The Central Intelligence Agency tweeted for the first time on January 6, 2014. “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet,” it said. As of this writing, the Tweet has gotten 277K retweets and 227K likes. The CIA’s presence on Twitter is bizarre. That’s the point, according to a new study. The CIA tweets because it wants people to view it as a legitimate and thriving part of American life.
The CIA has always been obsessed with its image. It helped craft the narrative in Zero Dark Thirty and maintains an internal newsletter where it writes movie reviews critiquing its presence in films. This has always been about public relations, but—according to the study “No we don’t know where Tupac is: critical intelligence studies and the CIA on social media,” published in Intelligence and National Security—the Agency’s presence on social media goes far beyond PR.
“The CIA’s use of social media is a continuation of the CIA’s intervention in popular culture that is vital to the legitimization of the Agency’s actions,” the study said. “The use of social media by intelligence agencies should not simply be understood as a tool for PR and recruitment purposes.”
According to the study, the CIA uses social media to make itself seem legitimate. Through social media, the CIA ingratiates itself on public life. It becomes another brand, tweeting weird things in the middle of the day. “When intelligence agencies use social media they engage in practices of identity construction that narrate themselves and their actions in positive ways, representing themselves and their actions as legitimate,” it said.
The study is the work of Rhys Crilley, a professor and research associate at the University of Glasgow who focuses on how narratives focus politics and policy, and Louise Pears, a Teaching Fellow at the University of leeds who specializes in security and terrorism. According to Crilley and Pears, “the more pressing questions are about how intelligence agencies’ social media outputs impact public understandings of what these agencies are, what they do, and how these understandings, in turn, impact the scope of what they can do in practice.”
Does the CIA’s presence on social media alter the way we think about the Agency? Are we more likely to wave-off the well documented abuses of the CIA if we remember it as the entity that tweets funny things. “The CIA’s presence on Twitter quite literally humanizes the agency, as it writes in the first-person plural, suggesting it is not a faceless government agency, but a team of people with a sense of humour, an understanding of popular culture, and a cat,” the study said
The CIA mostly tweets articles about its history, retweets other government accounts, and—occasionally—posts funny tweets that catch people off guard. It jokes about posting cat photos, it jokes about not knowing where Tupac is, it jokes about the surveillance state. “The most popular CIA tweets are jokes, not threats,” the study said. “They are cats, not policy documents. They are about rappers and TV shows, not CIA directors.”
The CIA is pretending to be an extremely online irony-poised super poster. “This strategy does not just make light of controversies such as extensive surveillance, it serves to make it light—to move it from the realm of serious political engagement into ironic comedy,” the study said. “Humour is a discursive strategy that enables the CIA to establish an appealing, humanized identity, and humour works to establish friendly social relations that serve to legitimize the activities of political actors. This ‘marketable ordinariness’ serves a purpose, and this appeal to the everyday is a discursive strategy.”
According to the study, the CIA is pioneering the art of using funny tweets to avoid talking about its long history of violence. “It gives audiences the impression that the CIA is an institution that is not only aware of its flaws but able to reflect upon them—without it having to actually demonstrate such reflection beyond making jokes on social media,” the study said. “Humour is an emergent communicative tactic that functions to maintain power and resist democratic control.”
Even if the jokes aren’t funny or don’t land, it doesn’t matter. With every tweet, the CIA is building an identity as a poster. “It serves to normalize, domesticate, and legitimize particular intelligence activities while at the same time obscuring others – such as violent acts, extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention, and drone programs,” it said.
The best example of this strategy was when the CIA decided to “live tweet” the Osama Bin Laden raid on its fifth anniversary. Some responders were horrified, others encouraged the CIA, and journalists wrote articles talking about the surreal horror of the thread.
No matter what people thought of the CIA, they were engaged with it. Even its detractors helped build the brand. Maintaining a presence on social media helps organizations like the CIA talk about themselves at a distance. It lets them tweet about the work it does without taking responsibility for the horrible consequences of that work.
“A self-referential joke about surveillance works to literally ‘laugh off’ the controversies of the Snowden revelations, without any need to address any particular changes in activities or behaviour,” the study said. “Commemorating the Abbottabad raid emphasizes the success of anti-terrorism activities, and overshadows the controversies of indefinite detention, torture, and drone strikes. Pictures of cats at desks are a far cry from pictures of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, and they counter such widespread images of what the CIA is and does by emphasizing the friendly, the funny, and the human.”