May 30, 2017
Thomas Jefferson said that “an informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” Under Donald Trump, however, a massive amount of knowledge is being memory-holed, altered, or obfuscated. This disappearing data act strikes at the heart of our ability to remain informed and engaged and each day, with each lost bit of information, our democracy grows less vibrant.
So much of the data we need in our everyday lives comes from the government collection and maintenance of that data. If you're moving and you want to know which states have the best median incomes for women, you consult the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Say you're buying a new car seat and want to know the safety rating, you can check on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Concerned about groundwater contamination in your community? Look at the EPA website for your state.
Except that under Trump, this kind of government data isn't being collected as frequently and it's becoming less and less available—and that’s terrifying news for everyone.
Trump, who refutes the work of scientists, and experts in general, and in particular believes climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese, has just made good on his promise to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement after filling his Cabinet with fellow climate-change deniers—not least of whom EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt, who has for years set out to dismantle the EPA. Scientists who rely upon the data provided by the EPA for research were rightly concerned, even before Trump took office. Back in December 2016, scientists painstakingly launched a massive effort to archive federal data about climate change, creating a website, climatemirror.org, which backs up and mirrors climate-change data sets.
And it’s a good thing they did, because no sooner was Trump inaugurated than the White House disappeared its climate-change page. Literally on the same day. The portion of the EPA’s website that was devoted to climate change disappeared too. At the moment, you can still find some climate-change data, such as climate-change indicator reports, but they’ve taken down the Federal Supplier Greenhouse Gas Management Scorecard, which tracked greenhouse gas emissions of major federal contractors. (The link goes to the Obama-era archive.)
The vanishing data isn’t limited to climate-change-related material. The White House recently deleted its entire open data portal, replacing it with a completely content-free page of ethics disclosures—empty in large part because the Trump administration doesn’t believe it is required to provide much in the way of ethics disclosures. (But it does believe in issuing ethics waivers, apparently.)
One of the most heartbreaking data disappearances—and one of the most revealing looks into what matters to the Trump administration—is the removal of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service reports, which provided data about the treatment—and mistreatment—of animals in circuses, at zoos, when they are used in research, and in breeding operations. This data provided the underpinnings for major animal welfare activism around things like mistreatment of circus animals and show horses. There are types of businesses, such as puppy mills, that look askance at having data about their operations collected, and now that information is gone. Yes, we’re now being led by people so craven that they’re happy to block information about the gruesome abuse of animals just so they can be perceived as sufficiently pro-business enough.
There’s a lot less information about Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) violations as well. While the past two administrations sent out press releases detailing major fines against companies that exposed their employees to dangerous conditions, the Trump administration will no longer do so. Why? Because businesses don’t like it. “The issue of shaming through news releases has been a real issue with my members,” said Randy Johnson, senior vice-president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in an interview, adding, “It’s about trying to drive customers away, so that will put pressure on companies to settle” with the Labor Department rather than fight the alleged violations in court.
Some removal of data seems downright petty, but when you look under the hood you realize how bad it actually is. Take, for example, the disappearance of the Department of Energy’s phonebook. The department took down its public-facing phonebook back in February, replacing it with a general phone number and links to various sub-office websites. At first, this might seem like a minor inconvenience, but it is much more than that. Over at Mashable, Andrew Freedman explained that "making federal scientists and policy makers harder to contact isn’t a trivial matter. These kinds of moves toward opacity wall off employees from the outside world and make it more likely that they won’t experience public pressure related to their taxpayer-funded work. It also makes it easier for public relations officers to assume more control over access to interview subjects, since journalists unfamiliar with agency sources will need to contact the central press office to make headway on a story."
Trump and company have also taken great pains to erase any data that allows people to see who the administration does business with. There are no visitor logs available for Mar-a-Lago or Trump Tower, and, in a break from past administrations, the White House visitor logs will stay secret. The public now has no way of knowing who meets with the president and when and no way to track which business interests or lobbyists have his ear.
Much of the data that is no longer on government websites will still be collected, and much of it remains public. But the only way to access it now will be through submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. However, responses to those requests can take months or even years—it is not only molasses slow but expensive, and sometimes the data that comes back is heavily redacted. Sometimes the request gets refused entirely, without much in the way of explanation. That patchwork process—a process where you need to know what data it is you’re looking for before you can even ask for it—can’t replace robust and free access to well-curated government datasets. Similarly, these stories of noble scientists, librarians, and good government enthusiasts working tirelessly to preserve data sound appealing, but their actions are no substitute for the government gathering, maintaining, and making available data for the good of everyone.
One thing FOIA can’t fix, though, is Trump’s consistent commitment to lying just because he can. He seems unable to stop lying about the size of his inauguration crowd. In fact, he’s so mad about being told the crowd was not the biggest ever that he actually tried to hunt down the National Park Service employee that tweeted out the pictures of the Obama and Trump inaugurations side by side. He casually lied about why he fired former FBI director James Comey as well: first it was because the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General told him to, then it was that he had always planned on it. He tried to memory hole his own campaign statements about the Muslim ban when it became clear that his inflammatory rhetoric was going to lead to federal courts halting the ban.
When Trump does decide to share knowledge, it is almost inevitably in a way that could actually damage Americans. His anti-immigration rhetoric has resulted in an immigration database that doesn’t just track criminals—it tracks crime victims whose identities are supposed to be shielded. He burned an Israeli intelligence source just so that he could look like a big man to the Russians. He told Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte—a leader arguably more monstrous than Trump—about nuclear submarines we have in Korean waters.
Vanishing data, blatant lies, and information shared only with the strongmen Trump perceives as fellow travelers. Trump’s gotten us so far trom the truth we may never make it back.