Going Rogue: Science communication lessons from Twitter “alt” government accounts


Matthew Wilson


Elizabeth Perkin


Susquehanna University


Microblogging platforms provide an opportunity to reach audiences with a speed and scale much greater than traditional communication methods. They also present a vast source of publicly available data to analyze and identify successful or ineffective past practices in communication. Following the 2017 presidential inauguration ceremony, the active restriction of science communication by the Trump administration led to the creation of many unofficial and alternative, or “alt”, Twitter accounts for government agencies to maintain communication. Alt accounts quickly attracted many followers (e.g., 15 accounts with >100,000) and received a large amount of media attention. We analyzed tweets from paired “alt” and official U.S. government agency accounts to compare communication strategies and determine what elements of a tweet make it more likely to accrue attention (likes or shares). We found adding links, images, hashtags, and mentions, as well as expressing angry and annoying sentiments all increased retweets and likes. Evidence-based terms such as “peer-review” had high retweet rates; but linking directly to peer-reviewed publications decreased attention compared to popular science websites. Word choice and attention did not differ between account types, indicating topic was more important than source. The number of tweets generated, and attention received by, alt accounts rapidly decreased after the creation of these accounts, demonstrating the importance of timeliness in science communication on social media. Together our results show potential pathways for scientists to increase efficacy in social media communications.