When Spies Tweet - Pacific Standard

When Spies Tweet

How are government agencies adapting to the social media age?
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(Photo: Esther Vargas/Flickr)

(Photo: Esther Vargas/Flickr)

American spies like to open with a joke. In June 2014, the Central Intelligence Agency launched its Twitter account with a winking quip: “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.” The National Reconnaissance Office, which flies the country’s spy satellites, joined a few months later with a #SorryNotSorry wink: “We know we’re late to the Twitter party, but we were a little busy with, you know, rocket science.” @NCSCgov went live with a clumsy gag of its own in January, announcing, “The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) joins Twitter... we’ve said too much already!” Today, even agencies with the blackest of black budgets tweet.

In some respects, the spy services behave like any other user. They can be pedantic, like when the CIA spent a long day fact-checking Argo. Sometimes they try to make hashtags happen: #NROInnovation has been used, almost exclusively, by the NRO itself (and one especially wackadoo conspiracy theorist). Of course, the squawking spies are also unique; they trade in secrets and their activities are classified. So what, exactly, is the most secretive American community doing on the world's most public digital platform?

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There is—believe it or not—a growing body of research that looks at the Twitter conduct of government agencies. Richard Waters and Jensen Williams, both researchers at North Carolina State University, put a sample of United States government tweets through the wringer of public relations theory in a 2011 study entitled “Squawking, Tweeting, Cooing, and Hooting.” Each of the noises in the study’s title refers to one of the four models of public relations: a communication can be either one-way or two-way, as well as symmetrical (i.e. mutually beneficial) or asymmetrical (to the benefit of only one party). The gold standard, in theory, is two-way symmetrical engagement; that’s a genuine conversation.

@CIA has 774 thousand followers and follows just 27 other users. And those 27 are an echo chamber; 25 of those Twitter follows are other government agencies, plus Twitter’s own government team, and—for color—the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library.

To see how the public sector stacks up against the advice of academics and consultants, Waters and Williams sampled 1,800 tweets from 60 random government agencies, “ranging from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to the Library of Congress to the Department of Homeland Security and the Center for Disease Control.” (Only a few of the Intelligence Community’s 16 member agencies were on Twitter during their sample period, and several still haven’t joined). They then coded the tweets per their four models. Use of the @ function qualified as an effort toward two-way engagement, while use of emoticons was plain emotional manipulation, a case of one-way asymmetry. And on 27 charming occasions captured in the data set, someone manning a government Twitter account did think it appropriate to deploy emoticons.

Predictably enough, the sampled agencies vastly preferred to lecture. About 85 percent of tweets analyzed amounted to “one-way distribution of factual messages.” As far as two-way engagement was concerned, the handles were more likely to solicit user responses to a prompt or poll (28.9 percent of messages) than to engage them, responsively, in an actual dialogue (17.6 percent of tweets). One personable exception to that pattern is @MarsCuriosity, the voice of NASA’s Curiosity rover, which frequently talks science with its followers. But for the most part, government organs communicate on Twitter much like they communicate off-line: mostly talking, sometimes listening, rarely conversing.

So what about the spy agencies? All have their own personalities—@CIA drops references to Tupac; @DefenseIntel is more reserved—but their clandestine Twitter accounts broadly match the profile Williams and Waters described. It would be tough for any of them to engage too actively; the handles are followed by vastly more accounts than they themselves follow. The gap is especially dramatic for @CIA, which has 774 thousand followers and follows just 27 other users. And those 27 are an echo chamber; 25 of those Twitter follows are other government agencies, plus Twitter’s own government team, and—for color—the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library. This can’t make for a responsive institution. Little wonder that @CIA retweeted just two messages in the last month. Then again, not behavior unique to the spy agencies. Many corporate brands don’t chat much either.

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Nothing immediately obvious distinguishes the intelligence community’s Twitter presence, no behavioral quirks at least. The twist, in a subtle way, lies in the content. If most government feeds spend their days putting out public information, what do the secretive spy services have to offer? Trivially, what accounts like @CIA, @NSA_PAO, and @NRO publish is public (i.e. unclassified) information. Very little of it, though, is in what you could call “the public interest.” They’re not exactly tweeting weather reports—though @CIA did push out its newsworthy response to the Senate “torture report.” Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine what the spy services could disclose that rises above the status of “fun fact.”

American spies face a fraught mandate: lie and conceal, but not too much and not from the wrong people, all in the face of titanic scrutiny and curiosity. 

What does that leave to accomplish online? Brand management. There’s an old saying in journalism: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.” If advertising sounds pedestrian, remember that we’re talking about the national security apparatus. The CIA was fiercely taken to task in the torture report last year for misleading Congress and the American public. The year before, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper famously gave a “least untruthful” answer to a question on National Security Agency metadata collection. The very existence of the NRO wasn’t declassified until 1992! Public relations, here, is a high-wire act.

In a recent piece for Defense One, Patrick Tucker asked if it’s at all possible to have a transparent spy agency. “We think so,” the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency quickly tweeted. And they could very well be sincere. Pinned atop their Twitter feed, as of this writing, is a statement on the intoxicated employee who last month crashed a recreational drone into the White House lawn.

That’s a kind of transparency. It’s a kind that finds a natural home on Twitter.

American spies face a fraught mandate: lie and conceal, but not too much and not from the wrong people, all in the face of titanic scrutiny and curiosity. Speaking with CBS News about the launch of @CIA, the agency’s director of public affairs acknowledged, “There’s a serious appetite for information about our agency out there.”

Twitter is a place to distribute empty calories; @CIA is a wax apple.

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