USA First Look

After suspension, Interior Department returns to Twitter with a bison and an apology

The US Department of the Interior has resumed tweeting, after National Park Service tweets appearing to mock President Trump led to a suspension.

A herd of bison grazes in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park in Wyo. in 2013.
Matthew Brown/AP/File | Caption

The Interior Department returned to Twitter early Saturday with an image of a bison and words of apology, after it issued an abrupt, department-wide freeze of Twitter, under orders from the Trump White House.

The National Park Service on Saturday morning posted its first tweet since an unnamed employee shared two tweets that appeared unflattering to President Trump on his first day in office. 

The two retweeted posts have been removed from the official Twitter account of the National Park Service, one of a dozen official accounts of the Interior Department, which also includes the bureaus of the Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Geological Survey.

But the controversy has renewed fears the Trump administration will attempt to silence critics inside and outside Washington, as David Iaconangelo reported for The Christian Science Monitor on Saturday:

[T]he move is likely to reanimate concerns about how illiberally the new administration might react to dissent, whether from government employees, the press, or elsewhere. And it shines a light on an ongoing, global battle between governments and activists over preserving access to – and privacy of – digital information.

Many American journalists with major news organs privately (or publicly) express fears about the future of the press in the next four years, and in a few cases for their personal safety. Professors worry about academic freedom. And climate activists have been racing to copy and preserve, in Canada, databases that they fear could disappear under the new administration. 

The brouhaha started when an employee in the social media division apparently shared two Twitter posts unsympathetic to Mr. Trump. The first compared the new president’s relatively small (but disputed) inaugural crowd with the number of people former President Obama drew to the National Mall when he was sworn into office in 2009.

New York Times correspondent Binyamin Appelbaum first noticed the rogue Twitter user when the National Park Service shared his original tweet.

The second tweet came from another Twitter user, Anne Trumble.  

The retweets to the National Park Service’s 315,000 followers prompted the directive from the White House, as Gizmodo first reported.

“All bureaus and the department have been directed by incoming administration to to shut down Twitter platforms immediately until further notice,” read an email sent to thousands of Interior employees, obtained by The Washington Post.

The email described the freeze as an “urgent directive” and said social media managers must shut down the accounts “until further directed.”

Tom Crosson, a spokesman for the Interior Department, later said the retweets “were inconsistent with the agency’s approach to engaging the public through social media.”

"Out of an abundance of caution, while we investigated the situation involving these tweets, the Department of Interior's communications team determined that it was important to stand down Twitter activity across the department temporarily, except in the case of public safety," said Mr. Crosson.

Government policies state federal agencies must agree with the contents of its social media posts. The Park Service, for instance, has not provided official crowd estimates since a dispute with organizers of the Millions Man March in 1995, a gathering of black men meant to show renewed commitment to family and solidarity. The park service estimated 400,000 people attended the march, making it one of the largest demonstrations in the history of Washington. But organizers said they said they reached their goal of 1 million participants and threatened legal action.

It’s also government policy that social media posts not disparage presidents.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.