What just happened with the Interior Department's Twitter account?

After the National Park Service retweeted an image of the inauguration, representatives from the White House briefly shut down Twitter accounts for all ten agencies in the Interior Department.

Lucas Jackson, Stelios Varias/Reuters
A combination of photos taken at the National Mall shows the crowds attending the inauguration ceremonies to swear in President Donald Trump at 12:01 p.m. (l.) on January 20, 2017 and President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009 (r.), in Washington, DC.

The Interior Department’s Twitter accounts were briefly shut down on Saturday at the behest of President Trump's White House after the National Park Service – one of the Department’s 10 bureaus – re-tweeted a post comparing crowds at this year’s inauguration to that of Barack Obama in 2009.

National Park Service spokesman Tom Crosson told the Associated Press on Saturday, after the agency’s account was restored, that the retweets "were inconsistent with the agency's approach to engaging the public through social media."

He continued, "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."

But the 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, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Weston Williams reported in December:

While a proposed backup of this magnitude might have seemed paranoid a few months ago, a growing number of scientists have expressed their concerns over Mr. Trump's negative and often hostile views on human-caused climate change. On a number of occasions, Trump has called the phenomenon a "hoax," despite a near-consensus among scientists on the reality of global warming.

Others worry that Trump, certainly no friend of the press, could adopt tactics more familiar in countries with weaker democratic traditions.   

In countries where government censorship was once performed rather openly, often by removing or doctoring paragraphs or photos that the regime disapproved of, usually accompanied by vehicles that published government opinion, a shift has begun to “stealthier” modes, noted the Columbia Journalism Review in 2015.

“Stealth censorship can involve creating entities that look like private companies, or government-organized, non-governmental organizations, known as GONGOS. These organizations purport to represent civil society, but in practice are government agencies,” the Review wrote.

Those methods are most favored by what are sometimes known as “illiberal” democracies – Russia and Venezuela would be Exhibits A and B – when their leaders care about keeping up appearances as a functioning democracy even as they suppress dissent.

“The approach allows the anonymous hackers in Russia or China who attack the networks of critics at home, or governments abroad, to be portrayed as mysterious members of the sprawling global civil society, rather than allies of the regime.”

Some of those newer, more veiled methods are also combined with older ones, like targeting journalists for reprisals, stripping media companies of licenses or imposing draconian fines and taxes on them, and passing new laws that curtail press freedoms.

On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to “open up” libel laws, and with former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon as his right-hand man, he has entered office in the midst of what has seemed like a pitched battle with the press corps.

The National Park Service retweet that kicked off the latest clash, originally tweeted (and later re-retweeted) by a New York Times reporter, set similarly framed images of the 2017 and 2009 inaugurations side by side, making evident the differences in turnout. The 2009 inauguration for Barack Obama attracted about 1.8 million, as opposed to the 800,000 to 900,000 who came out for Trump, according to unofficial estimates.

That post followed another retweet noting that sections of the White House website on civil rights, climate change and health care had been “scrubbed clean,” or deleted.

But after the tweets began to garner attention on social media, the Parks Service deleted them. 

The reason became apparent later: representatives from the White House had circulated an email among thousands of Interior Department employees containing what it described as an "urgent directive" to shut down all Department Twitter platforms immediately and "until further notice," according to an excerpt of the email published by the Washington Post.

Retweets and other social media posts from government agencies are required to align with government policies, though it’s unclear whether the White House believed that guideline had been violated.

After the Park Service’s account returned on Saturday morning, it published a new tweet expressing regret for Friday's “mistaken” retweets. And in an interview with the Washington Post, Crosson said that due to “the difficulty of accurately assessing crowd estimates for large events,” the agency “no longer makes it a practice to provide crowd estimates for permitted events.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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