How the CIA's social media lead deals with trolls

People blame the CIA for everything, even bad weather.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

LANGLEY, VA: When PRWeek posted a story in June about why the CIA only follows 11 Instagram accounts, a torrent of critical social media comments and emails followed, including one saying that by writing such a "puff piece," the magazine is "complicit in their immoral and reprehensible actions." Another suggested that PRWeek’s editors are "probably in the CIA themselves." 

That remains to be determined. 

But this is just a taste of everyday life for the CIA’s social media lead, Christine Sweeney. She and her team, which Sweeney described as "small but mighty," regularly receive all kinds of comments from online trolls. 

"There are the obvious trolls coming on our social media platforms and posting something nonsensical or off-topic, using language that is inflammatory, and they are obviously trying to make people react," she said. "Those are easy to ignore because they are transparent in what their purpose is."

Some blame the CIA for everything, even things beyond the agency’s reach -- or so they say, anyway. 

"People will blame us for the weather being bad on a certain day or trouble with their spouse or bad traffic," said Sweeney. "A couple times last month, Instagram went down and we got a bunch of messages accusing us of doing it."

In that case, Sweeney said she decided to respond to the Instagram accusation because it was just "too silly."

The CIA receives comments that are negative, passionate or angry about something, but aren’t motivated by trying to upend or obscure the agency’s communications with the public. Comments like that are a result of confusion or misunderstanding, said Sweeney, and that type of "trolling" is actually helpful to her as a social media lead. 

"That kind of stuff is an opportunity for us to look at an issue. What is the real story with it? Can we talk about it in a way that would set the record straight? Can we give more context to this story to answer some of these questions?" said Sweeney. "It is valuable to know what the public is thinking. I try to find common threads in some of the negative comments to see if I can share info that might improve that perception of us."

Despite the high volume of negative commentary that Sweeney has to wade through on a daily basis, she said she doesn’t go out of her way to report people. 

"CIA is at the service of the American public and our entire mission is to ensure we defend and protect the country and its freedoms," she said. "It is not lost on us that one of those freedoms is freedom of speech. If someone wants to come on social media and say they disagree with something we did or that our posts are awful, they are not going to be censored."

However, if a threat is particularly specific or serious, Sweeney will report it. 

"In those cases, after I flag the threat to the appropriate people, it is out of my hands," she said, declining to comment further. 

Asked if trolls get in her way on social media, Sweeney said it would be easier if more people interacted online in the way they would in person. 

"My day-to-day would be a bit more positive," she said.

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