Navy SEALs may have killed Osama bin Laden in a raid five years ago Sunday, but anyone following the CIA on Twitter might think it all just happened. In a deeply bizarre social marketing move Sunday, the agency “live-tweeted” the raid that led to bin Laden’s death — but it did so five years later.
For anyone who may not be familiar with the term “live tweeting” — an audience that may include the CIA — it refers to the act of reporting something on Twitter as it happens in real time. Sure, by its very nature, that sometimes includes a short lag time. Maybe a few seconds. But in this case, it was five years.
“The takedown of bin Laden stands as one of the great intelligence successes of all time. History has been a key element of CIA’s social media efforts,” CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani said, according to ABC. “On the fifth anniversary, it is appropriate to remember the day and honor all those who had a hand in this achievement.”
It began about 1 p.m. Sunday, when the agency released this tweet.
To mark the 5th anniversary of the Usama Bin Ladin operation in Abbottabad we will tweet the raid as if it were happening today.#UBLRaid
— CIA (@CIA) May 1, 2016
Then, for most of the day, the CIA tweeted out events from that day with time stamps, following through on the announcement — it depicted the events as if they were happening Sunday. The tweets were connected with the hashtag #UBLRaid, and the event concluded at 5:01 p.m. Eastern time (though the last tweet was time stamped 7:01 p.m).
Some praised the agency for commemorating the event.
— toby knapp (@tkradio) May 2, 2016
— Bradley Engle (@BradEngle) May 1, 2016
More, though, seemed to be criticizing the agency. Jezebel called the stunt “both bizarre and extremely tone deaf.” Many others took to Twitter, using the agency’s hashtag, to express their discontent.
— Phillip Carter (@Carter_PE) May 1, 2016
— Samantha Gouldson (@SamGouldson) May 1, 2016
@CIA This is grotesque and embarrassing. You should fire your web team.
— Hank Single (@Hanksingle) May 1, 2016
The CIA’s Twitter account has long been a hotbed of controversy. From its inception in 2014, when it tweeted, “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet,” the CIA Twitter feed has been criticized for its tone by various outlets.
“They should put as least as much effort into following the law as they do into social media,” Zeke Johnson, an Amnesty International program director, told the Verge after the agency posted that first tweet.
About a month after the agency’s first tweet in mid-2014, the Guardian published an opinion piece by a former CIA employee arguing that the agency shouldn’t be on Twitter in the first place.
“Ridiculously glib tweets from the CIA paint the entire agency in a smug light, which is exactly the persona it so badly needs to avoid,” the piece read. “The CIA knows what everyone else knows: it’s in desperate need of a makeover. We haven’t forgotten about Benghazi or torture, and painfully awkward tweets — like watching-your-dad-dance-to-CeeLo-at-your-wedding awkward — won’t make the CIA appear soft and fuzzy, just woefully disconnected from reality. The CIA does not need to be on Twitter, because it can’t be transparent.”
Still, the account boasts 1.33 million followers as of Sunday’s bin Laden commemoration.
According to BuzzFeed, the account is run by a woman named Carolyn Reams, who is the agency’s social media manager and who is referred to around the agency as “the social Khaleesi” — a reference to the “mother of dragons” from the popular “Game of Thrones” book and television series.
The agency’s tweets have earned a reputation for being self-deprecating and even goofy.
— CIA (@CIA) June 10, 2015
In addition, the agency is no stranger to social media stunts.
In January, the Twitter account of the U.S. military’s Central Command was hacked by people who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State. Just days later, the CIA sent out the following tweet written in Russian.
Я писал роман для того, чтобы он был издан и прочитан и это остаётся единственным моим желанием -Пастернак
— CIA (@CIA) January 15, 2015
Naturally, many thought the account had been hacked, much like the Central Command account, CNN reported. Only it hadn’t been. Far from it, actually. But don’t feel silly if you were one of those people; Reams said the tweet was designed so that people would think the agency had been hacked in an attempt to draw otherwise uninterested viewers to a story it tweeted a half-hour later about the agency’s accomplishments during the Cold War, according to Quartz.
(For the record, the tweet in Russian is a quote from Boris Pasternak, the late Russian author of “Dr. Zhivago,” which reads, “I wrote the novel in order for it to be published and read and it remains my only desire.”)
Let’s review: The CIA wanted the American people to think it had been hacked. Some translated the quote to find it was by Pasternak. Others didn’t, and those are the ones Reams was targeting.
“For those people, to include some in the press, who didn’t take a really good close look at it, they thought, ‘oh my gosh, we’re being hacked,’” Reams said, according to Quartz. “It worked out quite well, I would say.”
Once, the agency even accidently led some of its followers to believe that North Korea was invading South Korea. That did happen, but it was in 1950. On the anniversary, Reams chose to tweet the following —
Analysts noted massing N. Korean forces, including tanks & heavy artillery, along the 38th parallel & evacuation of civilians from the area.
— CIA (@CIA) June 25, 2015
— but forgot to add a hashtag, letting users know it was an “on this day in history” tweet rather than breaking news.
“I wasn’t thinking and I forgot to hashtag everything,” Reams said on a podcast with DigitalGov. “And it wasn’t one of those days where I could link them all and do it live, I had to schedule them and I had forgotten to hashtag everything. So I think I was at the dentist office, and I was sitting there in the chair and my phone is blowing up. So I finally pick it up and it’s my co-worker saying, ‘Oh my god, people think that North Korea has invaded South Korea’ because that’s what the tweet said.”
Despite snafus like these, the CIA defends its Twitter presence, arguing that it’s a means of reaching people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in the agency.
CIA spokesman Preston Golson told NextGov last fall that the social team’s responsibility is to “explain as much as we can about our mission to the public.”