GCHQ on Twitter: Brand Management and Public Engagement

Several weeks ago I analyzed the Twitter account of the Chief of MI6, the United Kingdom’s foreign intelligence agency. I was curious to examine why the UK’s top spy has joined Twitter and how he uses Twitter to advance his organization. I found that the Chief uses Twitter to increase the perceived transparency of MI6 thus meetings public demand for more transparent governance. Moreover, I found that Twitter was used to associate MI6 with both British cultural products, such as James Bond, and with traditional British institution, such as the monarchy. In other words, the Chief of MI6 used Twitter to manage public expectations and manage the agency’s brand.

This week I decided to analyze the Twitter account of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), an intelligence and security organization responsible for providing digital information to the government and armed forces of the United Kingdom. Once again I was intrigued by the fact that an intelligence agency, tasked with keeping national secrets, would join a network centered on sharing information. I was especially interested in examining whether like MI6, GCHQ uses Twitter to offer the veneer of transparency in lieu of actual transparency. Digital publics have come to demand greater transparency from governments as they themselves are forced to lead transparent lives online. The more information individuals share online, and the more personal that information, the greater their reward in the form of likes, shares and followers.

My analysis suggests that GCHQ uses Twitter towards five ends. First, GCHQ tweets portrayed the agency as a transparent government body willing to share information online and lift the veil of secrecy that has traditionally surrounded intelligence agencies. One set of tweets included the phrase ‘Behind the Enigma’. These tweets offered users information on the history of GCHQ and secret operations that the agency conducted in the past. Similarly, Twitter users were invited to a ‘Top Secret’ museum exhibit dealing with GCHQ’s past operations. GCHQ also used Twitter to promote the agency’s first, authorized autobiography.

Other tweets included video addresses by the head of GCHQ discussing the importance of digital technologies to the UK’s safety and prosperity or an address given at the National Cyber Security Center. One tweet even disclosed the physical location of GCHQ’s headquarters. While these tweets supposedly lift the veil of secrecy, they do not actually offer insight into the challenges facing GCHQ, its routine operations, its risk assessments, current digital operations or information on past failures. Thus, like the Chief of MI6, GCHQ offers the veneer of transparency instead of actual transparency.  

A second set of tweets celebrated GCHQ’s commitment to diversity. These tweets suggested that GCHQ’s strength emanated from its diverse composition including people with dyslexia or LGBTQs. Other tweets emphasized gender diversity suggesting that GCHQ both promotes women and encourages women to peruse a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). These tweets do not offer any concrete information on GCHQ’s workforce (i.e., gender distribution, number of women in executive positions, number of LGBTQ employees). Yet these tweets do suggest that GCHQ does not only celebrate diversity but actively contributes to the inclusivity of society by empowering women and actively encouraging them to take on scientific work.  Here, like the Chief of MI6, GCHQ seems to use Twitter to brand itself not as a secret intelligence agency but as a hub of diversity and inclusivity.

The GCHQ brand was also managed through tweets that highlighted the agency’s contribution to the general, British public. For instance, GCHQ shared a quiz that assesses one’s cyber security. Another group of tweets focused on GCHQ members who volunteer for the public good. Tweets even included images of GCHQ members cleaning public spaces as well as a special pin awarded to those members who volunteer the most.

The agency also published many tweets underscoring its contribution to the UK’s safety and prosperity. GHCQ operations have helped prevent online fraud; used artificial intelligence in an ethical way that secures the UK’s national interests; thwarted terror acts and used ‘cutting edge’ technology to prevent threats from materializing. Some tweets included testimonials of GCHQ members, describing the added benefit of working at an agency dedicated to the UK’s safety.

A fifth, and final, set of tweets included attempts to engage with their GCHQ’s online followers. For instance, the agency shared crosswords and puzzles on Twitter; invited followers to learn their name in Morse code and offered followers an app that helps with data analysis and data encryption. These activities might suggest that like diplomatic organizations, GCHQ not only seeks to manage its image but also to create ties with followers that may come to form a devoted, domestic constituency.

In summary, my analysis suggests that GCHQ uses Twitter to brand itself as a moral and transparent intelligence agency committed to diversity, inclusivity and contributing to UK society. This image is far removed from the negative associations that often impact the brand of intelligence agencies including human rights violations, privacy violations, covert operations and using digital tools to manipulate public opinion. Additionally, the agency seeks to create, and possibly leverage ties with digital publics. To this end, the agency offers opportunities for online interactions while also providing services to followers, be it in the form of a cyber security guide or access to software. These ties may help the agency create a domestic following and, subsequently, protect its remit, and power, within the UK government.

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