The story behind the CIA's 'light-hearted, humorous' Twitter account

Some disagree with the strategy, but the intelligence agency is no longer clandestine on social media.

At first glance, it may look like the CIA’s accounts on Facebook and Twitter are part of a bogus scheme, maintained by an unaffiliated comedic troll. But the intelligence agency has confirmed they are the real deal, part of its effort to educate the public about what it does – at least the parts it can talk about.

The CIA officially joined Twitter and Facebook on June 6 to "build its online presence beyond" its public website, mobile portal, and official Flickr and YouTube accounts, according to a statement.

The social media accounts are helping the CIA’s office of public affairs, which is responsible for both internal and external communications at the agency, to fulfill one of its core missions: to inform and educate the public, CIA spokesperson Kali Caldwell told PRWeek.

A small, Web-focused team is responsible for the CIA’s online presence, and one officer oversees both accounts as part of her overall Web-content-management job.

The agency’s first tweet, which stated, "We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet," garnered over 300,000 retweets and was favorited nearly 200,000 times.

Last week, to celebrate its first month on Twitter, the CIA used the #Twitterversary hashtag to answer five questions from the public, using sarcastic references to The Ellen DeGeneres Show and the murder of Tupac Shakur. The hashtag resulted in 140,000 mentions on its first day, and about 80,000 mentions the day after.

"The vast majority of our posts are educational – both in tone and content – but we’re attempting to do this in a manner consistent with the culture of these various social media platforms, which includes the occasional light-hearted or humorous posting," Caldwell said.

In keeping with this theme, the agency has avoided some topics, such as the US’ recent dust up with the German government after the CIA reportedly recruited one of the country’s intelligence officers. The German government reportedly asked the agency’s station chief in the country to leave as a result.

The CIA’s Facebook page is decidedly more straightforward in tone, with an earlier post stating that it will try to keep a serious demeanor on the social network.

"The CIA welcomes your comments, however we wish to maintain the decorum appropriate to a taxpayer-funded organization; we will moderate, and delete as necessary, comments deemed inappropriate [using specified guidelines]," it wrote.

Using social media to dispel myths
Two years ago, a fake Twitter account that used the handle @US_CIA along with the agency’s official seal appeared, along with messages such as, "Dear Ayatollah @khamenei_ir, please consider tweeting in English. Our sole Arabic speaking NED analyst is out on vacation this week. Thanks!"

The CIA promptly contacted Twitter to have the account shut down, The Washington Post reported at the time.

"I hate to break it to our mass of potential Twitter followers, but the CIA is still not on Twitter," spokesman Preston Golson told the Post at the time. "We prefer to keep our daily musings to ourselves. Perhaps someday you’ll be able to read official tweets from Langley, but until then, people can do the old-fashioned thing and check out our Web page."

When asked why the CIA decided recently to create a Twitter account, Caldwell explained that social media is not only a tool that helps the agency reach people who might not otherwise visit its website, but it also helps to "dispel myths about who [the CIA is and what it does]."

"We’ve historically had a number of CIA imposters using social media platforms to disseminate inaccurate information," she said. "We wanted to have an official voice on these platforms that could provide accurate information on our mission and history. If we don’t tell our story, others will, and often they’ll get it wrong."

Mixed reactions
Ogilvy Public Relations MD Yiannis Konstantopoulos told The Sydney Moring Herald that it is "surprising the CIA has been able to push this account through, given the nature of the work the agency does." The newspaper published a story last Wednesday with the headline, "Is someone drunk tweeting from the CIA Twitter account?"

He added that the account almost definitely will not cover "the contentious issues of privacy, Edward Snowden, or data security."

Meanwhile, former CIA operations officer Emily Brandwin wrote a column in The Guardian on Thursday panning the agency’s social media strategy.

"Now I'm from the Sarah Silverman, Louis CK, and Chris Rock school of comedy – I love when boundaries are pushed, when audiences are made uncomfortable – but their jokes work because they are comedians, not a government agency that specializes in secrecy and covert operations," she wrote.

She added that the CIA does not need to be on Twitter in the first place, because it "can't be transparent."

Media and PR pros have also expressed their opinions on Twitter:

In response to the public reaction, Caldwell said her team has been "surprised and pleased" that people are interested in what the CIA has to say. 

"This is our first experience with such dynamic, instantaneous interaction with the public, and, honestly, we’re just working our way through and learning from the experience," she said.

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