Shutdown of Interior Department Twitter Called `Ominous’

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By Louis C. LaBrecque

The shutdown of the Interior Department’s Twitter account on Jan. 20 after the National Park Service retweeted a pair of news reports is “ominous,” the leader of a group that represents employees in environmental agencies said.

Interior took the action after the NPS retweeted news reports stating that the inauguration of President Donald Trump had drawn a smaller crowd than President Barack Obama drew in 2009 and that White House web postings on climate change and civil rights had been taken down, according to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“We’ve entered the era of what Trump aides are calling `alternative facts,’ ” Ruch told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 23. “We’re concerned that these alternative facts may become the only emanations from the federal government.”

The Interior Department was told within hours of the National Park Service retweets to “shut down twitter platforms immediately until further notice,” according to a memo that has been posted on PEER’s website.

By Jan. 21, the agency had reopened its Twitter platform, Ruch said. The two retweets had been removed from the official feed and replaced by an apology from the NPS that also has been posted on PEER’s website: “We regret the mistaken RTs [retweets] from our account yesterday and look forward to continuing to share the beauty and history of our parks with you.”

“This episode suggests that federal civil servants must now screen factual information for potential political sensitivity prior to public release,” Ruch said. “Based on the nervous chatter we are hearing from agency employees, there is already a distinct chilling effect—and perhaps that is precisely the new White House’s intent.”

Retweets `Inconsistent’ With Policy, Agency Says

Park Service spokesman Tom Crosson disputed Ruch’s characterization of the incident. Crosson said the agency removed the two retweets from its Twitter account after determining that they “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’s communications team determined that it was important to stand down Twitter activity across the Department temporarily, except in the case of public safety,” Crosson said in a statement provided to Bloomberg BNA Jan. 23.

“Now that social media guidance has been clarified, the Department and its bureaus resumed Twitter engagement as normal on Saturday, with the exception of social media posts on the Secretary’s policy priorities, which will be outlined upon confirmation,” Crosson added.

Variety of Information Called at Risk

Given the sharp policy differences between the incoming and outgoing administrations, material on agency websites, libraries and labs is in danger of being purged, Ruch said.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but the concern is that a Trump administration may demand its own set of facts,” he said. “Since it has articulated no transparency policies, the federal workforce may be justified in concluding that a Trump administration will demand a posture of opacity where only politically convenient facts see the light of day.”

PEER, a nonprofit based in Silver Spring, Md., describes its mission as protecting federal employees who work in environmental agencies.

The Trump transition team didn’t respond Jan. 23 to a request for comment from Bloomberg BNA.

To contact the reporter on this story: Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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