On Valentine’s Day, a Central Intelligence Agency social media manager ostensibly in Langley, Virginia logged on, drafted some social copy, and inserted this into the feeds of the 2.8 million people who follow the official CIA Twitter account:
Given that this #GalentinesDay post went “bad viral,” you may have seen it already, but Jesus Christ. Besides its incredibly literal “hire more women guards” logic, it’s unclear that whoever posted that Washington Post article actually read it: The “rebellious women” the CIA’s Twitter account touts were a pair of pacifist Quaker union organizers who begrudgingly let the agency set up shop on their land, only for it to suspect them of harboring Sandinistas. While this obviously makes the women themselves look incredibly cool, it also confirms that the CIA does, in fact, suck.
CIA officer Gary Schroen was starting his transition to retirement, but after 9/11 he volunteered to service and led Operation JAWBREAKER into Afghanistan. He carried this knife with him in the war zone.https://t.co/TqH3Yy6wf6#HISTINT#Museumpic.twitter.com/4heHp17u5m— CIA (@CIA) January 21, 2020
The novelty of the CIA account extends beyond government-funded shitposting like the IDF or the only Twitter account I am jealous of, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Neither is superfluously working  “self-care”  into your brand. Propaganda changes with the times, from pamphlets to television dramas to Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s theory of “manufacturing consent,” in which corporate media performs “a system-supportive propaganda function” that furthers the audience’s biases while performing the illusion of objectivity. Comporting with the fact that everything stays the same but gets quicker and more efficient (and therefore worse), social media has allowed clandestine organizations such as the CIA to give themselves their own PR push. Let us take a moment to consider this tidbit from John R. Stockwell’s memoir In Search Of Enemies: A CIA Story, in which the disgruntled ex-CIA employee explains his decision to disregard the oath of secrecy he took when he joined so that he could write his book:
What about the oath of secrecy I signed when I joined the CIA in 1964? I cannot be bound by it for four reasons: First, my oath was illegally, fraudulently obtained. My CIA recruiters lied to me about the clandestine services as they swore me in. They insisted the CIA functioned to gather intelligence. It did not kill, use drugs, or damage people’s lives, they assured me. These lies were perpetuated in the following year of training courses. It was not until the disclosures of the Church and Pike Committees in 1975 that I learned the full, shocking truth about my employers.
It is neither shocking nor new to say that the CIA is bad. But imagine going through all those hoops — polygraph interviews, background checks, medical examinations, abstinence from illegal drugs for 12 whole months, deleting all the illegally downloaded seasons of TV shows off your computer, not bringing up Homeland in conversation with a CIA agent who seems like they really want to talk about Homeland, etc. — only to get put on Twitter duty, a job that often sucks. (As Luke Kirby portraying Lenny Bruce in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel said of stand-up comedy, “It’s a terrible, terrible job. It should not exist, like cancer and God.”) If a person’s workday consists of whipping up social copy to accompany a picture of a dead spy’s combination pipe/radio receiver or a spike that holds a roll of film, then they have been tasked with making something out of nothing. Often this leads to the social media manager’s personality becoming a stand-in for the brand’s — case in point, the CIA as an agency did not eat this sandwich:
The anthropologist David Graeber defines a “bullshit job,” in his book of the same title, as “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” Professional social media is largely a bullshit sector, in which seemingly every company feels an obligation to hire someone to establish and/or maintain a presence for them on Twitter/Facebook etc. to maintain an illusion that they are “capitalizing on every opportunity” for “brand penetration,” so that they will seem more valuable. In this sense, Mr. Peanut and the CIA are one in the same.
Social media obscures the realities of the entity using it, instead allowing it to represent itself as the more-abstracted notion of “a brand.” The public opinion of an occupation that requires one to partake in “forced sodomy for prisoners who refused food” gets confusing when that same entitity is posting pictures of adorable deer, joking that they’re just as stealthy as its employees. This isn’t just its social media team: the CIA hires a litany of employees, “operations officers, to analysts, to librarians and public affairs,” whose roles’ banality upholds the whole operation. Maybe the CIA intentionally runs this account knowing we’d be all, “WTF, CIA?”. Worse, maybe it’s really such a “normal” workplace that most individuals who work there are just as far removed from its conduct as you or I, which leads them to believe this kind of thing is completely fine.
Not so long ago, social media seemed like an updated version of letter-writing, which now seems like a quaint idea for our present-day endless sea of personal press releases. Whereas the the potential of Twitter bringing us all together to sip from a freely flowing fountain of information and ideas was once unironically touted, we now have a sea of brands clogging our feeds with promoted posts, pushing sponcon, and constantly dreaming up new ways to get us to talk about them instead of literally anything else. (At one point does reporting on Mike Bloomberg’s meme campaign become another arm of his meme campaign?)
Brands will always be able to buy our attention, drowning out everything else, even other journalism. Even just scrolling through the CIA’s Twitter for a short amount of time, the shock wears off, because if the CIA has to exist, why wouldn’t they log on and show us what they’re having for lunch? Much like what the CIA itself does, there’s no point to this. To quote John Stockwell again: “We could close the CIA down and the United States would be stronger and safer… Not only don’t we need it, we’ve made the world a more dangerous place.” Shutting down its Twitter wouldn’t make us safer, but we’d probably feel less crazy.