Donald Trump has been in office one week, and it has not gone well. It turns out we should have been taking him literally this whole time. Yikes.
The fears about a Trump presidency are many and varied, but one of the most persistent has been the threat of censorship over science. Remember, Trump’s climate change denialism goes beyond the common refrain of “I’m not a scientist”—he basically suggests that no one is a scientist, except maybe that uncle of his who was a professor at MIT. His administration has already announced that it will try to undermine climate data collection and is likely to try to adjust critical calculations like the social cost of carbon. We’re on high alert because we should be— let’s not forget that as soon as Trump took office, all mentions of climate change were scrubbed from the White House’s website.
Into this climate came the bizarre dispute between Trump and, of all things, the National Park Service.* The brief recap is that the National Park Service’s main Twitter account retweeted side-by-side photos of the inauguration in 2009 and 2017, which plainly show that Barack Obama’s first-term crowd was larger. The account also tweeted about the disappearance of the White House’s webpages on climate change when the site turned over to Trump’s team.
The tweets were deleted within hours and described as “mistaken” the next day:
An internal memo from the organization’s Washington office was sent to employees asking everyone to “immediately cease use of government Twitter accounts until further notice.”
This seems like a hasty (and jerky) reaction from an office in transition, one that might be a bit apprehensive about getting under its new boss’ famously thin skin. But reporting from the Washington Post, via sources with inside knowledge of the situation, provided frightening clarity on the situation. In an unbelievably self-absorbed move, it turns out that President Donald Trump woke up on his first day in office and decided that one of his first moves as leader of the free world would be to call the acting director of the National Park Service to complain about the photos that showed small crowds and admonish him for the tweets (which, remember, had already been deleted).
From the Washington Post:
On the morning after Donald Trump’s inauguration, acting National Park Service director Michael T. Reynolds received an extraordinary summons: The new president wanted to talk to him.
In a Saturday phone call, Trump personally ordered Reynolds to produce additional photographs of the previous day’s crowds on the Mall, according to three individuals who have knowledge of the conversation. The president believed that the photos might prove that the media had lied in reporting that attendance had been no better than average.
Trump also expressed anger over a retweet sent from the agency’s account, in which side-by-side photographs showed far fewer people at his swearing-in than had shown up to see Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
That Donald Trump seems to have spent a good portion of his first week in office obsessing over his supposed “ratings” is a terrifying indication of his mental stability and fitness to lead our country.
But another frightening part of the story is how the action seems to be influencing other government employees.
On Monday, news was leaked about an apparent gag order issued to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It would be completely in character for the Trump administration to do such a thing, but frighteningly, it seems that this directive didn’t come from inside the White House. In fact, the USDA gag order came from … the USDA. As Science magazine reported Thursday, “Firestorm over supposed gag order on USDA scientists was a self-inflicted wound, agency says.” The memo that got so much grief was “a poorly worded effort by career official—not anyone appointed by Trump.” This particular “gag order” has since been rescinded.
And consider the other National Park Service Twitter account to get attention this week—the Badlands National Park, which tweeted four links about climate change on Tuesday afternoon that were subsequently deleted, prompting extensive outrage and several “alt” Twitter accounts. On Tuesday night, National Park Service officials said the Badlands was not told to remove the tweets but choose to do so on its own. The gag order that was issued to National Park Service accounts on Friday had apparently been lifted on Saturday morning. Press Secretary Sean Spicer said he hadn’t heard of specific bans and declined to comment.
Many took this to mean that the Trump administration had gone full censorship and was also lying about it—a frightening and also totally understandable reaction given, well, everything.
Despite Spicer’s otherwise appalling performance, I don’t think the Badlands debacle is evidence yet of an administrationwide attempt to muzzle scientists. (I’m not saying that will never happen—and maybe it has happened—but that evidence seems thin.) It’s a tough line to draw given that we are living under a president with authoritarian tendencies who does seem to set more store by Twitter than most rational humans. But my fear is that the Badlands reaction and the USDA debacle are indicators that something far more insidious is already happening: self-censorship.
It’s completely reasonable for government employees to assume that tweets about climate change would bother Trump, who is a denier. It is terrifying that they would start censoring themselves so as not to upset him.
All government entities are going through transitions, and it’s a tense time, to say the least. They may even be accurately intuiting Trump’s wishes. But as we continue to fret about freedom of information, we’d be well-served to remember how censorship tends to manifest. Often, it doesn’t come down from the top. The mere threat of censorship, and the accompanying fear of reprisal, can do the trick.
So far, Trump seems to get most incensed over what he sees as personal slights against him—something the National Park Service seemed to intuit when they removed the tweets in the first place (self-censorship!). Let him stew there. Make him, or his deputies, censor climate change information themselves. (Also make them censor “critical” tweets about the president himself!) And if or when that happens, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Correction, Jan. 27, 2017: This story originally misidentified the National Park Service as the National Parks Service. (Return.)