The CIA joined the social media age in 2014 by blasting out the satirical message “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.” That inaugural post to Twitter, retweeted more than 300,000 times, was followed by CIA director John Brennan announcing the agency’s new social media strategy. “We have important insights to share, and we want to make sure that unclassified information about the agency is more accessible,” he said in a press release. Those insights have since included photos of vintage spy gear, a tweet reading “No, we don’t know where Tupac is” and the agency wishing itself a happy birthday with a patriotic cupcake. The agency and the media have found it adorable.
“The CIA is scary and involved in undemocratic things, so they have to represent themselves as innocent, open, liberal and tolerant,” says Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor and author of How Propaganda Works. “It’s tough having a terrifying security apparatus like the CIA in a democratic state.”
The public’s trust in the U.S. government has been declining for the past decade. Last year, only 16 percent of Americans said they trusted officials in Washington, D.C. “most of the time,” according to the Pew Research Center.
Edward Snowden’s 2013 leak of the National Security Agency’s domestic spying programs (subject of Oliver Stone’s in-the-works film Snowden) and the recent standoff between Apple and the FBI over iPhone security safeguards have heightened concern that the U.S. is turning into a surveillance state. Brennan’s seeming goal is to quell that fear with a steady stream of information (a.k.a. “transparency”) on social media, however vapid that information may be.
The CIA isn’t the only wing of our vast domestic-security brigade that is now on social media, mushrooming over amber waves of grain like the Eye of Sauron, but these accounts are hardly informative. On Facebook and Twitter, the NSA posts regular “CryptoChallenge” and “Puzzle Periodical” games. It also wished some 50,000 Twitter followers a happy National High-Five Day last year (the third Thursday of every April, apparently), introduced its recycling mascot (a cartoon plastic bin named Dunk) and shared Facebook posts from an intern who praised the agency and her job (“a huge amount of cyber-security knowledge isn’t necessary,” one reads).
Breeze through the Transportation Security Administration’s Instagram account, followed by more than 400,000 people, and you’ll see a concerted effort to squash its reputation as the jeering, panties-fondling face of Homeland Security at your airport check-in. Every day the agency posts photos of things confiscated at airports across the nation—assault rifles, brass knuckles, grenades, human remains, pink bejeweled lipstick tasers, sticks of dynamite, antitank artillery shells, stun guns and ninja throwing stars—all while maintaining a cheeky Mary Poppins–like attitude toward the whole business.
“#TSAGoodCatch,” begins one caption. “All of these items (one firearm, 11 rounds of ammo, two flares, 18 knives and two hatchets) were discovered in one traveler’s carry-on bag yesterday at the Kansas City International Airport (MCI). #Nope.” “TSA is using social media to battle the usual complaint: Why is security screening at airports so ridiculous?” says Shama Hyder, who runs the Marketing Zen Group, a public relations firm specializing in digital media. “Now TSA can point to these images and say, ‘This is why.’ ”
Last year, according to the TSA, it discovered more than 2,600 firearms—nearly 83 percent of them loaded—at U.S. airports. That equates to about seven a day. Yet a 2015 internal review conducted by undercover investigators revealed that a staggering 95 percent of attempts to smuggle weapons and explosives through security were successful. The findings were so alarming that the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security reassigned the TSA’s acting administrator to a new post.
“A complaint you often hear about these agencies is they’re very silo-ed. Transparency can’t be faked on social media—at least not for long,” says Hyder. “I’d love to sit down with these organizations and ask, ‘What are you really trying to do here?’ ”
I attempted to do just that, requesting interviews with the TSA, NSA and CIA, as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees all three, but I was denied or ignored every time. And so we don’t know whether these accounts are run by credentialed government officials or part-time millennial interns. What is known, however, is that the government’s seemingly unaudited presence on social media is completely legal, thanks to an obscure law.
About four years ago, Congress passed the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 and opened the gates for the government to communicate anything it chooses to the American public, including by way of social media. The original legislation, in effect since the 1940s, prohibited the government from targeting U.S. citizens with the propaganda it aimed at other nations. Such campaigns were abundant at the height of the Cold War, when the CIA propped up modern artists and pushed for civil rights legislation in the interest of showcasing the benefits of our open society. The 2012 update of Smith-Mundt got rid of that prohibition, citing new technologies, and authorized “the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences.”
“There’s no pressure on the U.S. to not act like China and Russia,” says Stanley. “We have a multi-billion-dollar security state, and all these people have wives and kids. They’re self-interested in creating the groundwork for fear and risk in order to keep the government money flowing in. What’s bad is when you start acting like a totalitarian state and cutting critiques to make everything seem perfect. That never works.”
The way to promote our society, Stanley says, is not through tongue-in-cheek posturing on the internet but by “allowing whistle-blowers to flourish, to walk on the street, to not be thrown in prison.”
Speaking of whistle-blowers, last September Snowden finally joined Twitter, gaining more than a million followers overnight. He opted to follow only one account, however: @NSAGov. It’s safe to say Snowden shouldn’t expect a tweet about citizen surveillance or wiretapping anytime soon. Instead, he’ll probably get a meme of a cute kitten waving the American flag, wishing him a happy Memorial Day.