A government agency known for its secrecy is making a splash in a very public forum: Twitter.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been raising eyebrows with its increasingly conversational and pop culture-filled social media presence, in recent months giving shout-outs to hit Hollywood films, game show hosts and other buzzy bits. And just last week, the agency added an Instagram account to its growing social shop.
“We’re trying to be as transparent as possible with the constraints that the CIA currently has,” agency press secretary Timothy Barrett says.
Tweeting to the world isn’t exactly cloak-and-dagger, and the aim for a public face is an undertaking that has unique quirks at one of the most secure places on the planet. But when ITK wanted to know how the social media sausage was made, to our surprise, Barrett invited us to Langley, Va., to speak with the some of the secretive squad about how the CIA gets its message out online.
After leaving all electronic devices in the car — nothing, not even a Fitbit, is allowed in its headquarters — ITK prepared to meet a hush-hush band of CIA social media mavens and maestros. But rather than a tight-lipped team decked out in trench coats and sunglasses, what we found was a rather ordinary crew cranking away in an otherwise normal-looking office.
“We don’t do social media like most people do,” says Amanda, the social media lead at the CIA, who, like most of the behind-the-scenes team, declines to give her last name for security reasons.
The account @CIA launched in 2014, starting with a winking “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet,” and the agency didn’t approach social media as a two-way street, Amanda says, preferring to push information out rather than engage and interact.
Last year, they reevaluated. “Even though we’re the CIA and a clandestine organization — we have certain rules we have to follow — can we be more social?” Amanda says.
What followed were tweets about everything from “Black Panther” to “Game of Thrones.”
In February, during the Academy Awards, the CIA account polled users, asking if the metal vibranium from the Black Panther’s home nation of Wakanda was real. On April 21, while 99 percent of Twitter appeared fixated on the latest episode of “Game of Thrones,” the agency tweeted that one of its own had a cameo on the hit series.
“A perk of working for CIA is world travel,” the tweet told its approximately 2.6 million followers. “Apparently that sometimes extends to other realms… ‘Little birds,’ be on the lookout for a former deputy director of ours wandering through #Westeros in tonight’s episode of #GameofThrones.”
David S. Cohen, the former deputy director, quipped in a response that his cover was blown as a result of the tweet.
“Any tweet if you look at them, they always relate back to intelligence,” Amanda says when asked what she’d tell critics of the lighthearted, often tongue-in-cheek posts.
“For instance, we always wanted to do something for ‘Talk Like a Pirate Day,’ ” the 37-year-old Colorado native laments. “But we just don’t have anything that we could find that would relate to it. As much as we try to be part of the public conversation when the conversation is happening, it always has to relate back to our mission and something we’re doing.”
Nearly every tweet, the team says, begins with a story that goes up on the CIA website, which goes through a series of approvals and classification reviews before it ever sees the light of day. Then, the tale gets “tweetified,” sometimes told through a threaded series of messages.
While plenty of tweets have become viral sensations, others didn’t exactly go as planned. And unlike those in the Twitterverse sharing their latest meal or a lousy plane experience, the pressure is a bit different when tweeting as the CIA.
In 2015, the agency was marking the 65th anniversary of the Korean War. When it didn’t thread tweets as it told a dramatic wartime story, some of the public worried that a military attack was imminent.
“So, one of the tweets was something like: ‘North Korean troops amass on the 39th parallel,’ ” Amanda recalls. “And that was it, because you know we were kind of leading up to the drama. Suddenly, I’m seeing this: ‘Breaking news, North Koreans are amassing!’
“This was a few years ago so luckily the tensions weren’t as high. … But it was a little bit of a panic moment, that if you don’t get it right, you could cause an international incident.”
The CIA’s relationship status with the public on its social media channels can also sometimes trend toward “it’s complicated.”
“We have sort of an official idea that we share what we can, so protect what we must,” Amanda says.
While President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump lawyers to Supreme Court: Jan. 6 committee 'will not be harmed by delay' Two House Democrats announce they won't seek reelection DiCaprio on climate change: 'Vote for people that are sane' MORE is known for his prolific — and insult-laden — Twitter feed, the voice of the CIA is “conversational,” according to Candice, who’s been at the agency for 14 years and works in the public communications branch. “There’s personality there. We try to be intelligent,” she says.
“I would almost say there’s a little bit of whimsy to it,” Barrett adds. “It’s not like overly scripted.”
The headline-making social media accounts — since debuting last week, the Instagram one has gained 124,000 followers — can also be an effective recruitment tool for the CIA, which is run by Director Gina Haspel. Whether it’s reaching people, who might not otherwise think of the CIA, when they see well wishes to “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek following his announcement of a cancer diagnosis, or setting movie fans straight that Americans who work at the CIA are called “officers” not “agents,” the agency is getting its name and mission out there.
“People don’t necessarily see themselves here and I think that’s a big stumbling block that we have when it comes to recruiting talent is getting people to imagine, ‘Hey, I could actually work there, too. There’s a place for me at the CIA,’ ” says Candice.
In a strictly classified CIA world, how does the agency toe the line on a platform such as Twitter, that’s known for its oversharing? Well, that’s kind of classified.
“We’re never going to be see-through as a secret organization,” Barrett says with a laugh, “but we do use Twitter as a tool for approaching transparency.”