The disappearance of TaxmanKeith
- By Zach Noble
- May 11, 2015
He was something of a legend on r/personalfinance and other financial communities on the social network Reddit, posting IRS forms and basic guidance in response to thousands upon thousands of taxpayer questions.
But a month ago, TaxmanKeith went silent, and recently he vanished altogether.
Are IRS rules to blame?
It’s ironic, but IRS social media guidelines essentially instruct most employees not to offer anyone guidance on the complex tax code – precisely because the tax code is too complex for an IRS employee to be sure they’re giving out good information.
News broke May 9 that the account of Reddit’s favorite (self-identified) IRS employee had been deleted, quickly prompting an outpouring of laudatory woe – and theories that the IRS had banned his social media activity.
“Big loss,” wrote one commenter. “[TaxmanKeith] was amazing. Just consider for a moment that a personal finance community, whose members generally want to hang on to every penny they can and aren't happy to give any of it up, named a representative of the IRS as top commenter for 2014.”
“A sad, sad day for Reddit,” wrote another. “During [the IRS’] busiest season, when you can't get their hotline to answer for hours, he helped hundreds or even thousands of people each day (not saying he directly answered that many, but for every one person he answered, you can bet a dozen more had the exact same question).”
Accounts on Reddit are anonymous by design, but commenters speculated that TaxmanKeith’s identity had been exposed within the agency and he’d been ordered to stop.
TaxmanKeith’s prolific, intimate presence on Reddit was an anomaly for the IRS.
By the end of the 2015 tax season, the agency was answering only 40 percent of taxpayer phone calls, and while the IRS has a slew of official social media accounts, those tend to have small audiences and direct engagement with taxpayers is non-existent.
The most recent IRS videos on YouTube average a lackluster 20-odd views per day, and many of the posts on the agency’s Tumblr page have zero “likes.”
On Twitter, the IRS has more than 65,000 followers, but the account does not respond to taxpayer tweets because “The IRS uses social media to share public information, not to answer personal tax or account questions.”
For most individual IRS employees, offering anything resembling tax advice on social media is strictly verboten, IRS spokesmen told FCW.
TaxmanKeith, who began every tax-related reply with “IRS Employee here,” may have run afoul of the IRS guidance that, “When using social media tools off-hours or for personal reasons, employees should use discretion when using their IRS job title or the name of an IRS office to reduce the impression that employees are speaking on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service.”
“Really only authorized spokespersons can be speaking for the IRS,” said Terry Lemons, senior spokesman for the IRS.
“We don’t know who this person is,” Lemons told FCW, saying TaxmanKeith may not have really been an IRS employee, and even if he was, he may not have been giving out the right information.
“The tax code is enormously complex,” Lemons said. “No one person [at the IRS] knows all of it.”
And while he couldn’t confirm or deny any specifics about TaxmanKeith’s case, he acknowledged, “I’ve seen a lot of the comments. He seemed popular.”
Concerns about tax scams, the complexity of the tax code and privacy issues – “Every tax season we see people posting their Social Security numbers [with tax questions] on Facebook” – have kept the IRS at arm’s length from social media, Lemons said.
Lemons also noted how “unique” the IRS is, given how much deeply personal information is contained on tax forms, and how the agency is trying to find a “delicate balance” online.
In TaxmanKeith’s case, he may or may not have been a real IRS employee and if he was, he may or may not have been shut down by his bosses.
Another Reddit user, anonymous as they all are, claimed to know the man in real life and said he was just burned out.
“Keith is taking a break to figure some stuff out but he'll be back when he feels ready,” the commenter wrote.
Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.
Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.
Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.
Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.