Arctic Research Agency’s Twitter Flap Shows Concern Over Feds' Climate-science Gag Order

Feb 3, 2017

The U.S. Arctic Research Commission set off alarms last week when a staffer inadvertently suggested the agency would halt its Twitter feed. The resulting uproar followed similar backlash over real blackouts at other federal agencies, resulting from a Trump administration gag order on their distribution of climate change information.


As federal agencies go, the U.S. Arctic Research Commission is a small-budget, low-profile operation that deals mainly with the mundane business of advising the president and Congress on policy and goals for studying the circumpolar north. But agency officials found themselves in the unfamiliar state of controversy beginning on Jan. 25, when a staffer posted a tweet that stated “It looks like we are going on hiatus.”

The now-deleted tweet posted Jan. 25 by a U.S. Arctic Research Commission staffer.
Credit Internet Archive/Motherboard

“This is very concerning,” says Brenda Ekwurzel director of climate science with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Ekwurzel says the public’s reaction to the tweet shows growing alarm over the Trump administration’s crackdown on federal agencies that provide climate change-related information to the public.

“When you see a tweet from one of the federal agencies talking about the changes that are happening, and then those tweets are deleted – or web sites that we’re that are going down, from the Environmental Protection Agency or other websites that mention climate information – this is very concerning,” she said.

Ekwurzel says a feeling of apprehension over the crackdown probably explains the Twitter storm the tweet kicked up. She says that, and the deletion of the tweet later on the 25th, may have led many followers to conclude another important federal source of climate-change research was about to be scrubbed of that information – or even made to go dark.

“Twitter has become very, very beneficial,” she said. “I’m a climate scientist and I get lots of information through Twitter.”

A source familiar with the situation says the concerns expressed by the commission’s Twitter followers were unfounded. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the staffer who posted the Tweet acted on an assumption based on internal conversations that the commission’s social-media outlets weren’t effectively conveying information about the agency’s work. The source says the staffer proactively tweeted to inform followers if the commission does take the feed down, the public can still go to the agency website for information.

U.S. Arctic Research Commission Chairwoman Fran Ulmer, left, and Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist and director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Credit KUAC file photos

That’s what Commission Chair Fran Ulmer told a reporter with KYUK radio during a break in last week’s Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage.

“All of that information remains on the arctic.gov website,” Ulmer said. “So, it may have disappeared from other sites, but it’s still at arctic.gov.”

Ulmer declined KUAC’s requests for comment on tape. In an e-mail reply, she wrote: “We evaluated what was being tweeted and decided to not (to) change how we will communicate.”

The source says the commission intends to continue disseminating information through its website, Twitter and daily e-mail updates.

The source says when the commission took down the “hiatus” Tweet, the agency’s switchboard “lit up,” with calls from the public, more than 20 media outlets and some congressional staffers. The source says the commission then posted another tweet to assure all followers the commission would continue communicating through Twitter.

The disappearing Tweet apparently motivated members of a group that calls itself #resistance to set up a sort of parallel Twitter feed largely populated with content from commission’s Twitter account, similar to other so-called “rogue” sites set up for federal agencies that have been muzzled.

In response to the commission's efforts to clarify its initial "hiatus" tweet, a group that calls itself The Resistance (#resistance) launched its own "alternative" Twitter feed.
Credit Twitter screenshot

Ekwurzel says the Union of Concerned Scientists is making arrangements for those agencies to safely store information such as climate-change data that many fear may not be available in the near future.

“We are standing up for science,” she said, “and so we’ve set up secure channels to be able to have information sent to our Center for Science and Democracy.”

Ekwurzel says the commission’s Twitter ordeal serves as an example of the kind of confusion and uncertainty that the new administration’s policies have created. She worries that could stifle the scientific community’s efforts to conduct research.

“This is really important work that has to be done,” she said. “And we want to make sure that the science goes forward, because that’s something that protects the health and well-being and economic competitiveness of the United States.”

Efforts to contact #resistance were unsuccessful. But as of Thursday night, the alternative commission site remains active.

Independent reporter and aknoosphere.com contributor Johanna Eurich contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This story was revised to delete a statement that the commission's Facebook page was unavailable. It is now available.