Why @CIA's First Tweet Wasn't Funny

Cynical, depressing, and tone-deaf, maybe. But not funny.

Photo: CIA

When the Central Intelligence Agency makes news, it’s not usually because of its humour. More often than not, the clandestine organization is all over the Internet because of its flagrant human rights abuses and troubling lack of respect for judicial processes.

But today was different. The CIA found a way to marry its history of dodging Freedom of Information Act requests with millenialized Twitter humour in its first ever tweet:

The tweet racked up hundreds of thousands of retweets and LOLs in a matter of minutes. Even usually astute publications like Slate and The Guardian were falling over themselves to praise the tweet for its humour.

Let’s not mince words: The tweet was a ploy to ingratiate the marred organization with hip urbanites who *get* the Internet and hopefully make them forget all about black sites and torture. After all, that’s what PR does, right? It improve relations with the public.

The fucked up thing? It worked.

The tweet itself is a play on the infamous Glomar response. As Motherboard reported in 2012, the Glomar response—neither confirming nor denying requests for information—is a CIA tactic that was born in the 1960s and has since been used to keep its black sites and drone program safely in the ambiguous zone of open secrets. The CIA’s appropriation of the phrase for a punch line is concerning on several levels.

For one, it rubs everyone’s noses in the organization’s long history of evading journalists, Congress, and virtually anyone else interested in uncovering the agency's goings on. For another, whoever was behind the tweet expected the Internet to eat it up—an assumption implicit in the act of sending it in the first place. It’s extremely unsettling that the continual evasion of the public’s prying eyes constitutes a knowing wink between the CIA and the public itself.

And then there’s the fact that people actually did eat it up. This is perhaps the most concerning point, because it illustrates how easily normally skeptical publications and people can be duped into a moment of complacency by a veil of cheap humour.

The tweet might have actually been comical coming from a parody CIA account; at least then it would have been marginally satirical instead of tone-deaf, cynical, and utterly depressing. Going forward, we would all do well to be a little more skeptical of attempts by the CIA and other organizations to curry the public’s favour by speaking the language of the internet-savvy.