George Orwell’s 1984 has arrived, 33 years late.
The English author imagined a totalitarian state that controlled everything from history to news to thought.
Protagonist Winston Smith is employed by the Ministry of Truth, which is all about lies. Smith’s job is to revise history to conform with current propaganda from Big Brother, the populist leader who is never seen (and doesn't tweet).
Immediately after Donald Trump was sworn in, thought control, or at least fact control, began in the form of scrubbing government websites. It was not so much rewriting history — Winston Smith’s job — but stuffing inconvenient material down the memory hole, Orwell’s idea of where purged material was sent.
It was quickly noticed that the LGBTQ page had vanished from the White House website, along with the disabilities issues page, the civil rights issues page, the Social Security issues page, and mentions of climate change.
Fortune magazine reported that four days after the inauguration, employees at several federal agencies were barred “by the Trump administration from making any statements, or providing any documents to the public or journalists.”
It was a gag of sorts.
That is true, but misleading, says Ezra Mechaber, who worked on online engagement in President Barack Obama’s Office of Digital Strategy.
“The Trump administration was offered a blank slate,” which it chose to accept. "They may not have hit ‘remove’ themselves, but they haven't put up their own policy pages on a number of issues that were previously highlighted on WhiteHouse.gov."
Material has gone down the memory hole.
But what’s on WhiteHouse.gov is an expression of presidential priorities, says Mechaber, “so it’s not surprising to see them doing what they are doing.”
Adelphi University internet law and ethics professor Mark Grabowski agrees. “It makes sense that Trump’s people would delete all the policy-related content created by the Obama administration,” he says.
Trump critics say it goes further than that.
In addition to disemboweling WhiteHouse.gov (and hilariously “accidentally” delisting the judiciary as a branch of government for a few days), more important were deletions from other government websites.
Immediately after inauguration, Trump ordered the Interior Department to cease tweeting. He also ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to delete the climate change page from its website, agency employees told Reuters.
Another agency reeled in was the Department of Agriculture, ordered to send thousands of animal welfare records down the memory hole. This was condemned in the media from left (MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow) to right (Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson and syndicated radio host Laura Ingraham).
The vanished records give cover to puppy mills and horse abusers, a disgusted Wayne Pacelle told me in a phone interview.
The abusers are “getting a bit of a free pass and avoiding scrutiny that they so desperately deserve,” said Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal protection organization.
The deletion affects New Jersey pet stores because the Garden State is one of seven that require pet stores to avoid buying from commercial breeders who have Animal Welfare Act violations, Pacelle says.
With the records removed, stores can't check for violations, which puts them -- and pet purchasers -- at risk.
Pennsylvania had set up a standard for disclosure, “and the federal government is pulling it back,” says Pacelle. Calls to Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Dog Enforcement were not returned before deadline.
The loss of data will make it harder to learn how animals are used in laboratories, says the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. It joined with PETA, the Massachusetts SPCA, and others in a federal suit charging the USDA with violating the Freedom of Information Act.
Pacelle’s Humane Society sued the USDA in 2005 over access to Animal Welfare Act reports on animal use in university and other laboratories. The case was settled in 2009 with the USDA agreeing to post data on its website.
What’s happening now violates the terms of the settlement, Pacelle says.
The court will decide whether the animal groups —and others — have the right to pull what’s missing out of the memory hole.