Unmasking @ALT_uscis

Most of the disconcerting news out of Washington these days comes under the heading of “Further Proof of the Obvious”. Donald J. Trump is unfit for the office of President of the United States. A huge portion of it is depressing, some of it is actually a little funny, and every few days there is something that makes you wonder if we’ll get through these four years alive. Along the way, there has already been ample evidence that the country has changed for the worse in just a couple of months.

And then there is the odd story, a hardly noticeable speck in the whirlwind, that signals the descent into Darkness at Noon has actually begun in earnest.

This one came and went so fast you may have missed it, but its damage was already done. The Department of Homeland Security ordered Twitter to tell them the identity of the operator of the account called @ALT_uscis.

You see, tweets from this account have irritated the administration, even though there is nothing in them that in any way impacts our security. They are also not lies or libel, but merely facts which sometimes contradict the narrative that Trump would like us to accept. The tweets do not break any laws, they do not defame any public figures, they are not lewd or vulgar, they do not use intemperate language. They don’t do anything at all but mention a few facts. Here are a couple of examples of the objectionable content:

Now, there is no question that the tone of some of the tweets is antagonistic toward Trump, but nothing said in the feed comes close to what, say, Keith Olbermann says, or Stewie Generis, for that matter. But the government is interested in this account because they believe the owner is an employee of the United States Citizen and Immigration Service, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. In our new Trumpian paradise, all 1.4 million federal employees must forego their rights to free speech, or be purged.

I probably shouldn’t point out that it is a very short hop from “anyone receiving a federal paycheck” to “anyone receiving federal benefits”, because that would just be the kind of alarmist speculation that would detract from the point here, which is that every American has First Amendment rights, even people who work in government. And, if you believe in the benefits of whistle-blowing, especially those who work in government.

Twitter, correctly and to its credit, turned around and sued the government, saying it is “unlawfully abusing a limited-purpose investigatory tool”. Free speech advocates said the order appeared to be the first time the government has attempted to use its powers to expose an anonymous critic — a development that, if successful, would have a “grave chilling effect on the speech of that account” as well as other accounts critical of the U.S. government.

The DHS quickly realized they had no defensible position here and would certainly lose a humiliating court case, so it dropped its “request”, and Twitter then dropped its suit. This all happened yesterday. The number of followers of the account has skyrocketed in the last day or so, so the visibility of the whole thing was becoming a little uncomfortable for DHS as well.

“Whew!”, I hear you exhaling. “Dodged a bullet, there!”

Not so fast. The “grave chilling effect” has already taken its toll. Last night @ALT-uscis pulled in its horns and gave up tweeting. Even though they “won”.

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