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No laughing matter: MIT student sues CIA to know more about its Twitter jokes

Johnson wants to understand how government agencies interact with the public. Pic: Shutterstock.

A doctoral candidate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is suing the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to get the national security body to open up about the way it is cracking jokes on social media.

The Associated Press reported (via The Washington Post) Amy Johnson had in 2015 filed a public records request seeking documents for her research on how the CIA approaches social media, as well as how an agency with such serious duties can employ humour in its Twitter persona.

“Playfulness and humour, which abound in social media, open up opportunities for different kinds of interactions between government agencies and members of the public,” Johnson said in an e-mail to the Boston Globe.

However, the lawsuit read:

“It is rare for a federal agency – especially an agency whose duties are so serious – to employ a humorous tone when communicating with the public.”

“This makes the CIA’s decision to do so a matter of both public and academic interest, especially for scholars in the humanities.”

According to reports, the national agency’s first tweet in 2014 said: “We can neither confirm nor deny this is our first tweet”,  in a jab against its reputation on secrecy. The tweet has since been retweeted more than 300,000 times and garnered 253,845 likes.

Shortly after the @CIA account was set up, the MIT student sought for the material on the agency’s social media policies, under a Freedom of Information Act request.

To date, her requests have not been granted, which led the Technology and Cyberlaw Clinic, a joint venture between MIT and the Boston University School of Law, to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of Johnson.

“Amy’s request is a clever and productive use of the rights afforded her through the Freedom of Information Act,” clinic director Andy Sellars said in a statement.

“It is unfortunate she needed to bring a lawsuit to get the CIA to follow their basic obligations under the law, but we’re glad to assist her.”

Funny business

Earlier this week, Johnson handed in her dissertation where she studied government agencies’, including the CIA’s, public engagement through jokes and trends.

“It’s an area where government agencies are still experimenting, which in turn makes it a particularly good lens for investigating norms and practices,” Johnson said.

According to her, the @CIA handle stands out as it is one of the few channels the agency uses on social media to disseminate information and engage with the public at the same time.

The agency has also shown it isn’t above using humour and cat photos to get the public’s attention.

The Huffington Post once branded it as one of the “funniest accounts” on the site.

“Compared to similar agencies, it’s a latecomer to Twitter and yet burst onto the scene with a great deal of social media savvy and surprising lightheartedness,” Johnson said.

“This is unusual in a governmental account.”

Johnson is a student in MIT’s doctoral programme in History, Anthropology, Science, Technology, and Society and will graduate this June.

She hopes the lawsuit will lead to the release of the information she requested.

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