In a media climate shot through with both angst and alternative facts, a few pranksters have inevitably combined the two. Fake “rogue” government Twitter accounts! Welcome to the latest exercise in liberal self-soothing.
Last week, someone posing as disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn fooled thousands of readers (and Nancy Pelosi). “While I accept full responsibility for my actions,” faux Flynn wrote, “I feel it is unfair that I have been made the sole scapegoat for what happened. … But if a scapegoat is what’s needed for this Administration to continue to take this great nation forward, I am proud to do my duty.” Meanwhile, a counterfeit Stephen Miller favorited a tweet from David Duke, earning notice from at least one liberal magazine editor.
The tweets hit the masochistic left’s erogenous zones, flooding us with pleasure and pain. Of course Miller was a shameless racist. And “Flynn’s” posts confirmed what everyone already suspected: The adviser hadn’t courted Moscow alone; his overtures manifested a deeper White House rot. To the Democratic lawmakers who immediately called for a public hearing on Team Trump’s ties to Russia, Flynn’s tweets told a damning story about a ruthless and dishonest administration that thought little of sacrificing its loyal foot soldiers. (And just look at that lackey persisting in his mindless obedience! I am proud to do my duty … ghastly.) Amid the torture of Trump’s presidency, the posts meant that the opposition might finally succeed in nailing some hides to the wall. What’s more, their rancidness provided a faint, secondary consolation: We were right.
Elsewhere in Shangri-La, progressives thrilled to a fake feed that sprouted after Sally Yates got fired for refusing to enforce the Muslim ban. “You know you have made the right decision when there is peace in your heart,” @SaIIyYates tweeted on Feb. 2. The subsequent missives seemed as relatably banal as our own bursts of online anti-Trumpism. Yates must feel impotent too, we observed, our empathy streaked with delicious self-pity. Still, it was comforting to think that the venerated legal figure had not lost her iron spine. Tender uplift (and questionable grammar) was also available from a bogus Bollywood star–turned–Yates impersonator, who claimed: “I took and uphold oath to defend the constitution not to someone’s personal likings.” (Meanwhile, the former deputy AG’s actual account has been deactivated.)
One month into re-greatened America, liberal timelines are clogged with wish fulfillment. It’s not only hoaxers targeting any Trump staffer (or ex-staffer) with an L in his name that can easily be replaced in a Twitter handle with an uppercase I. There’s also a crop of “alternative” government agencies—@AltStateDpt, @Alt_DeptofEd, @Alt_CDC—conjuring a shadow bureaucracy of men and women who share progressive values and want to fight. A Rogue POTUS Staff account (845K followers) proclaims itself “the unofficial resistance team inside the White House.” In language reminiscent of the jacket copy on a Le Carré novel, it continues: “We pull back the curtain to expose the real workings inside this disastrous, frightening Administration.” Typical tweets describe Trump as a tyrant, mock his statements to the press, and attempt to organize rallies. The other “dark” agencies post fact checks and “strategy reads for the #resistance.”
Then there is @AngryWHStaffer, whose bio flatly declares, “I work at the White House. This is a disaster.” This fantasy employee whispers blandishments like “It’s like rats off a sinking ship here. … Full on crisis mode.” Our inside guy promises: “Give what I’m seeing here, I’m left with one option to save this nation. I’m going to start leaking EVERYTHING.”
True or not, the narcotizing vision of a White House riven by infighting and ineptitude is Chicken Soup for the Leftie Soul. Meanwhile, the account’s tone, neither inflammatory nor trolly, is a perfect counterweight to that unruly picture: It suggests an everyman driven to desperation by the chaos and malice around him. “This is crazy,” the staffer will say. “Please don’t let this happen.” Our spy speaks for the silent, sane majority that imagines it would heroically leak some intelligence if given the chance; the beleaguered citizens who come home from work, rub their temples, and fire up The West Wing on Netflix. Like Josiah Bartlet, this person is probably a fabrication. But so what? The notion that decent, well-meaning folks are keeping vigil on Trump from inside the palace walls is a form of escapism, like alcohol or James Bond movies. Properly understood, it’s not fake news; it’s fiction as self-care.
To that end, many of the rogue accounts take pains to distance themselves from the official federal government. Yet they remain wildly popular: @AltStateDpt, for instance, has 153K followers despite a bio larded with disclaimers. The Alt U.S. National Park Service—the first sham feed of them all, established when Trump silenced the real NPS after a feud about inaugural crowd sizes—announces that it is explicitly against political untruths, which is either encouraging or ironic depending on your perspective. Its bio: “The #Resistance team against #AltFacts #FauxNews #FauxScience. #Science #Climate #Facts Run by non-gov individuals.”
It’s unclear how many people seek out these handles because they want information about the government and how many are chasing a psychic pick-me-up. For the first group, the persuasive value of a given post often lies in the retweet, which lifts the momentarily convincing message out of its questionable context.
For savvier consumers, though, the accounts may more resemble the Chrome extensions that convert Trump’s tweets into crayon scribbles or swap his face for cat photos, literally altering reality to make it go down easier. Here is where the line between “fiction as self-care” and “willful ignorance” grows blurry. Of course we all need a break sometimes. And surely a few well-chosen parody accounts do not a filter bubble make. But as more and more imaginary good guys give us permission to turn inward, it’s worth asking whether the solace of a slightly rosier worldview comes at too steep a cost if it means disengaging from the truth.