License to Tweet: When the Chief of MI6 Goes Online
In November of 2013, the Chief of MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence service, joined Twitter. On the one hand, one could argue that the willingness of senior spies to join social networks is an important step forward in government transparency and accountability. Indeed, one could mistakenly think that the UK government is so transparent that even its chief spy is willing to step out of the shadow and into the limelight of social media. On the other hand, one could also argue that the Chief’s decision to join Twitter had more to do with branding than with government transparency. By joining social media in 2013, MI6 may have sought to associate itself with the positive values ascribed to social media following the Arab Spring- those of democracy, civic action and government transparency. By simply joining social media, MI6 could better its image at a time when people were increasingly concerned with intelligence service’s violations of privacy rights as made evident in the Snowden revelations.
To understand MI6’s motivation to join Twitter, I analyzed tweets published by the present Chief, Richard Moore, over a three months period. My analysis suggests that the Chief uses Twitter to obtain four goals. First, Moore uses his Twitter account to partake in online celebrations and rituals, thus presenting MI6 as part of a digital society that supposedly celebrates openness, acceptance and the creation of ties between citizens and their states. Over the past three months, Moore has tweeted on ‘Mental Health Week’, International Women’s Day and VE (Victory in Europe) Day. In each case, Moore uses Twitter to associate MI6 with the norms of acceptance and tolerance.
The Chief of MI6 also partakes in the custom of Through Back Thursday. In one particular Through Back, Moore recounted the historic location of the UK’s intelligence services. This may be construed as an act of transparency. But, I argue, this is the mere appearance of transparency- the sharing of supposedly sensitive information that is already declassified and accessible to all.
Marketing MI6 as a transparent agency is Moore’s second goal. To this end, the Chief offers followers a behind the scenes look at his personal life. In one series of tweets, he thanked his wife’s guide dog who was set to retire after ten years of dedicated service. These tweets take Twitter followers into the very living room of Britain’s top ‘Spook’.
The Chief also shares his love of sports with followers, as well as his Covid vaccination.
Moore also offers Twitter followers a limited ‘behind the scenes’ look into MI6 by using Twitter to congratulate his peer in the CIA or celebrating Trans inclusion day. Yet in both cases this is only the veneer of transparency. There are no images from inside MI6, no appraisals of security risks facing the UK, no publication of white papers or intelligence analyses, no data on how many LGBTQs are actually employed by MI6 or any reference to events shaping the world. Indeed, Moore’s account seems to be removed from reality as there are no tweets on the crisis in Crimea, or tensions over China’s global emergence.
Moore’s third goal seems to be promoting the MI6 brand. This is achieved by referencing cultural products that celebrate the organization, namely the James Bond franchise and the works of John le Carré. For instance, in one tweet the Chief stated that MI6 was looking for a new ‘Q’, a term used in Bond books in reference to the agency’s quartermaster and gadget wiz. In another tweet, Moore shared an article celebrating le Carré’s life. Lastly, Moore published a Twitter poll asking followers for their favorite le Carré spy novel.
In all these tweets there is an attempt to link the real MI6 with the fictitious and much-beloved MI6 that appears in Bond movies or le Carré’ books. These associations may help shape public perceptions of MI6. It is not an intelligence agency that operates in the shadows, topples foreign regimes or violently interrogates suspected terrorists. Unlike the CIA or the KGB, MI6 is managed by elderly British gentlemen such as George Smiley, le Carré’s hero, or is a death defying, thrill seeking agency that employs the likes of James Bond.
Finally, Moore uses Twitter to solidify MI6’s position as an important national institution; as part of the very foundation of the UK. This is achieved by linking MI6 to other national institutions such as the Monarchy or the Bank of England. Moreover, Moore associates MI6 with the collective memory of the British Empire. One such tweet dealt with Chief’s participation in Anzac Day celebrations. Moore also emphasizes the important role that a historic institution such as MI6 plays in present day UK life, including MI6’s contribution to fighting Covid.
The analysis presented thus far suggests that the MI6 Chief did not join Twitter to increase government transparency. Rather, this is a branding exercise, one that hopes to shapes public perceptions of this intelligence agency. Through Twitter, the Chief associates MI6 with the values of openness and transparency, while cementing MI6’s position as a historic and beloved national institution.
Yet one has to wonder if Moore’s use of Twitter has a broader impact on society. The digital society is one that demands absolute transparency. Social media users are motivated to document their every step including marriages, divorces, promotions and holidays. This norm is hammered into the minds of social media users as those who share the most are soon adopted by commercial brands and turned into ‘influencers’. The worth of an individual in the digital society is determined solely by the reach of his last tweet or Facebook post. The norm of transparency is supreme as the more information individuals share online, the more data they provide to algorithms that tailor online advertisements. Secret keeping is the cardinal sin of the digital society. By using Twitter, the Chief of MI6 increases the normative pressure on society members to lead transparent lives, lives that can be documented and surveilled by agencies such as MI6. Indeed, if the UK’s Chief spy opens his house to Twitter, how dare we keep secrets from social media?