Roguishly Ineffectual


It happened practically overnight.

Scores of rogue science “agencies” appeared on Twitter. Reportedly administered by government employees, they operated as the Guerilla Radio equivalent of the Parks Department, USDA, NASA, and other federal agencies. The original handle that started it all—@AltNatParkSer—reached over a million followers, before the account was subsequently handed over to private journalists and environmental activists (now @ALTUSNPS).

Source: pirated blatantly from @ALTUSNPS

The direct impetus for this move was a series of news stories describing gag orders executed by the Trump administration, which barred public communication across a number of federal agencies. Assuredly, though, the action was also fed by the broader concern many scientists have about the direction of U.S. policy over the next four years.

As a self-described resistance movement, the goal is crystal-clear: to affect political change, and to resist the administration as it pushes forward with its policy agenda.

Kalevala Leetaru, a contributor at Forbes, has an interesting piece on this Twitter movement and what it says about politically-motivated scientific communication on social media. The thrust of it is that science communicators are essentially sailing into uncharted territory.

Extrapolating a bit from that sentiment, I would add that scientists should take care before jumping into a political movement driven principally by rapid-fire social media. Such a movement runs the risk of being ineffective at best, and counterproductive at worst:

Not much is known about who the account administrators are. As NPR reported a few days ago, “none of the account owners have come forward and identified themselves. Instead, they are choosing to remain anonymous and continue tweeting out facts about climate change and directly opposing the Trump administration.” Since then, some identities have begun to surface, but the specter of non-transparency will continue to plague these accounts. It’s hard to maintain a long-lasting movement founded on anonymity, and the inherent lack of trust that it brings.

The Pokémon GO effect. Wikipedia defines a fad as “any form of collective behavior that develops within a culture, a generation or social group and which impulse is followed enthusiastically by a group of people for a finite period of time.” People tend to latch onto flashy media-driven trends for a fairly brief period of time, giving the impression of a major cultural shift. But then, eventually, the media moves on to another cause, as do the trendsetters that gave credence to the original media story. In the end, the trend is sustained by its most dedicated adherents—a small contingent of the original followers.

Political movements are difficult to sustain for any prolonged period of time. Unless it’s tied to concrete downstream achievements (like recruiting ideologically aligned figures to run for office), then in all likelihood the movement will be relegated to an historical footnote as member interest fades.

Social media amplifies this fickle tendency inherent in people. In a traditional movement, participants are required to actually—physically—do things; standing outside political offices, making signs, marching, talking to reporters. When people are invested in action, they’re likelier to stick with it. A Twitter movement requires virtually no buy-in from participants; clicking “follow” and posting a series of tweets imposes almost no cost on users.

Admittedly, the mere fact that this story reached the national media indicates some degree of success; spreading awareness of a cause can serve important functions, like putting office-holders on notice that an issue could potentially become a political liability if not addressed quickly. That said, with no true personal investment of time and energy, the seemingly impressive million-strong following probably includes a sizable number who won’t be in it for the long haul.

The science might be subsumed by counterproductive political activism. Science should ideally be perceived as a non-partisan endeavor. Obviously, this is an entirely idealistic expectation; science is conducted by scientists, who are just as human as anyone else and motivated by their own personal, professional, and political beliefs and biases. With concerted effort, though, support for science can be achieved in a reasonably non-ideological manner. For example, some of the rogue accounts seem to be making an effort to remain on-message in supporting the mission of its official counterpart agency. However, the accounts are frequently plagued by overtly anti-Trump vitriol and generally left-of-center messaging on political issues that have nothing to do with the agency’s mission. This may feel great for the people posting, and all the more power to those who want to passionately voice their views. But, it creates an atmosphere of political exclusionism that’s going to unintentionally turn off many potential supporters of science who don’t share those particular partisan views.

Like most protest movements, the communication is happening in a bubble. This relates to the last point, but it bears repeating. Protest movements are great at motivating the like-minded and fostering intra-ideological solidarity, but their bridge-building capacity leaves much to be desired. Admittedly, I don’t have any solid empirical evidence to support this, but I think the anecdotal evidence here is pretty persuasive: how many conservative Republican minds do you think were changed by the Occupy Wall Street movement? How many liberal Democrats found the Tea Party to be an inspiring call-to-arms?

Protests are a near perfect example of preaching to the choir, and this is no less true of what’s happening on social media. In fact, social media is even worse than traditional media messaging because its target audience and demographics fail to represent a broad sampling of the U.S. population. According to Pew, only around 18% of U.S. adults ‘often’ get news from social media often, compared to 56% that ‘hardly ever’ (18%) or ‘never’ (38%) get their news there. Moreover, social media is nearly the exclusive domain of younger voters (18-29 years old), who already skew heavily against Trump (and Republicans generally). Commiseration is not the same as persuasion.

Political protest movements stretch back throughout human history, and are de rigueur in modern American politics: every president gets their own personal brand of resistance. Movements via Twitter are still pretty new, though, at least in the U.S., and it’s hard to make predictions on their strength and longevity.

But I’ll go ahead and make a prediction anyway. The members of this movement see themselves as the defenders of science in the Trump era. Ultimately, though, their tactical decision to pursue this through rogue Twitter accounts is probably not going to help the cause of science over the long term.

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