One week into Donald Trump’s presidency, social media has become a fierce public battleground in the struggle between the new administration and popular resistance against the president and his sweeping policy changes.
In the days after Trump’s inauguration, Twitter has become ground zero for this fight. The National Park Services went rogue, subtweeting the president about inauguration crowd sizes and climate change. As the press secretary condemned mainstream media, openly distorted clearly observable facts, and upended longstanding precedents, progressives launched memes ridiculing the president and his top spokesperson for inaccuracies while organizing mass protest rallies.
“To the extent that there seems to be a kind of spirit of defiance, I don’t know if we’ve ever seen that before,” said Joshua Tucker, a researcher at NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation laboratory. “It is very safe to say that Trump has galvanized protest. There’s probably more organization of protest going on online right now in the United States than there ever has been before on social media.”
So while Trump frequently drowns out other conversations on Twitter, this week, at least, his opponents turned the tables.
A battle for scientific truth and transparency played out across Twitter, led by the country’s national parks
America’s national parks were by far the most surprising entrants into the social media fray.
The thing the dystopian novels could never predict was the sudden rebellion of the national park social media managers— David Hoyt (@DavidJHoyt) January 25, 2017
On Inauguration Day, the National Park Service retweeted a New York Times reporter’s tweet of side-by-side aerial photos showing the difference between the attendance at Trump’s inauguration and the much larger throngs at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. The NPS later apologized for the “mistaken” retweet, and the Trump administration ordered the NPS to temporarily stop using Twitter, allegedly to investigate whether the account had been hacked.
That move might well have put an end to the matter and played out internally as a bureaucratic rigmarole, but Park Service employees weren’t done with Twitter. In tweets that have been generally perceived as tacit resistance to the Trump administration’s attempt to quash the official NPS twitter — and by extension resistance to Trump’s attempt to uproot longstanding scientific consensus on climate change — several sub-agencies within the National Park Service started tweeting facts about climate change themselves.
The first park service to do so was the Badlands National Park, in a series of tweets that have since been deleted. (A Parks Service representative told BuzzFeed the tweets came from a former employee.) But where one account was defeated, more stepped in help: The Golden Gate National Park contributed facts on climate change, as did the Redwood National Forest.
On January 24, a series of new accounts — some reportedly created by anonymous employees within the Park Service, others run by outsiders — began to appear. They were led by @AltNatParkSer, which tweeted a litany of facts on climate change, and vowed to not be silenced. (Whoever created the account later announced that they were turning over control to non-employees in order to protect co-workers.)
Mr Trump, you may have taken us down officially. But with scientific evidence & the Internet our message will get out.— AltUSNatParkService (@AltNatParkSer) January 24, 2017
To understand what's best for our parks, we need to have access to US science data on climate & the environment. We must not be silenced.— AltUSNatParkService (@AltNatParkSer) January 25, 2017
More than a dozen similar Twitter accounts popped up — though to be clear, many of them have no tie to the government agencies they’re unofficially representing and are not being run by government employees.
Still, the accounts capture the tension in the scientific community right now as it anticipates changes under the Trump administration, particularly at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency. A March for Science on Washington, which originated on Reddit’s r/politics on Inauguration Day, gained steam throughout the week; by Friday, the movement had its own webpage, a closed Facebook group with more than 700,000 members, and a Twitter account with 250,000 followers.
Memes like #MuteMonday and #SpicerFacts sought to resist the new administration through dismissal and ridicule
The first official workday of the Trump presidency saw progressives encouraging one another to tune out his social media presence through #MuteMonday. The longtime casual hashtag for muting objectionable social media accounts took on a pointed political significance when several Twitter users, most notably actress Debra Messing (Will and Grace), urged others to unfollow Trump’s accounts and follow other progressive alternatives.
The trend was part of a larger wave of backlash to Twitter’s transition of the White House’s social media accounts following Trump’s inauguration on January 20 — which included a major auto-follow glitch.
Twitter had originally intended to migrate Obama’s account to @Potus44 while ensuring that everyone currently following @POTUS would continue to follow it when Trump took over the account. Instead, the glitch accidentally force-followed Trump’s new @POTUS account for half a million confused Twitter users. These included some people who had deliberately unfollowed the @POTUS account before Trump’s inauguration. The glitch automatically re-subscribed them to the account.
When confronted with Trump’s immediate post-inauguration surge in Twitter followers — the new @POTUS account currently has 14.3 million followers, while Obama’s migrated account currently has 14.7 million — Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged that Trump’s follower count was likely a partially inflated number due to the glitch. Thus, user response to the glitch converged with user response to the administration itself, and unfollowing and muting became a way of restoring Twitter autonomy while also asserting resistance against Trump.
The other trend that emerged on Twitter during the Trump administration’s first week on the job involved using Trump’s reported insecurities against him. A newly released Chrome extension that automatically replies, “Shut up, Donny,” to the president every time he tweets began making the rounds. Then a Twitter account known simply as @HalfOnionInABag made a concerted attempt to gain more followers than Trump, with no apparent purpose beyond irritating the new president.
Bet that would drive him crazy.— Half An Onion (@HalfOnionInABag) January 20, 2017
At just over 700,000 followers as of press time, the onion has a long way to go to achieve its goal. But the suggestion the account is making is simple enough: Even something as small as following a joke account on Twitter has the potential to undermine Trump and his administration.
The ongoing concern with accuracy and transparency in the Trump administration found another comedic outlet in the hashtag #SpicerFacts. Following Spicer’s inaccurate claim about crowd size at Trump’s inauguration, and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s subsequent description of Spicer’s claim as an “alternative fact,” Twitter users’ comedic takes on other “alternative facts” made the hashtag trend worldwide.
People also dug up examples of older tweets from Spicer that had been proven inaccurate over the years — like this three-year-old example in which he misidentifies and snubs iconic pop group Daft Punk.
.@seanspicer Or is "Daft Funk" the "alternative" name for them?— Festival Snobs (@FestivalSnobs) January 23, 2017
These memes, which erupted spontaneously and independently, reflect the Twitter-using public’s ongoing outrage against what is widely perceived to be a distortion of reality by the Trump administration. They also serve as an example of filmmaker Michael Moore’s recent call to progressives to “build an army of comedy” against Trump, to undermine him through ridicule and subversion.
These social media tactics are not new, but they feel more significant — and complicated — than ever
It’s not as if any of these patterns are new, either for social media or for political backlash. But as Tucker of NYU told Vox, social media has a way of amplifying things. Anonymous forms of protest happening within government organizations — like we saw with the Park Services Twitter accounts — may have happened before, but they seem new because they’re transparent. “If some employee in a national park refused to change a sign 10 years ago, no one would have known about it,” he said. The signal-boosting powers of social media turn individual acts into incendiary forms of protest.
Tucker pointed out that social media is currently a tool rather than the cause of the recent turbulence. He described both the Women’s March and the upcoming Scientists’ March on Washington as “leaderless, faceless protests,” which demonstrate the impact of social media in allowing people to organize without a hierarchical structure, and at extremely quick speeds. Witness Wednesday’s pro-immigration rally in New York, which was hastily assembled in a matter of hours on Facebook and social media in response to Trump’s latest executive orders.
These kinds of protests aren’t without precedent. In 2013, the massive Euromaidan protest in Ukraine, which toppled a government and contributed to the Crimean secession, began almost identically: with a Facebook post from a journalist urging his followers to protest. Twitter has long served as a resistance tool for citizens in other nations. And years before that, grassroots campaigning among conservative Tea Party members in the US began on social media and spilled over into the real world.
“Many of the initial Tea Party protests during the spring and summer of 2009 started with small groups of local activists who organized on Facebook,” Sarah Dohl told Vox in an email. Dohl is one of a group of former congressional staffers who developed a widely circulated template for resistance against Trump called the Indivisible Guide. The website, which the group started after creating a Google Doc that went viral, has been visited more than a million times in the last month.
The Indivisible Guide openly acknowledges that it is drawing on organizational tactics used by the Tea Party — specifically, local activism and defensive politics. “Social media has and will continue to play a role in both of those,” Dohl said. “[It will help] people organize and find others near them who are fighting for the same things, and also [allow] information about members of Congress to be quickly and widely circulated to be able to hold them accountable.”
Both Dohl and Tucker told Vox that the scale and speed of the response through social media was remarkable. “What really is different about social media is the speed at which it can be transmitted,” Tucker said, “and that it doesn’t have to be transmitted through mainstream media. ... You’re seeing both of these things happening on steroids now.”
“[It’s] an unprecedented response to an unprecedented situation,” Dohl said.
Progressive social media protest may become about beating Trump and his followers at their own game
Consciously or otherwise, progressives have taken tactics previously used by conservatives and reversed them — not just from Tea Partiers, but from the white nationalist alt-right. Throughout 2016, the alt-right consistently used social media to disseminate false information and propaganda to the mainstream public. Its approach involved online community organization, the deliberate use of memes to make hateful messages palatable, and the distortion of reality through conspiracies and fake news stories. It’s already clear, one week into the Trump administration, that each of these tactics has a progressive counterpart, and that progressives are already using them.
Longtime Twitter user and feminist activist Sady Doyle told Vox that the use of social media in this fight has its ups and downs. She pointed out the potential real-world impact of such easy mobilization, but also cautioned that the same factors that enable swift protest organization can also make it easy to spread the wrong message.
“Twitter makes it easy for narratives and counter-narratives to spread. ... It's very easy to slip and fall into an alternate reality (like the alt-right world) where facts are warped or excluded, and where any conflicting viewpoints are framed as ‘untrustworthy,’” she said.
Doyle also expressed discomfort with how much political discourse is currently “taking place on platforms where you can't read tone or body language and where you can’t type more than one or two sentences at a time.”
But, she added, “For quick action items, like a new bill or calling your senator to oppose a nominee, Twitter is great. ... The ability to mobilize and engage quickly, and in a diffuse way, is going to be really central as we move forward.”
Whether all of this will prove to be an effective form of protest against an extremely powerful White House remains to be seen. And of course, for many people, Twitter will remain little more than a place to share links and make jokes. But it’s clear that that the service is already proving central to multiple real-world acts of resistance. Just hours after Trump signed the order to begin building a wall on the US-Mexico border, many people deployed the hashtag #SuspendaGira to urge Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel his planned trip over the border to meet with the US president. Less than a day later, he did just that.