslikeawoman-backlash-over-reports-of-dress-code-for-trump-staff
 Rogue NASA. (2017, January 28). “For the next four years, you have to hold onto the passion and fire you feel right now. Don’t let it go. Together, we fight. #resist” [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/RogueNASA/status/82553316673158758
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 Robé, C. (2017). The Convergence of Eco-Activism, Neoliberalism, and Reality TV in Whale Wars. Journal of Film and Video, 67(3-4), 94-111. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/17319375/The_Convergence_of_Eco-Activism_Neoliberalism_and_Reality_TV_in_Whale_Wars
 Thomas, P. (2009, August 27). ‘Whale Wars’ season finale sets viewership record; third season announced. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/outposts/2009/08/whale-wars-third-season.html
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 Rogue NASA. (2017, January 29). “In 48 hours, you’ve raised more than $100,000 for @GirlsWhoCode and @NMSI. We expected ~1/10th of that. You are all incredible ❤️” [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/RogueNASA/status/825761460609486848
 Kennedy, B. & Funk, C. (2015, December 11). Public Interest in Science and Health Linked to Gender, Age and Personality. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/12/11/public-interest-in-science-health-and-other-topics/
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