One Thursday in mid-January, hundreds of thousands of Twitter users noticed a strange message written in Cyrillic script pass through their feeds. It was an untranslated tweet from the Central Intelligence Agency’s official account, and it got followers’ attention.
“@CIA was the CIA’s twitter just hacked by Russians?” one user asked. “@CIA If you guys got hacked then we’re all in trouble,” wrote another. Just three days prior to this bizarre Russian tweet, Twitter accounts belonging to the U.S. military’s Central Command had been hacked by groups claiming to have ISIS links.
For 32 minutes, the CIA social media team remained silent on Twitter as speculation mounted—this was precisely the response they wanted. Russian-speaking Twitter users and those who flocked to Google Translate discovered that the tweet was a quote from Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. “I wrote the novel for it to be published and read, and that remains my only desire,” the message read.
CIA social media lead Carolyn Reams and her small team had been refining this plan for days—and even discussed it with CIA Director John Brennan—she said during a podcast on the General Services Administration’s DigitalGov.
Reams’ initial plan, she says, was to post 12 consecutive tweets in Russian, but the team negotiated it down to one for fear it would cause too much confusion. Eventually, they resumed tweeting in English, directing followers to PDFs of declassified CIA documents outlining a Cold War book-smuggling operation. In the late 1950s, the agency helped publish and distribute banned books, including Doctor Zhivago, to intellectuals in the Soviet Union.
Since June, Reams and an undisclosed handful of employees—including a writer and a graphics designer who was lead developer for CIA.gov—have used social media to try to change public perception of the CIA from a shadowy, secretive agency to one that has a sense of humor. Most days, they tweet out a mix of artifacts from the CIA Museum (Reams used to be its deputy director), historical tidbits about past operations, and press releases peppered with playful memes such as #CIACat, a photo of a sassy-looking cat with one paw on a computer keyboard.
“We want to convey that this is an organization that is willing to think outside the box,” Public Communications Branch Chief Preston Golson says, with a nod to the agency’s history of Top Secret missions and espionage.
The social media team’s mission is largely educational and one-way—information flows from the agency to Internet users, he says. “We have a responsibility to explain as much as we can about our mission to the public.”
So far, the strategy has been to grab the attention of as many followers and potential followers as possible—even if it means throwing them into a confused tizzy—and thereby expanding the base of people receiving the CIA’s public affairs announcements.
Compared to other agencies, the CIA has been late to adopt Twitter. Across government, there are thousands of Twitter accounts, according to Justin Herman of GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, who studies how agencies use social media. The State Department has the largest Twitter presence, Herman said in an email, with accounts in several languages as well as for individual embassies. Many federal employees point to
@NASA, which publishes photos and videos of space, as a model user. The agency has amassed 13 million followers since joining Twitter in 2007.
The @CIA account has reaped a few tangible benefits for the agency. First, the team says there has been an uptick in visitors to CIA.gov’s historical blogs and career pages. In addition to driving Web traffic to educational portions of the site, Twitter has helped attract high school and college students, many of whom have applied or expressed interest in applying for jobs and internships.
The agency does not plan to have two-way conversations with citizens on Twitter, Reams says, which for many large organizations is the main draw of the platform. While members of her team make sure to tag other agencies and celebrities in tweets, they have only responded to other Twitter users in a couple of instances, Golson estimates. One was to @BenAffleck, in a series of tweets distinguishing historical fact from fiction in the movie Argo.
Since the CIA’s first tweet in June 2014 (which aptly reads, “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet”), Reams and her staff have been focusing on Twitter as a public information platform. Among inaugural tweets, the CIA’s was the second most retweeted in history, Reams said on the DigitalGov podcast—the first was from a popular boy band. (With 311,795 retweets, @CIA surpassed @POTUS’ first tweet, which had 285,964 by mid-October.)
The agency has permission to start an Instagram account, but “what we lack is an extra 40 hours in our week to manage it,” Reams said on DigitalGov. The staff maintains a few other social media accounts, including YouTube and Flickr. Pinterest, Reams says, wasn’t worth the return on investment.
The team members usually know what they’re going to tweet about a week in advance, with a few larger campaigns planned further ahead for holidays or cultural events. They sketch out ideas on a whiteboard, penning in potential projects on a large calendar. “There’s a planning process, but also room to react to what’s going on,” Golson says.
One of the most involved projects was published during the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week in July, during which Reams remembered that TV chef Julia Child had worked in the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor, where she helped develop a shark repellent. Reams pitched the story to her staff. The writer spent a day in the archives, researching the full story for a linked blog post; the graphic designer curated a gif, an animated image, of Julia Child on her show; and Reams composed and published the tweet.
The team admits that it’s difficult, at times impossible, to quantify the value of such campaigns. Communicating their impact—other than numbers of “favorites” and retweets, visits to CIA.gov or potential future hires—is “still a work in progress,” Golson says. “How do you relate that information to leadership?”
Even more difficult is measuring the impact on public perception. When asked whether the team would consider using sentiment analysis technology—systems that cull tweets and analyze them for positive or negative attitudes toward a mentioned subject—Reams said she wasn’t sure how accurate those would be, especially when Twitter discussion about the CIA is divided among “ ‘we hate CIA’ tweets and very nuanced and sarcastic tweets and then fantastic tweets.”
Twitter usage hasn’t been without criticism. While some have praised @CIA for its ingenuity, others argue that the agency shouldn’t be devoting resources to social media. Twitter followers appear to be divided. “So, I just started following @CIA ’cause I know they are secretly following me #CIACat,” one tweeted recently. “I don’t want my spies to be a joke. They have important work,” wrote another.
To critics, Reams says her goal is to humanize the CIA. “We’re not this big scary organization. We are your neighbors, we do have a sensor of humor,” she says. “We need to make fun of ourselves before someone else does.”
Despite its efforts to appear open on social media, the team operates somewhat in the shadows. For this profile, Government Executive was asked to keep two team members anonymous because of their undercover work. The team declined photos, refused to provide hints about upcoming social media campaigns, and would not discuss plans to hire more staff.
And the identity of #CIACat, they insist, is classified.