Thoughts on the “Rogue” Government Twitter Accounts

In the last week Twitter has exploded with “rogue” government Twitter accounts, accounts that purport to be “employees… disgruntled by moves the [Trump] administration has made to tamp down on these agency’s abilities to spread their messages… and have taken to Twitter to resist Trump’s authoritarianism.” There are even some (I know of three) that purport to be White House staff working in the West Wing. If you’re on Twitter and you’re following of the “rogue” accounts, please don’t think I’m criticizing you — I’m not — and you should retweet the things you want to retweet. But these accounts have been on my mind for a few days, and I have thoughts I want to share.

Some of these Twitter accounts could be genuine. It’s unlikely that all of them are. The anonymity of Twitter is to the benefit of these accounts. There doesn’t have to have government employees behind them. They don’t have to be an outlet from anonymous sources. They could simply be run by enthusiastic fans of the agencies or Trump critics who are creating an anonymous account and amassing millions of followers by catching the zeitgeist of the moment.

Take some of the West Wing accounts. Yes, the Trump White House is leaking like a bucket with a hole in the bottom, as articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post have made clear; the “papers of record” wouldn’t have run their stories about White House infighting and Trump’s mercurial moods without solid, if anonymous, sourcing. But I haven’t seen anything out of the White House insider accounts that couldn’t have been gleaned from paying careful attention to the news over the past few months and making reasonable extrapolations based on the personalities involved. Hell, if I had the time and the wherewithal, which I don’t, I could fake up a “White House Insider” Twitter account quite easily and quite convincingly. Frankly, so could most of you reading this.

A healthy skepticism, in my view, is warranted, and this article from New York Magazine makes that point I’ve been feeling: “less attention has been paid to the sharing dynamic that has helped these accounts blow up in the first place. People who share these accounts and their tweets desperately want it to be the case that some brave government staffers are tweeting their resistance to the Trump agenda. Because they want it to be true, they don’t bother to ask the questions they would ask if the information didn’t confirm their political biases — they retweet and like and share in a way they simply wouldn’t in other cases.”

In short, the popularity of these accounts in Twitter’s political ecosystem is a function of a confirmation bias. As I said, some percentage of them may be genuine. Heck, even the White House insider accounts could be genuine. But it’s also impossible to know, and that’s important to keep in mind. What seems like it’s real and supports your ideas may, in fact, be nothing of the sort.

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